When people go out to dinner with friends in Western countries, the usual practice at the end is to split the check so each person pays for what he or she ordered. This has always seemed sensible to me, and modern restaurant cashier systems have this function built in.
Japan, however, looks at the whole thing differently. For whatever reason, most Japanese restaurants are incapable of splitting checks. Think about that for a moment. The country whose servers have been using electronic order pads for years before there were even smart phones has very few restaurants that allow for split checks.
Instead, Japanese use what they call 割勘 (warikan). Rather than each person paying for his own orders, when the bill comes, everyone pays an equal share. For example, if you and three friends go to dinner, everyone pays roughly a quarter of the bill. This is generally not too bad, especially in restaurants where you order a few dishes and everyone samples freely.
Problems arise when one person at the table orders significantly more or less than everyone else. In the former case, everyone else ends up paying the overage, while in the latter, the person who only wanted a little pays much more than intended.
It was the latter case that I experienced recently. After work, our 受付 invited me to join her and one of our longtime students who was transferring to a Nagoya school. We went to an Italian/French place near the school that felt expensive when I walked in. I was low on funds (which I told them), so I decided to only order a little bit: a Coke highball and a shrimp ajillo appetizer. The girls, meanwhile, ordered at least five different dishes. I tried small amounts of each, but aside from a refill on my drink, that was it for me. I only really dug in when the girls said they couldn’t finish the meat and pasta dish they’d ordered — since Japan also doesn’t do to-go boxes, it was that or let it go to waste.
In the end, the bill was (unsurprisingly) high, and 割勘 dictated we’d all owe about 4000円. I’d really just had most of an appetizer, two drinks, and a little taste of the rest, though. Much as I hated to, I was forced to play the Gaijin Card and explain I’d barely eaten much and didn’t have much money, so I only threw in 3000円, which was still easily a thousand more than I ordered.
The moral of this story is that if you’re going out with friends in Japan to a swanky restaurant and they order a lot, you might as well eat up, ’cause you’ll be expected to pay as though you did.