An enkai is roughly translated as a drinking party and they are a staple in the lives of teachers here.
I had heard a lot about these, even before I arrived, and mostly I had heard that all the formalities of Japanese school life are stripped away and sh*t just gets crazy. I had no trouble believing that whatsoever; Japanese teachers work insanely long hours and are under insane amounts of pressure, so I figured that them letting loose in a mad way was sort of inevitable.
I had been warned that they weren’t always the most enjoyable experiences. Female JETs have found themselves the target of the unwanted advances of male teachers, people unable to handle the Japanese way of drinking have said or done things they regretted and they are outrageously expensive.
However, they are a key part of socialising with colleagues and they a good way to get to know them is a less formal and professional way (and without the kids around).
So I was pretty excited when my base elementary school invited me to their enkai. They were even kind enough to call it a “Welcome Hannah sensei party” and in the week leading up to it, several teachers came over to check that I would definitely be attending.
Friday night rolled around and the kyoto sensei (vice principal) of the elementary school, who speaks excellent English, insisted on driving me because it was raining. We went to this lovely Chinese restaurant just off the shotengai and they had hired a whole floor. Which goes a long way to explaining the 7000 yen price tag (!).
We pulled numbers from a bag when we arrived to determine our seating plan and I was very glad to be sitting at the same table as Hasegawa sensei, but a young social studies teacher I’ve never worked with looked totally horrified that he had to sit next to me and just kept saying “no English!!”
We had speeches, then a kampai (cheers) and then just sat around eating and drinking. The teachers at shogakko are lovely people, who were more than keen to try out their English on me (I now know that one of my fifth grade teachers has a black cheong sam that he wishes he fit better!) and keep my glass full. And by full, I mean that every time I took a sip, someone would top it up. And every time they topped it up, I had to lift my glass up to accept it. And bow and thank them. It was a bit of a charade. I just stopped drinking after a while.
I went and took beer to the principal to show my respect, and even made an impromptu speech on request, so I was pretty impressed with my culturalness.
Luckily for me, it was a quite well behaved and very relaxed social gathering. I managed to escape totally unscathed and having gotten to know some of my teachers a bit better.
Except for the social studies teacher who just switched to yelling “no dance!”