Top Dining Taboos in Japanese Table Etiquette
by Lyudmila Bloch, Business Etiquette Expert
The Japanese have a unique culture, as unique as their language, which is not spoken anywhere else in the world! Japanese culture is centered on politeness, overall respect for people, age reverence, gracious apology for wrongdoing, and living in harmony. It is so important for the Japanese to “do the right thing” that Japanese companies often offer to their employees training on how to “execute a perfect bow.” Combining a handshake and a bow is quite tricky, but it remains a common practice in the Japanese business arena.
Westerners, when eating out in Japanese restaurants, need to understand the basics of the Japanese dining etiquette and modern customs to avoid offending the Japanese by committing dining blunders!
If you don’t want to come off as a savage fool, but instead wish to be a grateful and refined guest at a Japanese establishment, be mindful of essential dining taboos and basic rules of Japanese table manners.
Upon the inception of your meal, when the food is served, join your hands in the “Namaste” gesture and say quietly, “Itadakimasu” – the phrase literally translates as “I humbly receive.” The gesture is an expression of gratitude for the collective efforts made by many in growing and preparing the meal you are about to consume. Most Japanese restaurants in New York City provide single-use (or disposable chopsticks) and a small dish for your soy sauce. High-end establishments offer fancy (polished and decorated) chopsticks to their guests.
Gently serve yourself a bit of sauce by pouring a small amount into your dish. It is considered rude to pour soy sauce directly over the white rice, or to use an excessive amount. Dip your sushi into the soy dish, and then bring it to your mouth for one or two bites. Don’t hover over your dish. When eating rice or soup, you are allowed to bring the entire bowl closer to your mouth so that you don’t spill any food. Slurping noodles, especially ramen or soba, is common but not a universal practice in Japanese dining etiquette. However, it is considered rude to burp at the table unlike in some other Asian cultures like Chinese or Korean, where it can be received as a sign of satisfaction. Similarly, nose-blowing in public is a serious offense, especially at the table.
If you wish to share your food, first you must place a morsel of food onto a small plate and then pass it to another person. Do not pass the food at the table from chopsticks to chopsticks – it’s a very offensive gesture because when a family is sifting through the ashes after the cremation, the Japanese handle the bones of the deceased in a similar fashion.
Never plant your chopsticks in a bowl of rice -- in the Japanese tradition it resembles the burning of incense sticks at a funeral. Instead, lay your chopsticks on the chopsticks holder or at the edge of your individual plate.
Westerners who eat, drink, and walk at the same time offend the Japanese. Rarely (or never) will you encounter a Japanese person gobbling down his food while riding subway or another form of public transportation. Unfortunately, in the New York Subway System this repulsive practice is commonly seen, especially among younger people who persist in this behavior without any regard for others.
At the dining table, do not pour yourself a drink but rather serve others at the table. Another thoughtful person should pour your drink for you when you are finished serving. Avoid saying “chin-chin” when toasting; instead, raise your glass and say “kanpai.” The Italian “chin-chin” toast in Japanese refers to “male genitals,” and has no relation to toasting at the dining table.
At the end of the meal, thank the chef by saying “Gochisosama deshita!” —Thank you for this great meal!