Japanese Table Manners–The Etiquette of Dining in Japan

-Being invited to one’s home is a great honor in Japanese culture.

-Traditional Japanese dining in the home—and even in some restaurants—occurs at a low, square or rectangular table set upon a tatami mat, with diners kneeling/sitting upon cushions or directly on the mat. (Unlike with Chinese dining, chairs are not typically used in traditional Japanese dining). (See “Shoes-Etiquette” above).

-In Japan, sitting upright on the floor while dining or at a tea ceremony is typical. The most formal way of sitting for both genders is the “seiza” position, where the person kneels (left knee placed onto the floor first), as if in prayer, then rests his buttocks upon the heels of his feet. (The feet should come together, allowing the right big toe to lay atop the left big toe). Hands are placed on their corresponding thighs. (Most Westerners—and an increasing amount of modern Japanese—find sitting seiza-style for the duration of a meal to be exceedingly uncomfortable). In less formal settings, women may sit before the table, both legs towards one side, almost touching the buttocks. Men may sit informally in a cross-legged (lotus-like) position, the way children fold their legs when sitting together in circle formation.

-Seating arrangement is also very important in Japanese culture: The guest-of-honor is seated upon the “kamiza,” the seat of honor, typically situated farthest from the entrance. And when there is a “tokonoma” (alcove) in the room, the guest-of-honor is seated in front of it. The host or lowest-ranking guest is seated nearest the “shimoza” (entrance).

-In restaurants, and in some homes, each diner is presented, immediately upon situating him/herself at the table, with a moistened towel which is to be used to perfunctorily refresh him/herself. Strict Japanese etiquette specifies that the towel should be used only to refresh the hands—not the face and/or neck. (The towel is also not to be used for any major or unsightly cleansing, such as cleaning one’s nostrils or inside one’s ears). In less strict settings, if the face and/or neck is to be refreshed, it should be tidied before the hands since it would be unhygienic to wipe one’s hands clean then use that same towel to attempt to clean the more germ-sensitive facial areas. When the towel is presented upon individual trays, the towel should be folded and placed atop the tray for occasional use during the meal. When the towel is to be collected immediately after use, it should be loosely folded and placed onto the collection tray or held in palms of both hands such that it my be retrieved by the collector with tongs.

-“Itadakimasu” (“I gratefully receive”) is said before meals; “gochisosama deshita” (“Thank you for the meal”) is said after meals.

-In private homes and in some restaurants, communal dishes, rather than individual dishes, are oftentimes served. When serving utensils are not provided, guests should use the opposite ends of their chopsticks to transfer food from the communal dishes onto their individual plates. (When using individual chopsticks to retrieve food from communal dishes at the beginning of a meal—before the chopsticks have been used for eating—the pointed ends of the chopsticks may be used to convey food to individual plates. But once the chopsticks have been used for eating, the opposite ends must be used to retrieve food from communal dishes where no serving utensils have been provided). When taking food from a communal dish, guests should select items closest to them, rather than reaching across or picking through the dish to select an item or a portion that they might regard as more appealing.

-As with the rest of the Far East, chopsticks are the traditional eating implement. Confucius was of the opinion that knives and other sharp objects at the table conjured up unsavory images of the slaughterhouse and could invoke violence and warfare.

-Chopsticks originated in ancient China and later spread to Vietnam, Korea, and then Japan. (Japanese chopsticks tend to be shorter and more pointed at the eating-end than their Chinese counterparts). The oldest written record of chopsticks in Japan is found in the Kojiki (a collection of myths pertaining to the origins of the four home-islands of Japan, compiled by Ō noYasumaro at the request of Empress Genmei), written in 712 C.E.; but chopsticks are believed to have arrived in Japan around 500 C.E., when Chinese culture first began infiltrating Japan via Korea.

