Planning to visit Japan, or simply dining with Japanese friends? Avoid an awkward experience and enjoy your meal by first reviewing this basic guide to Japanese dining etiquette.
Imagine yourself walking into a Japanese restaurant, perhaps with a few Japanese friends or colleagues. The menu is handed to you, all in Japanese. Your friends hungrily order dishes to share, which are quickly served in steaming hot plates covering the table. You pick up your chopsticks to dig in, and then…?
In mid-action, you notice from the corner of your eye that your new Japanese friends put their hands together, murmur a phrase with a slight bow, then with a smile, split their chopsticks apart to finally partake in the meal.
Oops! ???? Have you offended your Japanese friends?!
Etiquette in Japan, especially when dining, is tricky. The act of eating with others in Japan can be an intimately awkward experience if you’re not aware of the many cultural differences. While you can always play the “I am an outsider to your culture, so please excuse me” card (aka, the gaijin foreigner card), who doesn’t want to smoothly navigate Japanese social norms without raising eyebrows?
Let’s get started with a basic guide to Japanese dining etiquette.
Japanese Dining Etiquette Guide
1. Saying Thanks Before and After Your Meal
So what was that quick but ceremonious greeting before the meal?
You may have noticed the JOC kids saying Itadakimasu いただきます at the end of each JOC video when the meal is ready to eat. Roughly translating to “I humbly partake/receive,” it is similar to saying grace at the beginning of the meal. When the group has finished their meal in Japan, there is one more saying as well. Gently place your chopsticks on the rice bowl or chopsticks rest, and conclude with Gochisou samadeshita ごちそうさまでした, which means ‘thank you for the delicious meal’ or ‘it was quite a meal’.
Let’s practice again: Before you eat, you say ‘ Itadakimasu’ and after you eat, you say ‘Gochisou samadeshita’. Well done!
These greetings during mealtime are deeply rooted in Buddhism and Shintoism, the two main religions of Japan. Saying Itadakimasu (“I shall partake”) and Gochisou samadeshita (“Thank you for the meal”) is the Japanese way of expressing gratitude for nature’s bounty and to the many people who have participated in providing the meal, including the cook, fishermen, farmers, butchers, supermarket employees, truck drivers, and so on.
This simple ritual in Japan is an acknowledgment of the beings (animals and plants) sacrificed and the various people that helped create the delicious food in front of you. Therefore, even more important than the open and concluding sayings at mealtimes, is to complete the meal without leftovers or grains of rice in your bowl. The act of finishing the meal shows the utmost respect to the cook and others who have contributed to the meal. If it’s not possible to finish, it is best to shift all the leftover food to the side of your plate or bowl with your chopsticks.
2. Chopsticks: Do’s/Don’ts
The main utensil in Japan are the chopsticks (お箸). While spoons have snuck themselves into modern-day Japanese cuisine, the tradition calls for just chopsticks, which have been used all the way back from the 8th century.
There is an endless amount of sources that explain how to properly hold chopsticks, so I’ll skip that for this post, but check out this image if you need some brushing up.
It’s easy to explain chopsticks etiquette with the “don’ts” than the “do’s.” Many of the don’ts are due to Buddhist funeral rites or said to bring bad luck, and thus do not belong to the dining table.
1. Do not stick your chopsticks into food, especially into your bowl of rice (立て箸)
- When not using your chopsticks, lay them on the chopsticks rest, or if you’re done with your meal, horizontally on a bowl or plate (never vertically).
2. Do not pass food to another person’s chopsticks with your own (拾い箸)
- If you must transfer food to another person, put it directly on his/her plate or bowl.
3. Do not spear your food (指し箸)
- Chopsticks are meant to be used together like tongs, so even if it’s tricky, pick up the food. If you’re concerned that you may drop it, lift the plate or bowl close to your face instead.
4. Do not use your chopsticks to pick up food from a communal plate
- If communal chopsticks are provided, use that instead or flip your chopsticks to use the opposite ends.
- However, if you are in a relaxed setting with family or close friends, it may be acceptable to use your chopsticks. When in doubt, watch to see what others do.
5. Do not lick or chew on your chopsticks (ねぶり箸)
- Chopsticks are a tool to transfer food from your plate to your mouth. It may be tempting if bits of food are stuck on your chopsticks, but if you must insist, wipe with a tissue/napkin instead.
3. Lifting Plates and Bowls
Your parents or teachers may have taught you not to lift bowls or plates close to your face when eating, but this is acceptable in Japanese culture.
While western table settings utilize tables and chairs, where the height of the chair situates the eater not too far from the plate in front, whereas a traditional Japanese meal is eaten on a low table and seating is close to the ground, hence a farther distance from the table to the face.
Even when Japanese restaurants have adapted the western table setting, it’s still fine to lift plates and bowls close to you. This will especially be needed when you’re about to eat something soupy or drippy, which may splatter on your shirt or table (or neighbor!)
Okay to Lift:
- Rice bowls
- Soup bowls, small deep bowls with liquids
- Small plate of soy sauce for sashimi or sushi
- Donburi bowls (with rice or noodles such as ramen or udon) or lacquer rice box (ojyubako))
Do Not Lift:
- Sashimi plates
- Tempura plates
- Communal plates/bowls
- Plates/bowls bigger than the palm of your hand (excluding bowls/plates that have rice, like donburi bowls and lacquer rice box (ojyubako)).
Your parents may have taught you not to slurp your noodles, but slurp away your udon, soba, ramen when you’re in Japan!
Japanese noodle aficionados will insist that slurping improves the flavor of the noodles, that it helps cool the noodles, or that your nasal passages take in the delicious aromas of the broth. While it’s not mandatory, you may get a nod of appreciation from your Japanese neighbor as you slurp down your meal.
Note: the term Nu-hara ヌルハラ (noodle harassment) has been circulating by the Japanese media from a few years ago, due to some Japanese diners irked by the slurping noises. Personally, my advice is: don’t worry about it. Indulge in your meal with noise and gusto!!
Your Experience with Japanese Dining Etiquette
If you unintentionally commit a faux pas when eating in Japan or with Japanese friends, don’t panic! But knowing these table manners will go a long way and your friends will respect you for taking the time to understand their culture. And of course, for being a good guest! Some of you had great questions for this post and I answered them in Japanese Dining Etiquette Part 2, enjoy.
Lastly, what Japanese dining etiquette tips have you learned that weren’t mentioned in this post? Or do you have any horrifying stories when dining in Japan? Please share in the comment box below!