Japan Study Abroad Network - Support & guidance for studying in Japan > Guide to Living in Japan: Eating Etiquette
japanese_food

Given that Japanese cuisine has been designated as UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage and that Japan has the largest number of Michelin Star restaurants in the world, Japanese food is indeed world-renowned and loved everywhere around the globe, and most of all by its own people!

Japanese people are natural foodies and love to explore new cuisines and latest trends, however it’s fairly safe to say that no matter how far out that curiosity takes them, there will always be an undying appreciation and attachment for their own cuisine, especially Japanese cuisine in Japan. For anyone who travels to Japan as well, food will surely be a highlight of daily life, so when it comes to dining out at restaurants or at a home with Japanese people, it will be important to know what kinds of rules of Japanese Eating Etiquette Japanese people live by.

Every country and culture will have some rules around eating, which have been passed down through the generations and taught as the more courteous and respectful “best practices” to follow. Although some of these practises are a bit more commonsense universals, with its long history and rich culture, Japan presents some rules of eating etiquette which are unique and counter-intuitive to non-locals.

Japanese Eating Etiquette

Japanese Language Communication

If there is one thing that will help you when eating in Japan, it will be to remember the key Japanese phrases around food. The phrases range from the absolute necessary itadakimasu!, which is perhaps similar to saying “Grace” in Japan, to all of the survival Japanese phrases which you should know so that you can effectively order and communicate when at a Japanese Restaurant or dining out with friends. Being able to communicate in Japanese at restaurants is an imperative, as most Japanese restaurant staff anywhere in Japan are not prepared to speak English or any other language besides Japanese, and in most cases will expect (or hope) that you can speak Japanese.
At the very least, print this guide out or aim to remember how to say the following expressions in Japanese, and you can dine like a local in Japan:
  • Itadakimas(u)
    Let’s dig in! Literally meaning “to receive from above”, this is like saying “Grace” in Japanese.
  • Kampai!
    Cheers! (traditionally only with alcohol)
  • Gochisou-sama deshita
    Thank you for the lovely meal! (You can say this to the restaurant staff when leaving, and/or to your friend who made the food or paid for your meal. You can also use this to simply signify that the food was good even if you are paying your own way.)

Other general food & drink expressions:

  • Oishii des(u)
    It’s delicious.
  • O-naka ippai
    I’m stuffed.
  • Dou deshita ka?
    How was it?
  • Oishikatta des(u)
    That was delicious!

Survival Japanese for dining out at restaurants:

  • Ichi / ni / san / yon mei desu
    For 1 / 2 / 3 / 4, please.
  • O-mizu kudasai
    I’d like some water, please. Alternatively, you can say o-hiya kudasai for when you would like ‘a glass of cold water’ specifically. Don’t use o-hiya with friends or someone hosting you as it is used as a customer and will therefore come across as impolite in personal situations.
  • O-susume wa nan des(u) ka?
    What do you recommend?
  • Jaa, sore hitots(u) onegaishimas(u)
    In that case, I’ll get one of those, please. (used with above recommendation sentence)
  • Kore (o) hitotsu* kudasai
    I’ll get one* of these, please. (When you choose on you own)
  • O-kaikei onegaishimas(u)
    I’d like the bill, please.
  • Ikura des(u) ka?
    How much is it?
  • Kaado tsukaemas(u) ka?
    Can I pay by card? / Do you accept credit card?
  • Reshiito/fukuro wa irimasen
    I don’t need the receipt / a bag.
  • Gochisou-sama deshita
    Thank you for the lovely meal!

Reference: Numbers for counting

1 – hitotsu | 2 – futatsu | 3 – mittsu | 4 – yotsu | 5 – itsutsu | 6 – muttsu | 7 – nanatsu | 8 – yattsu | 9 – kokonotsu | 10 – Juu-ko | 11 – Juu-ichi-ko | … etc.


