I’ve written at length about the importance of New Years in Japan. Last year, I spent my New Years Okinawa style, and also wrote about New Years Cards. Part of the lead up to the end of the year is an important tradition in many workplaces throughout Japan.
The bonenkai is most easily explained as a year-end party. Most clubs, moai, and workplaces have bonenkai. They are very similar to sobetsukai which takes place in March. The reason for these end of year parties becomes more clear if you look at the kanji behind the word.
Those three words, when put together create a pretty clear idea of the purpose of the bonenkai, and is reflected in the activities at the various parties. Some go to forget the year, some go to remember it.
Over the past 5 years of bonenkai’s I’ve seen a lot of variations, even among the same place. Some are simply dinner, while others are extravagant gatherings with games and more.
The most basic bonenkai is simply a gathering, usually with food and drink. My moai’s bonenkai tradition is to go to a local restaurant and have nabe. Since we usually meet at a member’s house and cook the food ourselves, it is a little bit of an extravagance and gives everyone a chance to relax without having to worry about cleaning up or preparing.
The Middle Ground
Every year the PTAs for our schools also have bonenkais and generally invite teachers. These events tend to be larger and more organized than the bare minimum, but not as formal as the school bonenkais. This year one of the PTA bonenkais I attended was at a local community center. There was a present exchange via bingo, food, drinks, and a song/dance by the second years’ parents and teachers.
School (and sometimes company) Bonenkai are generally far more extravagant ordeals. Generally, a group of teachers/workers will be responsible for planning the event. For larger schools, they often take place at a hotel and can cost each person 5,000 yen ($60) or more. The attendees usually wear suits or the equivalent, enjoy a sit down meal and drinks, as well as games, year-in-review news, and more.
The most popular is to ask everyone to submit memorable items (or secrets) that happened over the year and then reveal them throughout the night. There are often speeches by the principal, and others as well. The games played can be numerous, but bingo is popular with presents either prepared in advance or as a kind of gift exchange.
There are of course many different kinds of bonenkai. I’ve attended at least 4 so far this year and still have at least one to go. They tend to be in December, but my first this year was at the end of November. While not strictly mandatory, if you’re invited to a bonenkai, it is expected you will go if at all possible. They range in price, but it can really add up as well (6 bonenkai at an average 3000 yen each is 18,000 yen or $200). Usually they include all you can eat and drink.
If you go to a bonenkai be sure to have your transportation lined up ahead of time. Just as in the States, Japanese police are on high alert during the holiday season to keep everyone safe.
What kinds of bonenkai have you had?