I just watched a Japanese tv program on differences between people. One section of the program introduced the Japanese audience to people who can’t sip noodles, and according to the program’s research on subject, apparently around 15-20% of Japanese don’t know how to sip their noodles. After this wonderful discovery, this educationally supreme program introduced the way how anyone can learn how to sip – and afterwards, we got to see some touching footage when some of the people who couldn’t sip, learned to do that.
After watching this informative program, I talked with my Japanese friend about table manners. He wasn’t surprised to hear that it’s considered rude to sip in my home country – what he was surprised about though, was that it’s not okay to talk with mouth full of food. In Japan, talking while eating is perfectly normal and talking with your mouth full is not considered rude. Actually, if you are tasting something the first time and wouldn’t comment anything on it before gulping it down, the Japanese people accompanying you might actually get worried and think you don’t like what you’re eating. Remember to always utter some kind of compliment on the food as soon as you can (but please be careful not to choke).
That aside, I’m unfortunately not going to tell you how to sip your noodles today. Instead of that, I’m going to tell you about some important Japanese table manners.
- I think this should be a no-brainer but hold both chopsticks with one hand.
- You shouldn’t take food meant for sharing with your own chopsticks. There are cases where there’s no option but if you’re not eating with close friends/family, in principle, you should always pick up food with the chopsticks no one is eating with (called toribashi). In cases where there are no communal chopsticks available, it’s sometimes recommended to take food with your own chopsticks, using the end of chopsticks you’re not using for eating. However, this is actually an “officially” recognized manner either: it’s becoming more and more common among young people but there are still many older people who won’t be happy if you do this.
- Don’t dig into food with your chopsticks to find the best pieces.
- Don’t hover your chopsticks over the food, wondering what to eat. This is called mayoibashi, “hesitating chopsticks”, and ending this in taking nothing is called sorabashi, literally “sky chopsticks”.
- Don’t move food from chopsticks to another chopsticks.
- Cut your food by holding both your chopsticks in one hand. I sometimes see people cutting, i.e. meat with chopsticks holding them like a knife and fork. I don’t really mind if people violate manners but this makes me grin a bit since it’s actually a lot more easy to cut food with both chopsticks in one hand.
- Playing with your chopsticks as if they were drum sticks. Okay, don’t get angry, this one is meant for a joke. At least I hope so.
- Even if there are big pieces to eat, don’t bite it in half and return the another half to the plate. This is usually accepted when eating with family or friends but when eating in restaurant or in a otherwise more formal situations, you should either eat the pieces in one mouthful or cut it with chopsticks before placing it in your mouth.
- Don’t pierce food with chopsticks. I sometimes pierce tomatoes at home though, apologies for my rudeness.
- Don’t stick your chopsticks to your rice (or other food either) and leave them standing there. This only looks good in pictures, believe me.
About the rice bowl
- Hold the rice bowl up with your hand when eating. This applies not only to those moments when you eat the rice but also to when you eat okazu, side dishes served with the rice. If you don’t already know, in Japan, rice is considered the main dish whereas meat, vegetables or whatever served along the rice are actually side dishes.
- Even though you should hold your rice bowl pretty much all the time, if you’re not eating a donburi (dish that already has something on top of the rice) you shouldn’t pile food on top of your rice. Take a piece of food with your chopsticks, hold it over your rice cup and eat it.
- Eating rice between different side dishes is considered an important manner. Since the main dish is rice, it would be weird if you just kept on eating the side dishes like meat all the time, right? To be honest with you, I actually break this rule quite often myself and will keep on breaking it: I sometimes don’t even order rice when I eat yakiniku (meat you cook by yourself in the middle of the table), since I want to save all my hunger for the delicious meat.
- Not leaving a single grain of rice is considered good manners here. However, Japanese people are kind so they will probably understand if you can’t eat everything and will most probably say you should leave some and not push yourself. No one is happy if you overeat and feel horrible afterwards. However, what I think this is common sense pretty much anywhere is that you should, in principle, always eat all the food you have served by yourself.
- If serving rice by yourself, always take at least 2 scoopfuls. One is only served in Funeral and is considered bad omen if practiced elsewhere. If you have very small appetite (or you’re not hungry), remember that it’s enough if you just take rice two times – no one is telling you how much rice you should take in one scoopful.
About everything else
- Don’t move any plates by dragging them along the table. Always pick up the plate you wish to move.
- I think this is a no-brainer but it’s considered rude to catch falling food with your hands.
- Burping is considered just as rude in Japan as in many other countries as well.
- Saying itadakimasu before eating and gochisousama after finishing eating are not only good manners but also show that you have studied on Japanese culture before your visit. These words are a bit difficult to translate shortly but they show your appreciation on food and that is always a good thing to show in Japan. I guess you could say that Gochisousama is somewhat equal to “thank you” in West.
- Blowing your nose is considered rude, not only in the table but also in other public places. If you want to make sure you won’t make a bad impression on anyone around you, blow your nose only in places where you get some privacy – like your home, hotel room or a toilet.
Also, last but not least, I’ll tell you a secret. You might have heard you absolutely should not do something and it’s a complete etiquette faux pas but in reality, Japanese people are doing the exact same thing everyday and they wouldn’t care less you did it too. There are even some misunderstandings of things that are actually good manners – so read on.
What is actually okay:
- Mixing wasabi in soy sauce. You shouldn’t pour soy sauce over your rice but it’s perfectly okay to mix wasabi in it.
- Taking the sushi neta (whatever is on top your sushi rice) off with your chopsticks, dipping it in the soy sauce, returning it to over the rice and eating the thing. This is officially against manner rules but pretty much everyone does it, especially in cheaper sushi restaurants. Be careful in the better places though – if the neta doesn’t easily come off, you should not take it off. Picture below is an example of sushi you would be better off dipping as it is.
- Holding chopsticks before picking up your rice bowl. Really, no one cares.
- The say you shouldn’t rest chopsticks over your rice bowl and always use a chopstick rest or something similar instead. I see Japanese doing this daily so I really doubt anyone will think you’re being rude if you do it too. You might be able to impress Japanese by following this rule though but if you’re not interested in showing off your knowledge on the etiquette, feel free to forget this rule.
- You can use your hands for eating some foods like sushi. Also, if there’s anyone here wondering how to eat hamburger or pizza with chopsticks – stop worrying. Western dishes are often eaten as they’re eaten in the West too so you can use your hands for hamburgers and a fork and a spoon for spaghetti.
Lastly, you should know that many of the rules above don’t apply when eating with close friends or family. They don’t seem to apply in some University parties either, at least after the alcohol has started to have effect. You should always pay attention to the situation and look around – what manners are the people around you following? Of course, if you are unsure about the situation, the safest bet is to go with what’s considered good manners. Also, as much as I wouldn’t want to say this, if you’re a female, you might want to pay attention to table manners a bit more. Japan is still rather old-fashioned in this matter.
P.S. I know some of you are unbearably curious about that sipping lesson I talked about earlier so I’ll tell you how to do it. Purse up your lips, inhale with your mouth, then exhale with your nose. Repeat this 5 times and then try sipping water 5 times, exhaling with your nose after each sip. You should apparently be able to sip after this (but don’t blame me if it doesn’t work).
P.P.S. You don’t actually have to sip your noodles. Japanese people sometimes say sipping makes noodles taste more delicious but the biggest reason for sipping is simply that if you don’t do that, you can’t eat the hot noodles fast enough and they will get soggy (and all your colleagues will have returned to the office before you are even halfway your noodles). Nevertheless, saying that eating without sipping is an etiquette faux pas is a complete misunderstanding.