Chopsticks: The Dos and Don’ts

Chopsticks are the main method of eating in Japan, and there are many important and traditional rules to follow when using them. If you are not feeling confident in your ability to use chopsticks, it is not frowned upon to ask for a fork and knife and may save you some stresses. That being said, using chopsticks is the best way to get better, and if you know the rules, you can save yourself from some awkward moments regardless of your level of mastery.
  • Know how to hold and handle chopsticks. Some housekeeping that goes a long way is to know the traditional ways of holding chopsticks.
    Chopsticks
  • Don’t leave chopsticks in your rice.
    chopsticks
    When putting your chopsticks down, put them on the hashi-oki (designated or created “chopstick rest”) or across your bowl or plate’s edge and never sticking in the rice itself, as this is done at funerals to signify the offering to the dead and is thus disrespectful to do in other situations. In the case that you are eating noodles, however, you can leave your chopsticks in the bowl of noodles.
  • Don’t lay them to rest in a crossed position, always lay them side by side. Whether across the bowl’s edge or down beside your bowl or plate, they chopsticks should never be crossed.
  • Don’t pass food from chopsticks to chopsticks. Instead, place the food down on the plate for your friend, or offer your friend to pick up the food directly by him or herself.
  • Don’t stab food with your chopsticks, use just one chopstick, or use one chopstick in both hands. In the latter situation, although it can be difficult to split food, you are supposed to split food with two chopsticks in one hand by moving the chopsticks apart.
  • Don’t point at food or people with your chopsticks.
  • Handle like you would utensils and don’t do things like drum or tap on the table, or use for other purposes unintended of them.
  • Don’t rub them together to take the splinters out. Rubbing your chopsticks together indicates that they are cheap and can therefore be taken as impolite. In some cheaper fast-food places, however, you might be able to get away with this, but otherwise avoid it or be highly discrete when removing any loose wood fragments.

Don’t be wasteful & Picky

There is an expression in Japanese that you can hear fairly often, which is mottainai, which can be translated to “What a waste”. When it comes to food, Japanese people are especially sensitive to waste and there is even an expression and traditional belief in Japan that “seven gods live in one grain of rice”.

Needless to say, being wasteful of food is frowned upon, so it is important not to order more than you can eat. Indeed, at times when Japanese people misjudge or overestimate the amount that they and the group can order, you will often see valiant effort to finish everything, sometimes to the humourous point of feeling uncomfortable.

Eating the last of your rice

Related to not wasting food and the traditional belief in the value of a single grain of rice, Japanese people tend to try to eat down to the final grain of rice in their bowl. For many non-Asian people, this might seem difficult or frustrating to pull off, especially when the rice is not dry and sticky.

The way that you do this is by picking up the bowl and holding it in your non-chopstick hand, then tilt the bowl toward you and with the sides and tips of your chopsticks scoop all of the rice together at the side closest to you. If there is still quite a little bit you should to pick up more by tilting the bowl toward yourself and closing the chopsticks on the rice from the sides. The final bits of rice can be eaten by holding the two chopsticks together and scooping the rice into your mouth directly from the side of the bowl.

Avoid substitutions

In Japan, it is common to avoid customization of your order. Although there is a saying that the “customer is God”, in Japan there is another belief which is that the company creates the rules and procedures and the customer must follow them. It is for this reason that after entering a restaurant that is full, you may be instructed with a straight face to wait outside until you are called, despite the cold rainy weather. In general, Japanese people respect the rules and menu as it has been created by the establishment and instead of customization, asking for personal treatment, or complaining directly to the restaurant, will order a different item on the menu or choose a different restaurant altogether which serves according to their preferences.

Serving others

Pouring drinks

For those who don’t know, in the case of alcohol, there is a tradition in Japan that you shouldn’t pour your own drink. This applies most strongly when:
  • the alcohol is in a large bottle being shared by more than 1 person,
  • the group contains people that are less familiar or when the occasion invokes a bit more formality or courteousness, and
  • when the members of the group vary in age or are generally older.
That is to say that when you are drinking with a close friend and you are drinking from a bottle which is only yours, there is less likely to be a call for the etiquette of pouring for one another, especially around the younger generation.

Serving others in general

In general, there is a still a culture that the younger pour for the older, subordinates pour for superiors, and that women pour for men, even among friends, although the latter tradition is changing, especially among the younger generation.

As such, when you go out with friends in Japan, you might notice a female friend pour water or serve food around for everyone else, and not really the other way around where a man pours for a woman. Because the rule is not so strict, when this happens among friends, it is likely more out of habit or from a personal desire to be kind or accommodating than a sex-based obligation. And although in Japan, just as it is in many countries around the world, Japanese women have a lower average income than Japanese men, the culture of a female pouring for a man is arguably more of a courteous tradition than overt discrimination.

