Japanese Table Manners (日本の食事作法)

Japanese table manners refer to the manners of dining in Japan.

Summary

This section is to introduce commonly accepted manners of dining in Japan, which, however, may vary in some degree depending on places and situations.

This section is specially written to help non-Japanese people to easily understand and practice the manners when they take dinner in Japan.

In modern Japan, however, it may be said that not all Japanese are cognizant in those manners. Furthermore, many Japanese are tolerant (or less critical) of any improper manners if is notified in advance. Therefore, when you are not confident in those Japanese manners, it is advisable for you to declare in advance that you are just in the process of studying Japanese dietary culture and manners. Then, you will not give a negative impression even when you fail to follow these manners, and not only that, you may possibly be treated favorably if you emphasize your intention to study the manners.

Tableware

In many cases, chopsticks are used for dinner. Today, fork, spoon, and other utensils are also used.

Some foodstuffs and dishes such as fruits and sweets may be eaten out of one's hand, but you should not take meat and seafood dishes directly with your hands without using plates and utensils. However, some dishes are specially prepared for eating by hands, such as sushi and boiled crab. In some prestigious events, though, people are required to eat sushi with chopsticks.

In most cases, a complete set of tableware is served together with foods, so that you may be able to confirm whether or not chopsticks are to be used.

To hold a bowl

In Japan, it is allowed to hold a bowl or saucer in one's hand to eat foods out of it. In contrast, it is considered a breach of etiquette to lean forward over one's plate and let your mouth 'go fetch' foods such as boiled rice and miso soup without holding a china bowl (for boiled rice) or a wooden bowl (for miso soup or else). This unique manner of eating in Japan is unusual in the world, even in the same cultural area where people use chopsticks for eating, such as China, Korea, and other South East Asian countries, where people recuse themselves from holding a plate to eat something because they think such manners are similar to what homeless people do on the street.

A bowl is held in one's hand in such a way that the thumb of the left hand is raised to catch a brim of the bowl and the remaining four fingers of the left hand are stretched flatly to support the bowl's 'itozoko' (a raised circular rim at the bottom of a bowl). In this way, you can hold a wooden or china bowl containing hot soup such as miso soup, without feeling its heat. While holding a bowl, you had better straighten your forefinger, middle finger, ring finger, and little finger all in parallel so that you may look more refined. When you have to hold slightly heavier bowls such as those of ceramics, you press your thumb's webbing against the rim of the bowl to keep it firm.

Since a china bowl used at a tea ceremony is often a very expensive artifact, you must be especially careful not to drop it. For this purpose, you are suggested to attach your right hand to the bowl and hold it firmly in both hands.

Chopsticks

How to use chopstics:

Please refer to "Kiraibashi" (hated manners in using chopsticks).

For eating any food (except in liquid form) in Japan, it is basic manners to use chopsticks, unless forks, spoons, and other tableware are specially prepared on the table.

Chopsticks are the tool to pinch (nip and pick up) some foods, and therefore should not be used to impale or stab any food. However, if you are not accustomed to using chopsticks, which requires some training, you cannot help but declare accordingly in advance and ask for tolerance to overlook some breach of manners. Regarding the way of using chopsticks, please refer to the article "How to use chopsticks."

Among other Japanese tableware, lacquered tableware (wooden tableware coated with lacquer) are so delicate and sensitive that no metalware such as spoons and forks can be used with it because such metalware may scratch and destroy the lacquerware. Therefore, you may happen to fall into disfavor with the host if you, being unaccustomed to using chopsticks, request a spoon and fork at a table of Japanese cuisine, especially at such prestigious dinners as that of kaiseki-ryori (tea ceremony dishes), where many sets of lacquered tableware are prepared.

How to eat

In most situations in Japan, a number of dishes are served at one time in front of a guest. In such a case, it is considered improper manners to deplete one dish and make it empty before eating other dishes, so you must keep balance in eating all dishes evenly in order. In most situations, dishes are arranged to make a guest enjoy tasting each dish in turn to the utmost extent.

All the dishes served for you are to be finished. This custom to 'finish all dishes served for you' contains feelings of the people who esteem values of foods with gratitude for them that are believed to provide the people with power of life (please refer to "Mottainai"). However, some cases are exempted from this custom's rule, such as allergy, taboo, and other reasons against eating some foods. When you wish to leave any dish before finishing, it is proper etiquette to apologize for refusing it by stating such reasons as your weakness in it, full stomach condition, allergy or specific taboo against it, or the like.