Japanese chopsticks were originally made from one piece of bamboo, joined at the top like wooden tweezers. Around the 10th century, however, chopsticks were crafted as two separate sticks. By the 17th century, Japanese chopsticks were commonly being made of lacquered wood. And the very wealthy used chopsticks made of precious materials such as jade, gold, ivory, and silver (Silver was a popular choice as it was believed that the metal would immediately tarnish if exposed to poisonous foods). The concept of the disposable chopstick originated in Japan in 1878. But today, because of the millions of trees used annually to produce disposable chopsticks, the concept is being revisited.

-All cultures that use chopsticks have etiquette specifying their proper usage. Below are some of the chopstick rules of Japan:

a) Chopsticks should be held towards their non-eating ends—not towards their middle sections or towards the ends that are used to pick up food.

b) Chopsticks not in active use during a meal should be placed onto the chopstick-rest. If no chopstick-rest has been provided, chopsticks should be placed together vertically towards the right side of the plate or bowl, the points facing away from their respective diner (and, to the extent possible, not directly towards any other diner). Otherwise, they may be placed together, diagonally across the bowl or plate. (The horizontal placement across the plate or bowl signals that the diner has concluded his meal).

c) Food should never, ever, be passed from one person’s set of chopstick’s to another person’s set of chopsticks. To do so is regarded as bad luck and inviting of death since the only time items are correctly passed from one set of chopsticks to another is in the context of a cremation when family members pass the cremated bones, via oversized chopsticks, from one person to another prior to placing the bones into the funeral urn. If food must be passed from one person to another, the passer should use his chopsticks to place the food onto the recipient’s plate, then the recipient should use his own chopsticks retrieve the passed item from the plate. Similarly, chopsticks should never be left standing upright in food—especially rice—as that placement is consistent with the upright placement of chopsticks into bowls of rice offerings to the dead at grave sites and funeral altars.

d) Chopsticks should not be used to spear food.

e) A food item too large to be eaten in one bite (such as a strip of chicken, or zucchini prepared tempura-style, or slices of wagyu beef) may be picked up whole with chopsticks; a portion of the oversized item bitten off; and the remaining portion placed back onto the plate. (No more than one bite should be taken from an oversized item that has been lifted from the plate). To divide an oversized food item on the plate requires practice: The chopstick on the left holds the item in place, while the chopstick on the right is skillfully used to divide the item.

f) Chopsticks should not be used for pointing or held in the hand while gesturing.

g) Chopsticks should never be used to move bowls or plates.

h) If dishes are served communal-style (on serving platters or in serving bowls placed in the center of the table) and no serving utensils have been provided, guests should use the opposite ends of their chopsticks (if they have already been used for eating) to move items from the communal dishes onto individual plates. (Any food residue on the opposite ends of chopsticks should be discretely wiped off in one’s napkin. At no time should food residue be licked or sucked off chopsticks).

i) Special care should be taken to ensure that one’s chopstick’s are not pointing directly at another person. Pointing chopsticks at a person is interpreted as wishing ill for that person.

j) At the end of a meal, chopsticks are placed together onto the chopstick-rest or together horizontally, midway across the “northern half” of the plate or bowl. Disposable chopsticks are placed back into their paper slip-envelope, the end of the envelope sealed with a fold.

k) Chopsticks are not toys—not even for children. Using chopsticks for twirling, drumming, or clicking is unacceptable.

-While knives and forks will not be used at the traditional Japanese dining table, Chinese-style ceramic spoons are used to eat soups, and regular spoons are used to eat Japanese dishes such as “donburi” or “curry rice.”

How to eat certain foods:

-Miso soup—A bowl of miso soup should be raised to the mouth with both hands, thumbs, near the rim of the bowl, securing the portion of the bowl nearest the mouth, and the index finger and the middle finger gracefully cupping the upper periphery of the bowl, while the ring finger and pinky brace the bowl towards its base. The palms should not touch the bowl. The liquid should be drunk as if from a cup. Chopsticks should be used to eat the solid food items that remain in the bowl after all the liquid has been drunk.

-Noodle soup—If a ceramic spoon has been provided, it should be used to drink the soup. Otherwise, the bowl should be lifted with both hands to the mouth and the liquid drunk as if from a cup. (See “Miso soup” above). Chopsticks should then be used to eat the noodles.

