Structure confines. But absolute freedom creates a bewildering and frustrating myriad of possibilities that can cripple will and stifle expression. Sometimes, it is only within structure that we can really express ourselves.

Search for the word “sakazuki” and the first thing you’ll find is this One-Piece character.


I know very little about this, however.

You may also find a reference to a yakuza drinking ritual in which one pledges loyalty to a superior. It also may refer to a flat, saucer shaped cup used to drink sake.


But in Kuma County, sakazuki takes on a special, unique meaning.

In Japan, it is considered rude or greedy to pour your own alcohol. Keeping your glass full is usually the job of a junior member of the group. Someone lower on the rank chain must keep a watchful eye on senior members to make sure their cups and glasses are full. I have never seen one fail to perform this duty and so I don’t know what the consequences are if they should fail. This system is pretty awesome once you become a senior member. As a foreigner, I was never expected to perform this duty but since I wanted to become part of the community, I did. My efforts in this has been met with general approval. It’s not so terrible but it does make it difficult to relax. But now, at 44 years of age, I’m senior to some other work members and surprisingly, I get my glass filled. That’s kind of cool, I have to be honest. However, recent polls done in Tokyo reveal that most young people would like to end the custom. I wonder if they’ll feel the same when they become seniors members or if they’ll feel like it’s unfair if their time never comes.

But in Kuma, sakazuki is a semi-formal way to share alcohol at a drinking party with co-workers that bypasses the usual custom. As far as I know, this is a unique custom to Kuma. Take a large glass and fill it with alcohol (or non-alcohol is fine too if you’re not drinking). In Kuma, shochu is the preferred beverage. Shochu is a 40 to 50-proof alcohol made from rice, potatoes, or wheat. People in Kuma prefer rice shochu, generally. Find a person you’d like to share a drink with and offer them your cup with two hands. Always with two hands! (In general, never give a Japanese person something with one hand. It’s considered lazy, as if you didnt really care about the person you are giving it to.) The proper way is to hold the base of the cup with your left hand and the side of the cup with your right and offer it with both arms extended.

The recipient receives it with two hands and drinks. This is the tricky part. As the recipient passes the glass back, they wipe the brim of the glass where they drank with the palm of their right hand. The glass returns to the giver who drinks, wipes, and passes back. As they do this they talk about whatever they want to talk about. This goes on until the conversation lulls, then they separate and find new partners.

If you are holding a glass and someone approaches you and offers sakazuki, put your drink down and partake. It is okay at that point to retake your own cup and end the passing back and forth. It’s generally bad form to refuse sakazuki. If you arent drinking, just touch the brim of the cup to your lips, don’t drink any, and say thank you. The giver will note that (hopefully), stay and chat, and won’t pass it again.

When I first came to Kuma, I didnt like sakazuki. It felt like an unnecessary complication for socialization. Why can’t I just freely talk with anyone I want and just drink as much as I want? But over the years, I’ve grown to like it. Over the last decade, I have made more than a few social mistakes. When you’re a new Gaijin, social mistakes are expected and quickly forgiven because most likely, you’ll be going back to your home country soon anyway. But I plan to be here a very, very long time and so I can’t just disappear back to my home country after a social mistake.

The knowledge that I can, indeed, make social mistakes has made me a little more conscientious and frankly, I’ve become a little more introverted and hesitant over the years. Surprised? I think it’s pretty natural for an immigrant. So now, I find a comfort in sakazuki. There is a common ritual I can do with another and we both feel more at ease. We both know what to do. I know what to say. If there’s nothing to talk about, it’s perfectly okay to just say, “よろしくお願いします” (Yoroshiku Onegai Shimasu) which in this context means something like (I’m looking forward to working together) and then move on. The other thing I like about it is that it’s egalitarian in a way unusual in Japan. You can just go up to your boss, share a drink, and move on. (But don’t linger and chew his ear off.) The social hierarchies still exist but during sakazuki, they are laxer than usual.

There is something special in common social rituals like sakazuki in Kuma County. It gives everyone a social framework to work together in. People who are shy, or unsure of social rules, or socially awkward, have a way to participate with everyone. In Kuma, you don’t have to sit in the corner of a party and hope no one sees you (unless that’s what you really want to do). If you’re unsure of yourself, just grab a glass, give it to someone, and say “Yoroshiku Onegaishimasu” share the drink, and move on. I think there’s a cultural benefit to formalized socialization.

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