Living in Japan means eating Japanese food. Working for a Japanese company means the occasional after work get-together. You’ve made it all the way here, to Japan, the last thing you want to happen is being labeled the “weird guy/gal” who has bad table manners. With some knowledge of Japanese manners you can successfully navigate your way around any kind of dining situation. Some table manners are universal: elbows off the counter, don’t talk with your mouth full, etc., but some are unique to the Japanese culture and are rooted in the religions and utensils. Here are some tips to make sure you won’t get those awkward stares when going to your next pub (居酒屋, izakaya) or party (飲み会, nomikai).
Chopsticks, the Main Tool
These two sticks of wood or plastic are the things keeping you between enjoying a meal and starvation. Okay, maybe a bit of an over-exaggeration but most Japanese food is eaten with chopsticks (箸, hashi). There are stores that will give you the option of a spoon but 99.99% of restaurants will give you chopsticks unless you specifically ask for silverware. Here are four “don’ts” for handling chopsticks:
– Don’t point: Pointing with silverware in Western culture is common, like motioning towards food or people with forks. In Japan, it’s quite rude to stick your chopsticks in the general direction of someone. Actually, pointing in general, whether with chopsticks or a finger, is considered rude, so if you would like to address someone specifically, motioning with an open hand is the proper way.
– Don’t pass: Passing from chopstick-to-chopstick is considered rude. In most cultures passing fork-to-fork or spoon-to-spoon is also never done. The chopstick-to-chopstick pass is considered especially rude because it is part of a ceremony during a funeral. The ceremony follows after the body is cremated and the family members of the diseased will separate the remaining bones from the ash. When there are numerous relatives and a lack of bones multiple people may hold the same item or pass from chopstick-to-chopstick so that multiple relatives can share in the ceremony. So the trading of pot-stickers like a loved one’s bones can and will irk people.
– Don’t stab: This one is mighty tempting, especially when you have to eat something large like a chicken breast and aren’t provided a knife. In Western cultures eating a large piece of meat usually means cutting it into small slices and eating it piece by piece. But in Asian countries, like Japan, that use chopsticks, if you can’t cut it with your chopsticks like scissors it is acceptable to bring the whole piece of food to your mouth, and bite it multiple times.
– Don’t flip: While eating at parties with communal food trays you might want to flip your chopsticks around to use the fat end that hasn’t yet touched your mouth (avoiding “double dipping”), but this is improper etiquette. If chopsticks aren’t provided for distributing the food, like a serving spoon, it is perfectly fine to use your chopsticks to transfer something from the communal plate to your personal plate. But when taking something from the communal plate don’t put it directly into your mouth. Directly eating from the communal plate is considered a breach of etiquette.
Table Etiquette and Handling Dishes
With chopsticks in your dominant hand the question of what to do with your other hand depends on the type of food you are eating. When handling ramen, or any other food that comes in bowls, the most useful place to put your hand is on the side of the bowl. This way you can use the chopsticks with a shoveling type motion towards the side of the bowl and the other hand stabilizing the bowl so to make a mess. What not to do with your free hand is to hold it under your food (手皿, tesara, “hand plate”) to catch the accidental drop, which is common in Western cultures. While things do have a tendency to fall through chopsticks you should be leaning forward so that your droppings go back to the plate and not your lap. In a situation where you are given a small bowl of rice it is common to cup it in your non-dominant hand (it can also act as food catcher).
When eating ramen, or any other Japanese noodles it is okay to slurp the noodles and in ramen restaurants is a sign of you enjoying your food. Just don’t expect that to be the same with “foreign” food, like Italian spaghetti. With foreign food, using foreign silverware, foreign table manners do apply. If you slurp spaghetti like ramen, prepare to get some strange looks.
Eating Out and About
One habit that was personally hard to break was eating and/or drinking while walking. Whenever I got a drink from the vending machine or a pre-wrapped sandwich I would eat while walking. It just seemed practical. As I explored Japan I became aware of old guys in front of convenience stores chatting and drinking canned coffee, and schoolgirls munching crepes in front of the food stall, not moving until they finished eating. I also noticed the lack of garbage cans on the street corners. The reason I found was that it is nice to show the cook you are taking time to enjoy your food not just grabbing it to-go for necessity. It also removes the need to have public garbage cans at every turn. This is one nicety of the Japanese dining etiquette that is not normally talked about but can be seen everywhere. Sometimes people stare at you not because you’re a foreigner but because you are stuffing a sandwich into your mouth while trying to catch the bus.
As visitors to other countries, we assume that “whatever we do back home is fine here”, but at times that can lead to bad results. Some countries have what seem to us, odd, even weird rules. When in doubt it is always best ask, or to look around and see what everyone else is doing. That old saying “when in Rome, do as the Romans do” applies even in Japan… and the Romans did not slurp their spaghetti!
Software Engineer and Blogger
Usually coding, writing, or exploring Japan.
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