We have all heard of the famous drinking parties that Japanese salarymen and women have after a hard day’s work, and much information out there seems to point out that it is impossible to refuse an invitation for such events.
While these nomikai are undoubdetly an important aspect of Japanese social culture, they are not 100% mandatory. It is alright to decline them, but there can be missed out opportunities. At a nomikai (lit. “drinking event”), you can talk to co-workers and seniors at work not just about work, but about casual conversation topics not related to the job that will ultimately strengthen social ties.
So while one is perfectly free to decline in most cases, it would almost be considered social suicide to do so.
There is also another misconception that people are forced to drink alcohol against their will. While the long standing tradition of refilling your neighbors cup still hold today, it is not exactly necessary to drink the cup you have been given. There are 2 main types of drinks served at restaurants. There is the more Western individual drink, like beers, whiskey highballs, cocktails, and sours. Then there is the more Japanese style “sake”, which is usually served in a small glass or ceramic bottle (called a “tokkuri”) along with some small sake cups (“choco”). It is when drinking Japanese sake that people follow the unspoken rule of filling one another’s cups and making a unanimous “cheers” just before drinking each round.
You can simply avoid participating in each round by not drinking the glass that has been filled for you previously. No one will force you to drink. At the very most, people will simply actively make sure the cup is not empty. After several rounds, people are usually too drunk to notice how much their company is actually drinking.
Some people love nomikai while others dislike the practice. While it does indeed take away time from family, there should be no problem so long as you know the drinking customs and little tricks to protect yourself from drinking too much, and it can also provide valuable opportunities to improve work relations.