What are some essential table manners in Japan you should avoid? Here’s a friendly guide to help you give Japanese dining etiquette your best shot! You’ll learn why things are done in certain ways and better understand the customs.
You asked, I’ve responded! I received many questions and personal horror stories thanks to your curious minds. So, following up on our articles on Japanese Dining Etiquette 101 and 20 Things You Should Know Before Visiting Japan, here’s my attempt to answer all your questions!
Remember that although etiquette goes beyond holding one’s chopsticks or being deemed bad-mannered, it’s just a way of showing courtesy to others. If you make a faux pas, it’s not the world’s end! So don’t fret 🙂
Japanese Dining Etiquette Guide (Part 2) – Reader’s Questions
Table of contents
- Japanese Dining Etiquette Guide (Part 2) – Reader’s Questions
- Why are chopsticks placed horizontally and not vertically?
- Where should I place the chopsticks when they’re not in use?
- What is the role of Oshibori, and what’s the correct way of using it?
- Where should the bowls of rice and soup be placed?
- What’s the correct way to eat sushi: with your fingers or chopsticks?
- Are you supposed to dip the fish in soy sauce or rice when eating sushi?
- What’s the correct way of putting Wasabi on your sushi?
- When drinking alcohol, are you supposed to fill each other’s glasses but never your own?
- Confident to dine with Japanese friends or colleagues?
Why are chopsticks placed horizontally and not vertically?
In Japan, chopsticks are always placed horizontally, with the pointed ends on your left so that you don’t touch them when you grab them with your right hand (and vice versa for the lefties).
However, you may notice that our neighbors, China and Korea, place their chopsticks vertically.
So why do Japanese place the chopsticks horizontally when eating? There are two main reasons:
1) It’s considered rude for the tips of the chopsticks to point at the person sitting across from you, especially when the chopsticks have been used.
2) Chopsticks serve as a boundary between you, the eater, and the food in front of you. Ancient Japanese believed that the gods provided food, so chopsticks separated the food (pure) from the humans (impure).
(Note: the rules of chopstick placement become a little more complex at a Cha-Kaiseki 茶懐石, depending on which style of tea ceremony you attend. Ask your peer diners or observe what the others are doing!)
For the dos and don’ts of chopstick etiquette, please read Part 1.
Where should I place the chopsticks when they’re not in use?
If your chopsticks come on a chopstick rest (hashi-oki 箸置き), place them back when not used. If you’re nifty with your hands, fold the paper chopsticks wrapper into a rest, like a mountain or a tie (look up YouTube videos for tips!)
Don’t rest the chopsticks on any bowl or plate in front of you. If the chopsticks didn’t come in a paper wrapper, lay it directly on the tray your food came to you or on the table.
Once you’re done eating, return the chopsticks to the paper holders, or place them on the chopsticks rest, or if none are available, directly on the table/tray. This will signify that you are done eating.
If you were served a fork and/or spoon, place them vertically on the side, like in Western dining, after you finish the meal.
What is the role of Oshibori, and what’s the correct way of using it?
You may have encountered Oshibori (おしぼり) at Japanese restaurants or on your flight to Japan. They are wet towels, either disposable paper towels or towels that may be piping hot or cold, depending on the season. Usually, they are unscented, but some places may be lightly scented.
The word is composed of “O” 御 (an honorific prefix) and the verb “Shiboru” 搾る (to wring out). Oshibori are used to clean your hands before a meal, or if you’re in a high-end restaurant, you may be refreshed with a new one at the end of a meal. While it may be tempting to use an Oshibori to wipe the sweat from your face or neck or to wipe off the food remnants on your chopsticks, this is considered inappropriate.
After using the Oshibori, fold it neatly and place it on your right (if right-handed, left if left-handed), or on the individual tray it came on. Feel free to use it again if you need to wipe your hands during the meal.
Unlike a napkin in a Western meal that you’ll use to wipe your mouth or dirtied hands, your oshibori should always be kept clean. If you accidentally spill liquid or food on your table, do not use the towel to wipe it off. Instead, ask the waiter for paper napkins, or if you have tissue paper on hand, use that instead.
Where should the bowls of rice and soup be placed?
In a Japanese meal, the rice bowl will always be on the side opposite of your dominant hand, so on your left (if right-handed) or right (if left-handed). The bowl of miso soup will be placed on the other side of the rice bowl.