-Noodles—Chopsticks should be used to eat noodles. It is considered in bad form to lower one’s head towards the bowl when eating noodles. When noodles are served in a small bowl that may be lifted with one hand, the bowl may be raised towards the mouth with the left hand, while the chopsticks, held in the right hand, are used to push the noodles from the bowl into the mouth.

-Rice—The small bowl of rice should be lifted with the left hand, while chopsticks, held in the right hand, are used to push rice into the mouth. Soy sauce should not be poured over a bowl of white rice.

-Sushi—The right hand or chopsticks may be used for eating sushi. Sushi should be eaten in one bite; but if it large and must be divided into a bite-size portion, it should be skillfully divided with chopsticks. When eating nigiri-zushi (small rice balls with shellfish, fish, etc., on top), the fish-side should be dipped into the soy sauce so as to prevent rice grains from escaping into the dish of soy sauce—an occurrence which is considered in bad form. In the case of gunkan-zushi (small “cup” made of seaweed and filled with sushi rice, topped with seafood), a small amount of soy sauce should be poured onto the sushi rather than dipping the sushi into the sauce. Temaki (literally, “hand roll”) is a cone-shaped sushi made of nori seaweed, sushi rice, vegetables, and seafood. It is picked up with the right hand and eaten in as many bites are required. The roll should be placed onto the plate between bites.

-Sashimi (thinly sliced raw food)—should be dipped into the soy sauce. [Sashimi is not to be confused with sushi, which includes rice].

-Soy sauce—It is considered bad manners to waste soy sauce; therefore, more than is needed should not be poured into the soy sauce dish.

-Wagyu beef—Chopsticks are used to pick up the thin slice of beef, conveying it to the mouth; the desired portion of beef is bitten off; and the remaining portion of beef is replaced into the dish.

Japanese drinking etiquette:

-When drinking alcoholic beverages at the table, it is customary to serve others before serving self. The person pouring the drink should use both hands, and the person whose vessel is being filled should use both hands to raise his drinking-vessel towards the vessel from which the beverage is being poured.

-Drinking should not commence until all persons are seated, food is served, and all glasses are filled. Drinking begins after the official drinking salute, which is usually “kampai!” which means “cheers!” Glasses should be raised and “kampai!” offered in return. “Chin-chin” is not said in Japan. (See “Faux Pas” below).

Other Japanese table manners:

-Blowing one’s nose in public—and especially at the dining table—is considered in exceedingly poor taste. Interestingly, however, sniffling at the table (as an alternative to blowing one’s nose) is accepted practice. If one must blow one’s nose, one should excuse oneself from the table.

-Guests are expected to eat everything on their plates—down to the last grain of rice. Japanese culture frowns upon the wasting of food.

-Burping is considered bad manners. When one burps, one must apologize. One’s napkin should be used to cover one’s mouth while burping.

-Slurping while eating soup, noodles, and at the end of a cup of tea is not considered in bad form in Japanese culture. To the contrary, it is accepted as a compliment to the chef and/or host and is an indication that the diner is satisfied.

-At the end of a meal, all attempts should be made to move all dishes and eating and drinking implements back to their original placement.

-At the end of a meal in a restaurant, guests should offer to pay, and the host should refuse their offer. After several offer-and-refusal iterations, the host pays the bill. (Guests who do not offer to pay insinuate that the host is indebted to them. But a guest who offers to pay beyond two or three iterations insults the host by insinuating that he/she is unable to pay the bill).

-When eating in a restaurant, tipping is not expected since a service charge is usually included in the bill. It is not uncommon for service staff to refuse tips—even after exceptional service has been rendered. In essence, tipping is considered rude in Japanese culture.

-Money or any instrument of payment should not be placed directly into the hands of the payee. Typically, a tray is provided for the transfer of money. When no tray has been provided, money should be presented with both hands and received with both hands—as a sign of mutual respect.

-When dining at a person’s home, a gift should be presented to the host upon arrival. (See “Gift-Giving” below).




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