Sitting down for a meal at a Japanese restaurant with colleagues or friends is an experience that goes beyond eating–it's a gateway to introductions and connections. Displaying proper dining etiquette during a meal can make a positive impact and set a favorable tone for the rest of your interactions.
Whether you're attending formal business dinners or enjoying casual meals, there are Japanese table manners that you should be aware of.
Do’s: Practice using a chopstick
Chopsticks (or "hashi" in Japanese) are fundamental to Japanese dining culture. People use it to pick up food, whether the menu is noodles, rice, or sushi. Even when eating soup, they will use chopsticks to pick out solid ingredients from the broth. Using chopsticks correctly and with finesse is not only a matter of practicality but also a cultural and social consideration.
Do yourself a favor by consistently using chopsticks every time you eat. With regular use, you'll gain the finesse and confidence needed to handle chopsticks skillfully, making your dining experiences more enjoyable and culturally respectful. No more slipping noodles, dropping food, awkward maneuvers, or resorting to using chopsticks like tiny spears, attempting to stab the food.
Do: Use the wet towels to clean your hand
When dining at a Japanese restaurant, it's common to come across neatly folded or rolled damp towels placed on the table. While this might seem puzzling, these towels aren't meant for wiping your face or the table. You use it to clean your hands.
"Oshibori" is a Japanese term that refers to a small wet towel or moistened hand towel, typically served in restaurants, hotels, and other hospitality establishments. They are offered to guests as a gesture of hospitality and cleanliness before a meal or any interaction. Oshibori can be either warm or cold, depending on the season and the type of establishment.
Do: Say “itadakimasu” before eating
If the French have bon appétit, the Japanese have itadakimasu. It's a polite expression that conveys gratitude and humility for the food that is about to be consumed. The word "itadakimasu" is derived from the root verb "itadaku," which means "to receive." When said before a meal, it expresses acknowledgment and appreciation for the effort that went into preparing the food, the people involved in its production, and the environment that made the meal possible.
For your dining companions, using itadakimasu demonstrates your awareness and respect for Japanese dining customs and etiquette. It shows that you are making an effort to embrace their cultural practices, which are often appreciated by locals. It can create a more pleasant and respectful atmosphere during the meal.
Do: Hold the small bowls while eating
In traditional Japanese dining, it's common to hold the rice or soup bowl close to your mouth while eating, especially when you're eating rice or soup. Use your non-dominant hand to lift the bowl and use your dominant hand to hold chopsticks and pick up food. You can also slurp the soup directly from the bowls by holding it with both hands and bringing it to your mouth.
This practice is considered respectful and practical, as it minimizes the chance of spilling food and allows you to eat more easily. However, only lift the bowls that are smaller than your palm. Big dishes are not meant to be lifted off the table.
Do: Use separate chopsticks when eating from shared dishes and take them little by little
Eating from shared dishes requires a delicate balance of consideration and cooperation. You have to be aware of your portion and the others while also involved in the conversation. It is common to have communal meals in izakaya.
Use a dedicated serving chopstick to take food from the sharing dishes. Some people use the opposite end of their chopsticks, but it’s better to use a different one. When taking food, grab a little to your plate – just enough for a few bites. Once you finish, you can take more. Keep doing this while also keeping an eye out for others, so everyone can enjoy the food too.
Don’t: Use chopsticks to pass food
Passing food directly from one pair of chopsticks to another is considered a cultural taboo in Japan. This practice resembles a funeral ritual where the bones of the deceased are passed from one set of chopsticks to another. As a result, passing food with chopsticks is associated with death, and it's considered disrespectful and inauspicious to do so. In addition to the cultural symbolism, this act can also be seen as unsanitary.
Don't: Stab chopsticks in the rice
Using chopsticks to stab food is frowned upon, especially in the middle of a bowl full of rice. Similar to the previous point, this action is also related to funeral rituals. It's reminiscent of how incense sticks are inserted into a bowl of sand during funeral ceremonies, therefore it’s offensive to do so during a meal.
Don't: Pull the dishes towards you
In traditional Japanese customs, it's a sign of respect to make things more accessible to others. When dishes are placed in the center of the table, they are meant to be shared. Pulling a dish toward yourself can be seen as prioritizing your needs over the collective enjoyment of the meal, which goes against the spirit of sharing and harmony.
Don’t: Leave food on your plate
Leaving food uneaten on your plate in a Japanese restaurant can be perceived as wasteful and, in some cases, might be considered impolite. Japanese cuisine emphasizes appreciating and savoring the food that is served, and leaving food behind could be seen as not valuing the effort that went into its preparation.
If you have a small appetite or allergies, it's a good idea to talk to the staff beforehand. You can request a smaller serving of rice or mention any dietary needs. Also, in private settings, you might notice some people leaving a bit of food on their plates. This is a way of showing that they're satisfied with the portion they received. If everyone finishes everything, the host might think the serving size is too small. It's all about understanding cultural cues and reading the situation.
Another aspect to keep in mind concerning portion sizes is that Japanese restaurants often have policies against providing "doggy bags" or allowing customers to take leftovers home. This is due to the stringent food hygiene standards maintained in Japanese restaurants. Leftovers might not be packaged to meet these standards, potentially compromising food safety. Moreover, Japanese eateries prioritize the freshness and quality of their dishes, and allowing leftovers to be taken home could risk the degradation of their flavors when reheated later.
Don’t: Give a tip
The cost of meals and services in Japan already includes the service charge. Therefore, the prices you see on the menu are intended to cover not only the food but also the service you receive. There is also no personal waiter system.
Hospitality staff in Japan take pride in offering the best service possible without expecting additional compensation. Offering a tip could be confusing or even awkward for the staff. They might not be familiar with the practice and could be unsure of how to respond. If you want to appreciate the staff, you can give them your most sincere compliment and thank you.
Proper dining etiquette demonstrates respect for others and their cultures. It shows that you value the comfort and feelings of those you're dining with, creating a positive atmosphere and fostering good relationships.
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