In Japan there are a lot of detailed rules concerning proper table etiquette which can sometimes cause anxiety for foreign travellers dining out on the town. These practices tend to be unwritten rules of conduct which can make them even harder for outsiders to grasp in the moment. However, foreign visitors are often given a pass in this regard due to these complexities – even Japanese people sometimes make mistakes! So foreign visitors to Japan have no fear, because we here at Eat Pro Japan have compiled a short list of 7 important points that are useful to keep in mind for that next trip to the ramen restaurant, sushi bar, or shabu shabu spot you’ve got on your trip list when you touch down in the land of the rising sun!
Point 1 : Eating mainly with chopsticks
As you are most likely aware, Japanese food is mainly eaten with chopsticks. While the Japanese master how to use chopsticks when they are children, foreigners from Western societies tend to be less proficient in the art of chopstick use. But worry not if you don't use chopsticks well, because there are many establishments that offer forks and spoons upon request – the Japanese word for fork is “foh-ku”, and spoon is “su-pun” and they sound very similar to the English words as you can see! Of course, it will be a great experience if you would like to challenge yourself with chopsticks, but you can always work up to that moment with Western utensils until you feel comfortable to give them a try.
Point 2: “Itadakimasu” before meals and “Gochisosama” after
A very unique feature of dining in Japan is the so-called ‘honorifics’ used by the Japanese when eating meals like breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It is considered a sign of respect to the preparer of your food to say “itadakimasu” (pronounced e-tah-da-key-mas) after your meal has been placed in front of you, but before you begin eating, it translates to something akin to “I will receive your meal”. And once you have finished your meal, and as you are leaving the establishment, it is respectful to say to the waitstaff “gochisosama” (pronounced go-chee-so-sahma”), which translates to “thank you for the feast”. While many travelers to Japan don’t speak any Japanese – and are not expected to – these two key phrases can nevertheless make your dining experience a better one. After you practice them a few times you’ll have them down pat, and the looks of gratitude on the faces of the waitstaff as you leave will make that meal you ate that much better.
Point 3: Eat while holding the rice/miso bowl in your hand
When eating at a restaurant in Japan you’ll often notice Japanese people holding the rice bowl up to their face as they chow down. This is simply an easier way for them to eat things with chopsticks, but it tends to happen with all small bowls of food that you can hold in one hand, like miso soup for example. If you are using chopsticks too, it might be better to try it this way. That way you’ll look like everyone else in the restaurant! This is not the case in all East Asian countries however, so if you are heading to Korea after your stay in Japan, just keep in mind that something like this is actually considered socially unacceptable there.
Point 4: Clean your plate completely
In Japan, it is considered good manners to eat all the solid food that you were served. Of course, when it comes to things like rice this can be a bit tricky, but if you try to do your best you will have no cause to offend your vendors. This ‘clean your plate completely’ concept is very different from some other East Asian societies like China, where it is considered rude to not leave a bit of food behind on your plate.
Point 5: Slurping your Ramen/Soba
In Western countries, slurping soup or noodles out of your bowl is considered extremely rude, but in Japan it is completely the opposite. When you arrive at a ramen or soba restaurant in Japan, you’ll probably notice the cacophony of slurping sounds from all the other patrons eating their meals. This slurping is encouraged for a very practical reason; those noodles are hot!!! The slurping motion pulls cooler air into the mouth, which makes eating such dishes much easier. Once you’ve done it a few times you’ll probably agree . . . even if you still don’t like the sound.
Point 6: Izakaya (Japanese-style pubs) have ‘otoshi’ appetizers
Japan has a unique pub culture. Many Western-style bars and clubs exist throughout the country, but Japan also has a unique venue known as an Izakaya, or Japanese-style pub. These drinking spots tend to cater to local people as well as an older crowd and are often structured in a more traditional way compared with Western-style bars. When you arrive at an Izakaya, you will find small plates of food set up for you to enjoy while you wait for your drinks – similar to an appetizer – which are called “otoshi”. Unlike in a bar, where you often find complimentary snacks such as peanuts, pretzels, or potato chips/crisps, the otoshi are included in your bill – even if you do not eat them. This is something that tourists sometimes find confusing, especially if they didn’t partake in the snack. So please keep in mind that if you try out a Japanese Izakaya, you will be expected to cover the cost of this small appetiser out of your own pocket.
Point 7: Pouring others a drink/getting your drink poured for you
If you are traveling in a group when you arrive at a restaurant or bar and you intend to drink alcoholic beverages that come out of a large bottle – sake anyone? – it is considered rude to pour your own drink. Usually, this alcohol pouring etiquette is based on social status. For example, if you are traveling with a work colleague and you have been at the company for a shorter period of time, it would be proper for you to pour them their drink for them, and then pour your own. You of course will drink at the same time with a hearty ‘kanpai!’ (the Japanese word for “cheers”), but if you are out late at night and find a nice-looking bar or Izakaya to try out, just keep this in mind – especially if you are invited over to a table of local Japanese people enjoying their night!
This is by no means an exhaustive list of Japanese table manners, but if you follow the 7 simple etiquette rules mentioned above, you will have a far more enjoyable time while eating out with your friends or by yourself.
The Eat Pro Japan team encourages you to try them out for yourself as you explore the smorgasbord of dining options which Japan has to offer!