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Kanpai - 5 Facts to Know About Saying "Cheers" in Japanese
Jan 18, 2024
5 min read
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When you go out for drinks with your Japanese friends, have you ever wondered why everyone says "kanpai" before drinking? Have you ever wondered what it means and where the saying "kanpai" came from?

A lot of Japanese people don't know the origins either, so read on, and you'll be able to share your new trivia with your Japanese friends.

1. What Does Kanpai Mean?

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Kanpai, while a noun, is often used as an interjection to mean "cheers" in Japanese. It's used when drinking in group settings or at meal times.

Let's take a look at the compounds used to make up the word. We write “kanpai” in Japanese with the kanji “乾杯.”

・"乾" means to dry or dehydrate
・"杯" means cup or glass

These two characters together mean to literally "dry the glass" or "empty the glass" - which can indicate chugging the whole thing. The interjection doesn't necessarily mean you have to completely drain your glass, though.

It's generally used at the start of a meal or drinking party. After everyone's drinks have arrived, it is customary in Japan to click glasses together and interject "Kanpai!" before drinking. If you are in a big group, you'll often see people raise their glasses instead. And so it's used just like the word "cheers" in English.

As well as an interjection, you can also use it in a sentence, and in this instance, it can be translated as "toast." For example, "Keiko san ni kanpai" (恵子さんに乾杯, "Let's toast to Keiko") - if there is something you'd like to celebrate and toast to in Keiko's honour.

You may also hear your friends say "Kanpai shiyou!" (乾杯しよう!, "Let's make a toast") - used often by the person who wants to take the first sip of their drink.

2. Where the Custom Comes From

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Now we know what the word "kanpai" means, let’s find out why people make toasts in the first place.

As an Offering

In Japan alcohol, specifically sake has been linked with the gods since ancient times. It was used in sacred ceremonies, offered to gods, and used in purification.

It's said that the act of toasting during celebratory situations comes from ancient rituals where people would drink to the gods or to their revered dead. To find out more about words used in sake culture that link to Japanese Shinto words, check out this article (Japanese).

To Test Drinks for Poison

Some say people used to pour a little sake into each other's cups and drink it up to prove the drink wasn't poisoned.

To Exorcise Evil Spirits

It's claimed that in Europe people clinked their glasses together in a toast to exorcise the demons that resided in alcohol.

3. When Did Japanese People Start to Make Toasts?

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Japanese people first started to kanpai around the end of the Edo Period.

In the year 1854, the Anglo-Japanese Friendship Treaty was made between Japan and England. The British Earl of Elgin went to Japan for extra negotiations of the treaty. He met his Japanese diplomatic partner, Kiyonao Inoue, who is an important person in the origins of “kanpai” in Japan.

During the party, the Earl of Elgin asked Kiyonao Inoue to drink to the King as British people always did it in England. Kiyonao Inoue suddenly stood up and said “kanpai” loudly, all the British people liked the word he used, and everyone couldn’t stop from laughing. It was a hit.

Why did Kiyonao Inoue create the word “kanpai” for making a toast? Since he already knew about the manner of making a toast before drinking from China at that time, he was able to think quickly and came up with a new word.

4. It's Bad Luck to Toast with Water in Japan

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Normally people make a toast before drinking, but be careful not to make a toast with water.

Generally, Japanese people give offerings of water to the dead in the hope that they don't get thirsty in heaven. Related to this habit, Japanese people believe making a toast with water means saying goodbye to people who have died. In other words, it’s like a farewell to the deceased.

If you’re at a drinking party with your friends or attending a business dinner with clients but can’t drink any alcohol, make sure to order soft drinks before people make a toast.

5. Essential Tips for Toasting at a Work Party

For those who need to attend your company’s drinking party, bear in mind Japanese business rules of who is in charge of making a toast.

Generally, the following person makes a toast for everybody:

・The person in the 3rd highest position in the company ・The CEO of the company

It may depend on the rules of each company, so if you’re curious about it, ask your colleagues who should say “kanpai” at your company’s drinking party.

Now you know it’s been over 100 years since the word “kanpai” was created in Japan. Ordinarily, Japanese people make a toast only once during the party, but if you've got a latecomer, you might find yourself welcoming them with another "kanpai!"

Do you make toasts before you drink in your country? We'd love to know!


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