Why is it so important for tourists and long-term visitors to Japan to know about table manners? That question has a simple answer: it’s because the Japanese put much more emphasis on formality and proper public behavior than Western cultures do. So when in Japan, it is doubly important to “do as the Japanese do” especially when it comes to table manners.
The “Big Ten” Facts to Know about Table Manners
Even before learning about details about how to properly eat sushi, how to use chopsticks correctly and dozens of other sub-topics on the general question of etiquette, any complete Japan guide should explain the “big ten” table manner pointers for visitors. If you only have enough time to scan the basics, make sure to learn these very basic etiquette rules for dining in a Japanese restaurant or home:
Before taking even a single bite of food or sip of liquid, be sure to say “ee-tah-dah-kee-mas.” This important Japanese etiquette word literally means, “I am receiving this food/drink gratefully.” All Japanese people say this before dining and you should too. This single effort on your part will show that you took time to learn the basics of Japanese table manners.
Don’t bring your food to a level above your mouth. This is a sort of subtle rule, but the locals follow it strictly. For various reasons, it is considered highly rude and impolite to bring food-filled chopsticks to nose, eye or even forehead level, so avoid doing so. Many visitors are unaware of this basic etiquette point, which is why we’re including it in our Japan guide as one of the big ten rules.
When you drink soup, always gently lift the bowl up to the level of your mouth and sip from it. This, of course, is against most Western rules of etiquette, but it’s important for the Japanese. If the bowl is too hot to hold, wait a while for the soup to cool, or if possible you can put your hands around the rim and lift it. However you manage it, just make sure not to eat the “Western way” by using a spoon to bring the soup to your mouth.
Do not pour a drink for yourself. Let someone else do it. Likewise, when you spot a glass that is less than half-full, be sure to fill it for the other person. In Japan, drinking is considered a group affair, and people help each other. If you forget and fill your own glass, your Japanese friends will possibly think that they have let you down. So make every effort to fill the glasses of others and let them fill yours.
Here’s a little-known etiquette rule but one that should be in every comprehensive Japan guide to table manners: Do not mix soy sauce and wasabi. It’s just not done and is a matter of Japanese tradition. Avoid this embarrassing mistake and you’ll fit right in with other Japanese diners.
Sushi enthusiasts might already know this rule, but many don’t: Always eat your sushi in one bite. Don’t take two or, heaven forbid, more than two bites to eat a piece. There are all sorts of detailed historical reasons for this etiquette practice, but suffice it to say that the “one bite” rule is something of a golden rule in Japanese sushi dining.
Clean your plate, as many of us Westerners were told as children. In Japan, it is a huge sign of respect for food to finish everything on your plate. Try to get every single grain of rice, piece of meat and shard of vegetable. The more completely you vacuum it all up, the better.
Another rule for sushi lovers: When dipping, make sure that you only put the meaty part of the sushi in the sauce. This is a little-known rule for most Westerners, but Japanese follow it closely. Impress your Japanese friends by knowing how to properly eat sushi. Remember the “one bite” rule above, and never put anything but the meaty side in the soy dipping sauce.
Use “table” chopsticks to take something from a common plate. If there are none, you can use the opposite end of your own chopsticks. This rule actually makes sense. Even in Western dining, we never use our own forks, knives or spoons to take something from a serving dish. The Japanese do the same, so always be sure to use the common chopsticks for serving-dish food.
In Western cultures, we have various ways to thanks the hosts, including such phrases as, “Gee, Aunt Lucy, that was a wonderful meal,” or “Wow, Mom, that was great.” But we really don’t have anything to say at restaurants. The Japanese do.
After any meal, they say, “Go-chee-so-samma-desh-ta.” It literally means, “Thanks for the meal,” and is used in private and public situations, even when the “chef” or preparer of the food is not around. But in restaurants, it’s common to say it to the owners/staff on the way out so that they know you enjoyed the food.
There you have it: a basic Japan guide for eating and following the etiquette rules at the same time. It helps to practice working with chopsticks before heading to Japan, and it’s also wise to study up on the finer points of table etiquette before arriving. Now, on to the specific rules about table manners for anyone visiting Japan, whether as a short-term guest or as a one- or two-week visitor.
