Japanese Dining Etiquette

Dr. Brian Monger

In Japan, you say “itadakimasu” (“I gratefully receive”) before eating, and “gochisosama (deshita)” (“Thank you for the meal”) after finishing the meal.

Individual versus shared dishes

It is not uncommon in private households and in certain restaurants (e.g. izakaya) to share several dishes of food at the table rather than serving each person an individual dish. When eating from shared dishes, move some food from the shared plates onto your own with the opposite end of your chopsticks or with serving chopsticks that may be provided for that purpose.

Some Table Rules

Blowing your nose in public, and especially at the table, is considered bad manners.

It is considered good manners to empty your dishes to the last grain of rice.

Talking about toilet related and similarly unappetizing topics during or before a meal is not appreciated by most people.

It is considered bad manner to burp.

After eating, try to move all your dishes back to the same position they were at the start of the meal. This includes replacing the lids on dishes and putting your chopsticks on the chopstick holder or back into their paper slip.

Drinking

When drinking alcoholic beverages, it is customary to serve each other, rather than pouring your own beverage. Periodically check your friends’ cups and refill their drinks if their cups are getting empty. Likewise, if someone wants to serve you more alcohol, you should quickly empty your glass and hold it towards that person.

While it is considered bad manners to become obviously drunk in some formal restaurants, for example in restaurants that serve kaiseki ryori (Japanese haute cuisine), the same is not true for other types of restaurants such as izakaya, as long as you do not bother other guests.

Do not start drinking until everybody at the table is served and the glasses are raised for a drinking salute, which usually is “kampai”. Avoid using “chin chin” when drinking a toast, since in Japanese this expression refers to the male genitals.

How to eat

Rice:

Hold the rice bowl in one hand and the chopsticks in the other. Lift the bowl towards your mouth while eating. Do not pour soya sauce over white, cooked rice.

Sushi:

Pour some soya sauce into the small dish provided. It is considered bad manners to waste soya sauce, so try not to pour more sauce than you will use.

You do not need to add wasabi into the soya sauce, because the sushi pieces may already contain it, or may be eaten plain. However, if you choose to add wasabi, use only a small amount so as not to offend the sushi chef. If you do not like wasabi, you can request that none is added into your sushi.

In general, you are supposed to eat a sushi piece in one bite. Attempts to separate a piece into two generally end in the destruction of the beautifully prepared sushi. Hands or chopsticks can be used to eat sushi.

In case of nigiri-zushi, dip the piece into the soya sauce upside-down so that the fish enters the sauce. A few kinds of nigiri-zushi, for example, marinated pieces, should not be dipped into soya sauce.

In case of gunkan-zushi, pour a small amount of soya sauce over the sushi piece rather than dipping it into the sauce.

Sashimi:

Pour some soya sauce into the small dish provided. Put some wasabi on the sashimi piece, but be careful not to use too much as this will overpower the taste of the fish. Dip the sashimi pieces into the soya sauce. Some types of sashimi are enjoyed with ground ginger rather than wasabi.

 Miso Soup:

Drink the soup out of the bowl as if it were a cup, and fish out the solid food pieces with your chopsticks.

 Noodles:

Using your chopsticks lead the noodles into your mouth. You may want to try to copy the slurping sound of people around you if you are dining in a noodle shop. Rather than being bad manners as Westerners are often taught, slurping noodles is considered evidence of enjoying the meal.

In case of noodle soups, be careful of splashing the noodles back into the liquid. If a ceramic spoon is provided, use it to drink the soup, otherwise, lift the bowl to your mouth as if it were a cup.

 Kare Raisu:

(and other dishes in which the rice is mixed with a sauce)

Kare Raisu (Japanese style curry rice) and other rice dishes, in which the rice is mixed with a sauce (for example, some domburi dishes) may become difficult to eat with chopsticks. Large spoons are often provided for these dishes.

Big pieces of food:

(e.g. prawn tempura, tofu)  Separate into bite sized pieces with your chopsticks (this takes some exercise), or just bite off a piece and put the rest back onto your plate.

Chopsticks

In Japanese, the word for chopsticks is ohashi (“o” is added  to make word polite).   When hashi is part of a compound word, it becomes bashi, dropping the “o” and changing the “h” to “b”.

Chopsticks were first introduced to Japan about 2,000 years ago.  The formal etiquette for using chopsticks was in place by the 1600′s.

Pick up chopsticks, ohashi, with the right hand.  Rest chopsticks in the left hand while placing them in the proper position in the right hand.

Hold your chopsticks towards their end, not in the middle or the front third.

Place the chopsticks on the rest, hashi-oki  in between bites. They may also be placed on the side of a dish or saucer if a hashi-oki is not provided.  It is not proper for the chopsticks to touch the tray or table after you have started eating.

When you are not using your chopsticks, or have finished eating, lay them down in front of you with the tips to left.

Do not spear food with your chopsticks.

When finished, lay them across the plate, or rice bowl. Some people put them back in the paper they came in and bend a corner.

In a formal situation it is proper to lay the chopsticks down when being served.

In more formal, expensive restaurants you may receive lacquer chopsticks that are placed on the hashi-oki.  These are slick and more difficult to use.

When taking food from a communal plate, do not use the end of the chopsticks that you put in your mouth.  Reverse the chopsticks and use the unused end to take food.  Always use serving chopsticks if they are available.

Most restaurants serve wooden chopsticks that come in paper wrappers and need to be separated before using. Cheap wooden chopsticks often splinter when pulled apart and people are often seen scraping off the splinters.  Be cautious here–scraping the chopsticks might offend your host, indicating that you are being entertained in a cheap restaurant.

Do not pass food to someone using chopsticks. Pass a plate for them to help themselves.

Do not  point with your chopsticks or wave them around as a conversational gesture

Reversing chopsticks to use the opposite clean end is commonly used to move food from a communal plate, and is acceptable if there are no communal chopsticks (for example, if the meal is hosted at someone’s home). If the meal is at someone’s house, communal chopsticks are not requested if there are none on the table. At a restaurant, it is better to mimic the locals. If one is the host, community chopsticks should be provided.

Chopsticks should not be crossed on a table, as this symbolises death, or vertically stuck in the rice, which is done during a funeral

Chopsticks should be placed right-left direction; the tips should be on the left. Placing diagonal, vertical and crossing each stick are not acceptable both in home and restaurant manners.

To separate a piece of food in two, exert controlled pressure on the chopsticks while moving them apart from each other in order to tear the food. This takes some practice. With larger pieces of food such as tempura, it is also acceptable to pick up the entire piece with your chopsticks, and take a bite.

In formal use, disposable chopsticks (waribashi) should be replaced into the wrapper at the end of a meal

Chopstick etiquette words

Kakibashi    torake in or shovel food  with chopsticks

Namidabashi    dripping sauce from food or chopsticks

Sashibashi  stabbing something that is difficult to pickup with chopsticks

Komibashi to stuff food in one’s mouth with chopsticks

Yosebashi  to use chopsticks to pull something close such as a dish

Nigiribashi  to hold, grasp chopsticks in a fist

Mayoibashi  to move chopsticks over dishes, without touching them, considering what to select

Dr Brian Monger is Executive Director of MAANZ International and an internationally known consultant with over 45 years of experience assisting both large and small companies with their projects.  He is a specialist in negotiation and behaviour He is also a highly effective and experienced trainer and educator

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These articles are usually taken from notes from a MAANZ course.  If you are interested in obtaining the full set of notes (and a PowerPoint presentation) please contact us – info@marketing.org.au

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MAANZ International website http://www.marketing.org.au

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