There are several theories on why. The easiest one to remember is that your dominant hand (holding the chopsticks) should never hover above your rice bowl. Rice is the most respected food of all, and Japanese children are taught that leaving grains of rice will make them go blind or that it’s rude to the rice farmers (I hear those other rice-eating countries such as China and Korea have similar sayings). The act of hovering/straddling 跨ぐ is highly looked down upon, whether you hop over something respected and treasured, such as a kimono, a bag of groceries (see above on food provided by the gods), or a sleeping person.
An anecdote: When I was younger, I stepped over a pile of stacked books at my grandparents’ house to get to the other side of the room. In my defense, the books were in the way but not stacked up too high, so stepping over was more convenient than going around them. My usually sweet-natured and gentle grandmother was horrified by my act and gave me the scolding of a lifetime I will never forget.
Even if it may seem convenient, never hop over people or things deemed respectable.
What’s the correct way to eat sushi: with your fingers or chopsticks?
The short answer: both are acceptable.
Some sushi masters are notorious for requesting their customers to eat using their fingers, believing “it tastes better.” They say that using your fingers will prevent the shari (the rice) from crumbling, which happens sometimes when you pick up sushi with your chopsticks and squeeze too hard. However, this leaves you with sticky and fishy fingers (when you use your oshibori to wipe off).
So, the verdict? It’s a preference thing, so use whichever you’re comfortable with!
Are you supposed to dip the fish in soy sauce or rice when eating sushi?
The soy sauce is for dipping the fish, not the rice. The rice has already been seasoned with sweetened vinegar, and the soy sauce is for seasoning the fish. When picking up a piece of sushi, put it on its side and lightly dip the fish into the soy sauce (which can be tricky!). Do not dunk the entire fish into the soy sauce; you are not drinking soy sauce. If you’re worried about the sushi falling apart, you can always use your fingers (see above).
Listen to the sushi master or the server, as some sushi pieces may not need to be dipped in soy sauce. Squid is sometimes given a sprinkle of salt, and Anago (boiled salt-water eel) is sometimes given a soy sauce glaze. Listen to their instructions, and if unsure, ask!
Lastly, only pour a small amount of soy sauce on the plate, and don’t dunk the entire sushi piece into it! Otherwise, the rice will become soggy, and the sushi will fall apart before you put it into your mouth.
What’s the correct way of putting Wasabi on your sushi?
Wasabi, the fiery lime green spicy condiment, is grated Wasabi (わさび) root, a Japanese horseradish. It can only grow in clean water, so it is an expensive crop. The cheap stuff you find in tubes or tubs is made with horseradish with food coloring and has a burning and strong aftertaste.
Never ask for more wasabi if you’re at a high-end sushi restaurant. This is a slap in the face for the sushi master, who has carefully grated the expensive produce by hand and has adjusted the right amount for each fish. Piling on the wasabi will break the balance between the fish and the wasabi and the sushi flavor. Real wasabi is fragrant and delicate, and it’s not supposed to give you a fiery kick like chili peppers. (If you’re seeking burning intense flavors, wasabi is not your answer).
If you’re at a casual place or home with supermarket sushi, do not mix the wasabi into the soy sauce to make a slurry. It looks messy. Although tedious, dab each piece with wasabi and dip it into soy sauce.
When drinking alcohol, are you supposed to fill each other’s glasses but never your own?
This is more of a business rule than when with friends and family. You should look out for each other’s glasses and fill them out if needed. However, don’t lunge for the bottle whenever your dining colleagues are about to finish, ask first! She/he may not want another drink, so don’t pressure the person into another glass. It’s okay to refuse someone from pouring you a drink after a few rounds and instead opt to fill your own drink. That way, you break down the formalities and give your colleagues a break from watching over each other.
Also, holding the drink vessel with one hand is deemed bad manners. To show respect, hold the can, sake bottle, or decanter with both hands to pour.
When you’re with friends and family, you may fill the glasses of the elders, but with friends, you may pour your own to forgo the formalities. While you may jokingly pour and receive, keep it casual!
“Kampai” or “cheers,” is said during the first round of drinks. Afterward, you can refrain from saying it and drink at your own pace.
Confident to dine with Japanese friends or colleagues?
Japanese table manners can be pretty overwhelming and, frankly, sometimes pretentious! While you don’t need to bend over backward to avoid all potentially embarrassing situations, remember that you’re just trying to follow the social protocol of your fellow (Japanese) diners. If anything, share the stories along with a laugh with friends and family 🙂