A Helpful Resource
While researching Japanese table etiquette, I discovered a very helpful book called “Etiquette Guide to Japan: Know the Rules that Make the Difference!” In it, the authors explain every conceivable situation that a visiting business person might encounter in Japan. A complete Japan guide an indispensable resource, the book discusses how to handle business cards, how to behave during meals and informal meetings, and many other useful tips for those who have never been to Japan on business.
Beyond the Big Ten: What Not to Do
Sometimes it’s easiest to learn about something by finding out what not to do. This negative approach works well with table manners and etiquette for a general Japan guide like this one. With that in mind, here is a listing of things you should not do while dining in Japan.
No “catching”: Don’t “catch” falling items of food from a table where you are eating. This rule is not very well-known among non-Japanese, but it very important. If something falls, let it fall. This also applies to small bits of food or liquid that might fall onto the table top. In Western cultures, we tend to catch these with our hands to avoid staining a nice tablecloth. In Japan, you just don’t do it. Let what falls go its own way.
Don’t speak in a loud voice: Especially in restaurants and on public transportation, Japanese people speak in a normal or lower than normal voice. It’s a crowded country, so people make an effort to not disturb each other’s personal space. While dining, make sure to speak normally and not yell or call out. It’s not about silence, but about the modulated speech.
Don’t violate the rule for shoes: Some eating establishments, primarily higher-priced ones, will offer slippers for guests. This means you are expected (required, actually) to remove your shoes before entering. Be aware as you enter a restaurant what the practice is. If you notice a large pile of shoes out front, be ready and willing to remove your shoes.
A companion to this rule is that you should never, ever go outdoors in your stocking/bare feet and then return inside. The Japanese view this as you bringing dirt into the room where you return. If you need to go outside, for whatever reason, during a meal, put your shoes back on in the assigned area, leave, and then remove your shoes again when your return. Strictly speaking, this is not categorized as “table manners,” but restaurants have rather strict policies about shoes, so be sure to abide by whatever the house rule is.
Also be aware that if you eat in someone’s home, you will most definitely be required to remove your shoes. For tourists, it’s wise to always wear socks when you go out to dinner or dine in someone’s home. That way you won’t have to expose your bare feet to the elements or put your bare feet into slippers that might not be completely sanitary.
Don’t use your teeth to “cut” food: This means you shouldn’t use your teeth to yank food apart. Always try to put the food piece into your mouth and chew it. Don’t use teeth to break off a piece of food you’re holding in chopsticks or on a fork. If you have a large mouthful of food, it is okay to use your hand and cover your mouth while you chew. But using teeth for any purpose other than closed-mouth chewing is a big no-no.
Don’t put shells where they don’t belong: This refers to the fact that shellfish are quite common in Japan, and the shells are to remain in the bowl with the uneaten ones as your meal progresses.
Avoid the urge to turn the bowl’s lid upside down (a separate problem and which should be avoided altogether) and put the shells in it as you eat the shellfish. Instead, when you complete a clam or a piece of lobster, put the “used” shell into the bowl with the fresh pieces. Then remove a fresh piece and eat it, repeating the process. This goes against both Western cultural practices and logic, but it’s the way the Japanese do it and you should follow their rules while in their country.
Don’t hold chopsticks before picking up a bowl of food: The general principle is this: pick up the bowl first, then the chopsticks. When you need to change bowls, lay down the chopsticks first, then put the used bowl on the table. Next, pick up the “new” bowl and finally, pick up the chopsticks again. There’s not much rhyme or reason for this rule, other than that it is the way Japanese people eat. So, follow the leader!
Don’t put chopsticks on a bowl: It’s tempting to place chopsticks across the top of a bowl but is a no-no in Japanese dining. A comprehensive Japan guide for table manners should note that chopsticks should be rested on a small “rest” provided. If there’s not one, simply use the chopstick wrapper as a rest. What if there’s no chopstick wrapper? Then use a tray or some small item on the table as a rest.
Don’t eat two side dishes in a row: Always eat some rice between side dishes, and try to avoid hovering your chopsticks over the side items as you decide which ones you want. Though little-known among Westerners, this is actually one of the worst etiquette breaches you can commit during a Japanese dinner. And of course, never “stab” food with a chopstick or play with your chopsticks in any way.
One of the best ways to avoid breaking the etiquette rules during a Japanese dinner is by watching the locals. Do what they do, and don’t do what they don’t do. It is easier said than done but is a sure way of abiding by the complex set of social customs known as Japanese table manners.
