Japanese Table Manners
What’s in a meal?
Generally meals in Japan are not served on one plate. At restaurants and some houses your meal is brought on a tray with a variety of plates and bowls, each containing one element of the meal. Rice in a bowl or chawan is placed on the left while soup will be on the right. The rest of the tray will be taken up by plates with anything from sushi to vegetable stir-fry. Japanese food tends to follow the seasons, with the vegetables and even fish being particular to a certain time of year. The hashi or chopsticks will be in the front of the tray, pointed to the left.
What should I do?
When you get your meal, pick up your hashi, prepare to eat (if they are disposable, check them for splinters. The most polite if seldom used method to pick them up is with your left hand. Then place them in your right and adjust them.), close your hands together and say ittadakimasu. Ittadakimasu has several translations but it is essentially giving thanks for the food you are about to eat. It does not contain any religious implications, though giving thanks is a large part of Shinto tradition. Directly translated it can be taken for ‘receiving.’
Next, pick up your rice bowl with your left hand (opposite for southpaws) and try some of your rice. If you do not start with rice that is OK, however, traditionally one should start and end with rice. You might notice that there probably will not be a spoon provided, even when there is soup. For soup pick up your soup bowl, again with your left hand, and take a sip to taste the broth before eating anything else inside the soup. To do this put your thumb on the rim of the bowl and your other fingers underneath. Generally there is a little stand on the bottom of the bowls so that you do not burn your fingers if the soup is hot. After you taste the soup, use your hashi to get out any vegetables or meat from the soup, and drink the broth straight from the bowl as if it were tea.
Enjoy your meal. Sample the various dishes in whatever order you prefer. For hard to eat, or small items it is fine to pick up a plate to hold it below you so you do not drop food all over you. You can also do this with your rice bowl. Sometimes if an object is too large to eat in one bite, you can set the rest in your rice bowl. Some restaurants will bring you your plates in a specific order; this is for artistic effect and should be enjoyed at the establishment’s direction.
When you are drinking, it is polite to fill other people’s glasses for them, before they have finished their beverage. When someone pours a drink for you, hold your glass with both hands in a convenient location, and be sure to thank them (sumimasen a version of ‘Im sorry’ works well here). If eating sushi, you may want to pour soy sauce into the small dishes for those eating with you. If you are a guest, you may have yours filled for you.
At the end of the meal place say gososamadeshita (It was delicious), and return your hashi to their original location.
What should I not do?
There are many things you should avoid in Japan, especially when using hashi.
- Do not pass food from hashi to hashi.
- Do not leave your hashi standing up in rice or food (this is a funeral rite).
- Do not sneeze or blow your nose at the table. It is more polite to sniff all night rather than resort to a tissue.
- Do not bow to your food. It is rude to show respect to food the way you would show respect to a person. Instead of ‘leaning over,’ pick up a bowl or plate and bring it to your chin or mouth.
- Avoid filling up your own drink (you may have to if you are the ‘lowest’ social level). Instead, allow others to fill your glass, and do the same for them. In Japan it is better to receive (humbly) than to take.
- Avoid showing the inside of your mouth to others. Some people will cover their mouths from view when laughing. This should also be done if using a toothpick, though you do not need to do this when just eating.
More on Table Manners
Generally it is proper to finish all the rice given to you. If you finish all your rice before the rest of your food, it may indicate to your host you want more. To avoid this, leave some rice until you have finished the rest of your meal and then eat the rest of your rice. Leaving your hashi in their original place will indicate you are done. If you need to put down your hashi while eating you may leave them on a holder, resting against a dish or on the rim of a bowl.
Sometimes during banquets or large parties, instead of individual plates, community dishes will be placed around the tables. When this happens you can simply take what you want and add it to your own plate before eating it. Avoid eating directly from the communal plates. If you take something and want to eat it right away, you can touch it to your plate without letting it go from your hashi and then eat it, though, it is more polite to wait. It is also considered rude to take food from a communal plate without first flipping around your hashi to the side you do not eat with. If you are with family, friends, or in Okinawa, this may not always take place, though people will probably call you irai (polite) if you do.