Karaoke Madness! When hard pressed workers need a break

By Mac Salman

Soon after I moved to work in Japan, my new colleagues organised a welcome party for me. First of all, we ate a huge meal at an izakaya restaurant, which is like a pub. It offered an all-you-can-drink plan, known as a nomihodai. As you can imagine, everyone got very drunk at the meal and then off we headed off to a karaoke parlour.

After a few songs, someone picked the classic track “Imagine” by John Lennon. I was keen to join my colleagues in attempting to sing this famous piece of music. The first line of the lyrics is “Imagine there’s no countries” but I was the only one who sang those words. Everyone else was singing “Imagine there’s no Shima.” Shima-san was the name of our boss. (Actually, it’s not his real name, but I will use it for this story.)

I nudged one of my colleagues and tried to warn him. “What are you doing? Shima-san is still here.” 

“Don’t worry, Mac,” he assured me. “It will all be forgotten by Monday.”

Sure enough, when we went into the office on Monday morning, nobody mentioned the night out. It was as if nothing had happened, and everybody was back, respectfully bowing to the manager and complying with his instructions. 

I believe that this was an example of what the Japanese sometimes refer to a bureiko – a break from the normal rules of etiquette which guide their interactions at work, especially the formal relations between the manager and his juniors.

Soon after, another strange incident happened to me in that office. I’d fallen a bit behind with work, so I decided to stay late one night to catch up. Even though it was 10pm, the rest of my colleagues remained there too. All except for the manager, Shima-san, who was at a conference that day, which meant that I became the most senior member of the 22-person team. 

Anyway, I noticed it was getting a bit cold, so when I went to the toilet, I put on my jacket and walked down the corridor. When I returned, everyone had gone.

When I asked my colleague the next day happened the night before he said: “Oh, we all thought you had gone home.”

Without a boss to answer to, the rest of the team had decided it was also time to stop work. It was strange for me to realise that they’d been longing for me to pick up my coat, as they pretended to toil away in front of me. I’d heard of this habit of Japanese office workers and it was fascinating to see it play out in front of me.

Mac is the Founder and Lead Guide of Maction Planet.