As a foreigner in Japan, this is one point of etiquette that you are not expected to follow, although pouring for others can be used at your will as a way of demonstrating appreciation, kindness, or respect. Even among Japanese people, it is a refreshing gesture of kindness when a man pour for a woman, and a person of a higher or longer-standing position at a company pours for a newer member of the company, as this stands out as a deliberate reversal from tradition.

Slurping

Although the kind of slurping sound omitted by a straw can disturb others, especially as it relates to Japanese Manners in confined or shared spaces, the kind of slurping that comes from slurping noodles however is an important aspect of eating noodles in Japan and is actually preferred to not slurping.

Likely to be an amusing and strange situation for a foreigner who enters a ramen restaurant in Japan for the first time to find him or herself sitting among the constant sound of slurping, it is the perceived as polite in Japanese society to slurp as it is the best way to eat the noodles while they are fresh and tasting the best because the slurping cools the noodles as they enter your mouth.

Other forms of slurping, like when drinking soup is met with a bit more ambivalence than with hostility as it still applies ‘the rule of the noodle’, which is that you are slurping because you want to enjoy the food while it is hot and fresh, and tastes the best.

Sharing

In Japan, as is the case in many Asian countries, it is much more common to order a series of dishes and share them than for everyone to order their own dishes by default. Furthermore, if you and your friends do order separate dishes, it more common to offer and share a small portion with others, especially when the friends are familiar and the group is generally small.

When there is a dish that is being shared with others, it is advisable to follow the following guidelines:
  • Use designated sharing utensils where available.Depending on the people you are with, there might be someone with a particular sensitivity to sharing using personal utensils. When the group is larger, situation is more formal, or in any situation where there is doubt, it might be better for someone to ask the shop staff for an extra pair of utensils.
  • Use the reverse side of your chopsticks.Although it is a little less common, it is traditional and acceptable to turn your chopsticks around and use the large ends of the sticks for picking up food from a sharing plate. This is especially used as an alternative to asking the shop staff for extra utensils, either out of interest of time or in situations where you are not in a restaurant. For example, at a picnic in the park with your coworkers.
  • Typically, seniors are given first dibs.People who are older or in a higher position are usually either served by the younger or subordinate others, or are offered to dive in before to take their portion before the younger or subordinate others.
  • Go when the coast is clearIt is considered common courtesy to wait for the opportunity to take your food when no one else is doing so than for two people to be taking their portions at the same time from a shared plate. This is especially the case at times when the chopsticks might touch (which is a no-no) or when there is a concern one might take something that another person was planning on taking.

No tipping

In case you didn’t already know, Japan is very much a non-tip country where tips are not expected or even accepted anywhere. In fact it is if you attempt to tip at a restaurant, you may find a server running after you believing that you forgot your change, and where it was seemingly deliberate, servers will apologize and refuse to accept it.

Getting it ‘to-go’

In Japan, although it may be possible to order good to go from the get-go, it is not normal to ask to get dine-in orders packaged up to-go. The reason for this fits in with the idea of not ordering more than you can to begin with, as well as not causing extra work for others due to your special circumstances.

Don’t walk & eat

Despite the fame and abundance of Japanese vending machines and convenience stores on every corner, it is frowned upon to eat while walking, which is considered to be ‘low-class behaviour’. This belief relates to the Japanese way of thinking that is ikai ichi dousa or “do one thing at a time”; that to do many things at once is to not do any one thing properly or thoroughly. In some cases, like walking and eating in sacred places like temples, it would be considered disrespectful. Instead, it is considered appropriate to drink next to the vending machine, in front of the convenience store (or inside where you can sometimes find seating), or to bring your goods to your workplace or home before opening it.


The Guide to Living in Japan Series

Whether you are thinking about moving to Japan, are already living in Japan, or are just curious about what is life like in Japan for Non-Japanese people, the Guide to Living in Japan aims to be as thorough as possible about what to expect and what to prepare for when living in Japanese society from a mostly western perspective.

Should you have any questions or comments while reading through, please contact us. We aim to continually update and improve this resource for everyone.

Read more articles in the Guide to Living in Japan:



Japan Study Abroad Network - Support & guidance for studying in Japan > Guide to Living in Japan: Eating Etiquette