Japanese food is known the world over, but Japanese table manners are something that has been known to cause even the most confident tourist to break out in a sweat of nervousness. While most of the time you probably won't offend anyone, there are some elements of Japanese table etiquette that need to be carefully followed because of their cultural significance.
In this blog, we'll try to help you feel more comfortable by giving you the key things to watch out for when you're eating in Japan, including chopstick etiquette. We'll explain why certain practices are frowned upon, as well as teach you why other methods are the norm.
Aside from sushi, the first thing that often comes to a westerner's mind when thinking about Japanese food is probably 'chopsticks'. Much of the concern about Japanese table etiquette comes from these utensils, not least because they are unlike the accepted cutlery combo of knife and fork in the west. Here are some important things to avoid when it comes to chopsticks:
Don't rub your chopsticks together. You've seen people do it in the movies, but it's only ever done in Japan to remove splinters from cheap chopsticks. Doing this shows the host that you think their chopsticks are of poor quality - and that's something you want to avoid doing!
Don't point at people with your chopsticks. The same goes for general gesturing with your chopsticks. It's considered pretty rude to use chopsticks as an extension of your hands in this regard, so take note if you're an expressive speaker. While you're at it, make sure that you don't play with them like drumsticks either.
Don't stab food with your chopsticks. This might sound a bit on the obvious side, but even if something keeps slipping from your chopsticks, resist the urge! Japanese food is often served in bite-sized parcels to allow you to pick it up easily in the first place. If you're struggling with using chopsticks, check out our step-by-step chopstick guide for some advice!
Don't lick or suck your chopsticks. Aside from looking a bit silly, it's considered rude to lick or suck your chopsticks to 'clean' the extra bits of food off.
Don't pass food from your chopsticks to someone else's. This is a big one, and you should avoid doing this at all costs. In Buddhist funeral proceedings, the bones of a cremated body are passed between family members with a special pair of chopsticks before being placed in an urn. If you do this at the dinner table, it can be very unsavoury.
Don't let your chopsticks stand in your food. Like the previous point, this also has connotations with traditional Japanese funeral rites. If you have to put your chopsticks down mid-meal, make sure you put them in a chopstick rest (hashi-oki) or by the side of your dish.
Japanese Table Etiquette
Alongside knowing your chopsticks from your drumsticks, there's also more general table etiquette to consider. Japanese dining culture is pretty different when compared to more western countries - you can compare with Swissotel's interactive worldwide etiquette guide
Here are some of the key things to look out for when dining in Japan:
Make sure you start well. Wash your hands with the wet towels, or oshibori, that are often provided at restaurants. Wait until everyone's order arrives, and before eating say "itadakimasu!" ("I gratefully receive").
Don't pour your own drink. It's polite to pour someone else's drink, but not your own. Let someone else pour yours - everyone else at the table is trying to be polite too!
It's always polite to finish every last mouthful. The Japanese Shop's Co-Founder Jez Willard notes that he would endeavour to eat every last grain of rice at each meal, as it's considered respectful to the farmer that grew it. Knowing that some Japanese food might seem like quite an acquired taste, give your tastebuds some practice with some beginner sushi recipes beforehand to avoid an awkward moment or two!
Never refuse sake. You know when you were younger and refused a biscuit from your friend's mum…and it was seen as quite polite? That's not how it works in Japan - accept the sake and drink it after a hearty declaration of "Kan-pai!"
Now you know the most important elements of Japanese table etiquette as a guest, you should look into the art of Japanese table setting
as a host, complete with some authentic Japanese tableware
. While you're at it, you should branch out and look at our helpful guide on Japanese lifestyle etiquette
- there are customs that extend far beyond the dining table!