How to eat boiled rice:

Chopsticks are used to eat boiled rice. You should not stir contents of a rice bowl dish. You should eat boiled rice and toppings alternately.

How to drink soups:

You should not make a sound. In the case of Japanese dishes, you must hold a plate of soup in your left hand and put your mouth at the brim of plate to sip the soup. Solid ingredients of soup must be eaten with chopsticks but not with chirirenge (ceramic spoon) or spoon.

After drinking soup, the lid of the bowl should be returned to the same state as originally arranged when it was prepared on a table (or tray.)
The reason being that, if you put the lid back to the bowl turning it upside down, this gesture implicitly indicates your feeling 'that the soup has tasted bad.'
Another reason is that patterns of the bowl should be protected from being scratched.

How to eat noodles:

Japanese people have a habit of sipping somen (fine noodles) and other noodles using chopsticks. They have no problem with the sipping sound unless it is made too noisy on purpose. But, when they eat non-native dishes such as pasta, they will not sip them, nor make any sipping sound, nor will they uphold a plate. They follow the local custom of the region; as the proverb says, "When in Rome, do as the Romans do."

Sound:

You should not make a sound with tableware. You should not make a sound keeping any food in your mouth. You should not chew with sound.

Dining with others

Basically, you should refrain from conversation while you are eating. As in common with other customs, it is disliked if anyone speaks with food in his mouth. Conversations are held when the eating is interrupted and you have nothing in your mouth.

When you have a dinner with a number of persons, you should be careful in your dining speed, in order not to finish remarkably earlier than others, nor to remain eating while others have finished. Thus, your eating pace should not be too different from that of the others. In common with foreign customs, it is considered a breach of decency to leave the dining table in mid-course.

Zashiki (a Japanese style guest room with tatami flooring)

When you have dinner in zashiki and other places where people sit on zabuton (traditional Japanese cushions), the layout of sitting positions of participants is decided to suggest implicitly their hierarchy (please refer to "Kamiza" [a seat of honor]). In many instances, the place farthest from the entrance of the room and nearest to decorations of hanging scroll and flower arrangements is called 'kamiza' where the highest ranked person or the most important guest may sit. Trampling down a zabuton cushion is considered more than a bit impolite.

The most recommendable way to avoid any trouble in the course of business is to show your name card or others to an usher who may guide you to the right place to sit down.

When you step in tatami-covered places, you must leave off your footwear such as shoes, sandals, and slippers. The custom of wearing footwear on a tatami floor is allowed only to the departed during their funerals, thus it is considered to be a bad omen. Besides, it is regarded ill manners to step on shikii (thresholds: wooden rails to slide shoji doors and fusuma panels) of shoji (a light paper sliding door) and fusuma (a heavier sliding panel). Therefore, you are required to stride over shikii rails consciously. These shikii rails are found on the borders of rooms and corridors.

Sake (alcoholic beverage)

At a prestigious dinner, sake drinks are served after completing a round of dishes or while waiting for dishes to be prepared. No sake drinks are served while taking main dishes. Despite being Japanese cuisine, there are some dishes that may be served together with alcoholic drinks, which are to be understood as informal with little relationship to formality.

While sake drinks are served together with a bit of foods, people may enjoy relaxing time to some extent by 'drinking and chattering pleasantly,' so that they may have no problem even if they are less anxious about dining manners so long as they enjoy sake drinking.

Remarks

Apart from prayers, Japanese people have a habit to greet each other at the beginning and the end of dining, saying 'Itadakimasu' (literally, "let me start eating") and 'Gochisosama' (literally, "I have enjoyed delicious dishes,") which custom is typical in Japan. Both expressions belong to a category of deferential language.

In Japan, even left-handed children are often required to use the right hand for chopsticks and stationery, and are corrected accordingly. This is because the education in writing Japanese letters and many eating utensils is specialized for right-handed persons. Since the modern age in Japan, however, people have increasingly viewed this custom of correction of children as fruitless. Also, there have emerged some appliances, though in small quantity, specialized for the left-handed. Nevertheless, lefty people remain a minority in Japanese society, so it may be necessary for them to predeclare their lefthandedness or request a special arrangement for a lefty.

These days, the number of Japanese restaurants abroad has increased. Accordingly, the number of foreigners with a sense of resistance against chopsticks has decreased. Also, recent advance of Japanese cuisine overseas is gaining foreigners' understanding of Japanese table manners.