While in Japan, it’s a good idea to be familiar with customs and taboos regarding manners; you always want to leave a good impression! Although most Japanese are happy to excuse small mistakes in etiquette here and there, why not try impressing those around you with your knowledge on their culture.
There are a few dos and don’ts regarding Japanese customs and—with a little practice—they’re easy to remember. Here’s a short guide to aid you along your journey to dining like a pro.
After you’ve sat down to order, you’ll be given an o-shibori, a type of wet towel. Whether it’s wrapped in plastic or directly presented for you on a dish or by server’s hand, these washcloths serve the simple function of cleaning your hands before and during your meal. Simply take it out of the wrapper, unroll, clean, and place it make on wrapper or tray.
As can happen in Japan, food orders will arrive for one person at a time. If you’d like to let the people with you it’s all right if they start without you, you can say, “O-saki no dozo,” which means, “Please, go ahead.” Remember to begin the meal with “Itadakimasu,” which is a polite way to say, “I receive.” If you’re in a formal setting, you can bow slightly in front of your meal with your palms pressed together."
Chopsticks can be a challenge if you’re used to forks, knives, and spoons. Don’t be afraid! Once you get the hang of it, chopsticks can be relatively easy. The base chopstick is held immobile by your ring finger and the base of your thumb; the top chopstick (the one that moves) is held more like a pencil between your middle and index finger. It may sound complicated, but give it some practice and you’ll get used to it.
When you receive disposable chopsticks in restaurants, you simply break them apart. Most are good quality and shouldn’t splinter. If they do, refrain from rubbing the ends together as this is generally poor manners in Japan and you won’t see any Japanese people do this.
If you find that you’re having trouble handling chopsticks, don’t be embarrassed to ask for a fork or spoon. Don’t use chopsticks like a skewer. You may occasionally see someone do this but usually it’s bad manners—or even childish! If you gesticulate while you speak, be sure to put your chopsticks down first; pointing at other or even waving chopsticks around is seen as a rude gesture.
Try holding your rice bowl in your free hand while eating with chopsticks. Rather than leaving it on the table, this method allows you to avoid dropping rice on the way to your mouth. Just be sure to keep a little distance from you mouth and not shovel directly into your mouth from the side of the bowl.
When you set aside your chopsticks, put them on the hashioki (chopstick rest) or just next to your bowl horizontally. Never stick your chopsticks vertically into your rice as it’s a part of the Buddhist funeral ritual of offering food to the deceased. Let’s just say, it’s offensive at mealtime.
Another Buddhist ritual involving chopsticks is the taboo of passing food to another person, chopsticks to chopsticks. This act is used during funerals to pick up bones from the cremated ashes of the deceased and pass them to one another before transferring the bones into an urn. If you want to let someone try your food, place something on their plate or let them take it directly for your plate. Another method is to use the “wrong end” of your chopsticks to pass things.
Sushi can be eaten by hand, but you’ll usually receive chopsticks. Like most sauces in Japan, soy sauce is supposed to be used in moderation. Smothering your sushi in soy sauce not only kills the natural flavors but it also turns your rice to mush. If you’re not sure what to do, watch others and do as they do.
While it’s common courtesy to not slurp soup for most westerners, the rule is different in Japan. In Japan, slurping your soup and noodles is no problem; it helps you eat the noodles while cooling them down a little so that you don’t burn yourself. You’ll hear slurping all over the place in noodle restaurants. If the noodles are still too hot for you, use the soup spoon to let them cool down first.
Remember though: slurping is all right but smacking lips, burping, and other eating sounds are poor manners. Do be careful if you’re a loud eater.
Unlike eating where it’s okay to eat before others (if they say it is), it’s important to wait until everyone is served at a drinking party. There is usually a ceremonious kick off to begin the drinking after which everyone lets out a hearty “Kampai”; this “Cheers” actually means “empty glass.
Instead of pouring your own drink, it’s customary to pour for others if the alcohol is delivered in bottles. Pouring for another person is a kind and respectful gesture and will usually get them to pour for you. If, instead, you don’t want to drink it’s okay to say so. Most restaurants offer non-alcoholic beer or soft drinks, tea, and water.
After you’ve enjoyed your food say “Gochisosama deshita” as thanks for the meal. You can even gesture as you did at the beginning of the meal with a slight bow and palms pressed together. Many people will even do this when dining alone.
Tipping service in Japan isn’t necessary and sometimes even frowned upon; staff might even follow you out of the restaurant to return the money you “forgot”. Good service goes without saying and is included in the price and wages.
You’re all ready to tackle basic Japanese table manners now. So, go out there and enjoy some amazing Japanese cuisine!