Special Rules for Special Occasions
Table manners are different for tea ceremony than for typical dinners. Japanese people learn these manners when they are children and it all becomes second nature to them by the time they’re adults. For visitors, it helps to know the basics of table manners even for tea ceremony, mainly because every tourist experiences tea ceremony at least once while in Japan.
Here are some additional rules that are not covered above, primarily about tea ceremony, but also about how to start a meal, how to sit down, and what to do before meals (besides saying “itadakimas”).
Japanese tea ceremony is an ancient ritual whose main goal is to promote social cohesion and calmness. In most tea ceremony arrangements, guests sit on tatami mats on the floor, even though most locations will offer a cushion for those who ask. As soon as you take your shoes off, be sure to place your feet directly onto the tatami mat, not back on the floor. This minimizes the presence of “impurities” in the room.
Enter the tea ceremony main room and bow to each guest already in the room. Just a small bow, not a big one, is all that’s required. You will be shown where to sit. Remember not to speak, look around at others, or shake anyone’s hand. Just sit down and remain silent for the time being.
Someone will bring around the very small cakes, called okashi, and you will be expected to know how to eat it. Here’s the trick: even though it’s a tiny cake, use about three or four small bites to consume the entire thing. But when you lift the plate, only bring it to your chest, not higher. Be very, very careful not to let crumbs land on the floor or on your body. Any crumbs should end up on the plate. When your cake is gone, gently set the plate back down onto the table in the same location from which you lifted it.
The teacup will be placed in front of you. Now is the time, before you touch the cup, to bow to anyone who has not yet received their tea. Bring the cup up to your chest’s height, as you did the cake, with your right hand. For a few seconds, remain still. Do nothing.
Then, slowly turn the cup in a clockwise direction twice, moving it about one-quarter of a turn on each movement. Consume all the tea in a few sips. When the tea is gone, reverse the way you turned the bowl, in a pair of counter-clockwise turns this time. Set it down on the table and bow as you turn your body toward the woman who served you the tea.
In large groups, it’s alright to chat in a low voice with others who are waiting to get their tea, as long as you are not loud or boisterous in any way. The key thing is to maintain the peaceful nature of the room. Small, friendly chit-chat can help do this, which is why it is allowed. After all members of the group have had their tea, everyone will turn toward the hostess, bow, and then leave the room.
Be careful not to confuse tea ceremony with ordinary tea time in Japanese homes. These events are not formal, and simply involve a tray full of hot tea in cups, maybe a few different kinds of sweets, and warm towels for everyone.
Before Meals, Being Seated and Beginning to Eat:
If you are given a warm, moist towel, be certain to use it only for wiping the hands, not the face. Also, use the towel before, not after, the meal.
Sit on the floor with your feet underneath your buttocks, but if the host or hostess recommends that you “make yourself comfortable,” then it’s okay for men to sit with their legs crossed and for women to put their legs to one side.
In homes and private rooms at restaurants, your host will sit in the middle of the table, on the side closest to the entryway of the room. The guest will sit directly opposite the host, in the middle of the table’s far side (farthest back from the entryway).
Before and after meals, you need to say the traditional Japanese words which mean, “Thank you for this meal I’m about to eat,” and “The meal was wonderful.” Those words are “itadakimas” and “gochisosama-deshita.” Listen to them spoken online several times so you can pronounce them correctly.
Follow the host for signals about the speed of eating and drinking, when to toast, when to tell jokes or stories, and when the meal should come to an end. When it comes to handling chopsticks, imitate your Japanese friends and host or hostess. Be sure not to ever wave chopsticks, play with them, use them to move items on the table, or allow them to touch someone else’s chopsticks at any time.
When the meal is over, keep in mind that the person who arranged the event and invited you is the one who will be expected to pay for everything, unless other arrangements were made and explained in advance. You’ll notice that the person picking up the check will not tip, except in a few restaurants that have the custom. Most Japanese restaurants do not expect tips. In the very few that do, the standard amount for a tip is ten percent of the total bill.
Dining in Japan is a much more formal affair that it is in Western cultures. Even so-called casual meals in Japan are more steeped in tradition and special rules than a formal meal in the West. Of all the daily activities that fill the time of an average Japanese person, meals are the most regimented and controlled by custom.
That’s just one reason it is helpful to read about Japanese dining etiquette before you travel. Basic knowledge of table manners will go a long way toward fitting in with the local culture and will show your hosts that you have taken time to learn about their country and their ways. There can be a no bigger compliment.