A Beginner’s Guide to Japanese Table Manners

06 February 2020 by 7c2351084a95c1d2ef22a204c7bd59c7ac47bbb8 img 9823 Selly

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If you’re planning a visit to Japan anytime soon, you’re going to have to make some room in your belly! Japan offers some of the most deliciously unique food in the entire world - which means when you visit, you’re going to be eating a lot! 

But before you head to Japan, it’s a good idea to get familiar with some basic Japanese table manners. While you may feel like you know how to behave at the table already - what’s considered polite or acceptable in your home country may differ from the norm in Japan. 

No one wants to be “that foreigner” when visiting Japan, so let’s take a look at some aspects of Japanese table manners you may not be familiar with!

Use Your Wet Towel For Your Hands Only

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Most restaurants in Japan will bring you a wet towel - called an oshibori - just after you sit down to eat. This towel is intended for washing your hands only - so try not to wipe your face, mouth or the table with it. Keep in mind that while you may see some locals wiping their face with their own oshibori - this is still considered poor form at the table. If you absolutely have to wipe your face, be sure to do that first, then your hands! 

Saying “Thank You” Before and After Your Meal Shows Gratitude

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In Japan, it’s common to place your hands together - as if in prayer - and express your gratitude for your meal before and after eating.

Itadakimasu!” is said before you dig in. It can casually be translated as “Let’s eat!” - but traditionally it is meant to show your appreciation towards life, nature and those who put the effort into feeding you. 

Gochisou sama deshita!” is said after you’ve finished eating. It’s often casually translated as “Thanks for the food!”, but in its more traditional sense, this phrase is used to express your gratitude directly towards those who have provided you the meal. 

You will often hear customers exclaim “gochisou sama!” as they leave a restaurant, thanking all of the staff members for providing them with a meal. If you really enjoyed your food, try it yourself for some bonus points! 

Hold Your Rice Bowl While Eating

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Japanese set meals - or teishoku - come with several smaller dishes that make up one delicious experience! 

Your set meal will almost certainly come with a warm bowl of rice. When eating your rice, it’s proper form to lift the bowl itself up towards your mouth. In most western countries it’s considered rude to lift your bowls off of the table - so this is just one example of how western and Japanese table manners can differ. 

Doing this is meant to maintain good posture - but don’t worry, you don’t have to lift up heavy bowls of ramen, udon, or beef bowls! 

You may see some locals keep their rice bowl in one hand throughout the meal, holding it under their mouths as they eat the rest of their meal, or placing their meats and vegetables on their rice to get the perfect bite. 

Slurping Noodles and Soup is Okay  

In Japan, the subject of slurping remains divisive to this very day. While noisy eating in general is considered rude - especially in social situations - just like it is all over the world, when eating noodles or drinking hot soups, locals will certainly be slurping. 

The reason behind this seems to be two fold. 

Firstly, it’s practical. You obviously can’t casually sip on steaming hot miso soup or green tea, so slurping allows you to enjoy while it’s still hot without burning your mouth. Besides that - when it comes to noodles, it’s not very pleasant to bite off your noodles - letting them fall back into your bowl - around others. So slurping is the only proper way to eat them. 

The other reason is for flavor. Especially when it comes to dishes such as soba - or Japanese buckwheat noodles - slurping up the noodles allows you to enjoy all of the aromatic components 

that go into making the dish so special. It’s kind of like enjoying a nice glass of wine - slurping simply allows you to savor the entire experience! 

Never Stick Your Chopsticks Into Your Rice 

While eating in Japan you’ll notice that locals always place their chopsticks resting flat across their bowls of rice - never allowing them to stick straight out from the bowl - this is considered incredibly rude in Japan! 

Placing a bowl of rice with chopsticks sticking straight out is often done as an offering to the dead - either at funerals or in front of the shrine of a loved one at home. Invoking images of death is definitely something you’ll want to avoid at the dinner table, don’t you think?

It’s even considered to be bad luck - so while as a foreigner you’ll probably get a pass, be sure to keep this in mind to prevent any mixed messages or uncomfortable situations for those around you. 

So there you have it - just a few important tips to keep in mind while eating in Japan. Nothing too crazy, right? 

Are there any odd table manners from your country that others should know about? Or, do you have any accidental table manner horror stories from your first trip to Japan!? Let us know in the comments below! 

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