Japanese Dining 101
When it comes to etiquette at the dinner table, Japan has its own unique traditions. The best thing you can do to prepare yourself is to come ready to learn with an open mind and humble attitude.
On a trip to Japan a couple years back, I found out that even “trying” to seem polite at the dinner table—doing my best, playing by all the rules I’ve ever been taught in Western culture—wasn’t enough. But that’s ok, because I was willing to learn! All the best teachers tell us that there is no learning without failure. So please, heed my story and save yourself a little bit of embarrassment. With a positive attitude, you might just learn a thing or two about Japanese culture along the way.
It all started when I reunited with an old college friend of mine, Hiroshi. Hiroshi now lives in Tokyo, and a few years ago when I was passing through, we decided to meet for dinner at a restaurant. After sitting at our table, the server offered us a wet towel, which I immediately used to dab off my forehead and found it to be a refreshing reprieve from a particularly warm and humid day in Tokyo. That was my first mistake.
Throughout the meal, I was my usual animated self: hands gesticulating wildly as I spoke, pointing at this and at that on the table with my chopsticks, sticking my chopsticks directly into my food, pointing them in Hiroshi’s direction when I wanted to emphasize a statement. Turns out, this was another big faux pas. As our various courses of sushi came out one after another, I poured soy sauce directly onto our nigiri, held the various pieces up in the air to admire the craftsmanship and attention to detail, and even used my fingers to pick up a stray piece of sashimi that had slipped out of my chopsticks and onto the table.
My friend was gracious enough to gently point out these missteps in a discreet way, taking care to explain why things are done a certain way in Japan. Here’s what I learned.
Cleanliness Above All Else
That moment when I took a wet towel from our server and used it to cool my brow? Not ideal. Most restaurants begin the meal with some sort of hand towel or hand washing ritual as a way to cleanse before eating. Wiping your face with the towel is considered bizarre and not hygienic. And if a piece of sushi rolls off your plate—by no means should you snatch it up with your bare fingers and put it in your mouth.
Chopsticks are Symbolic
Many of us view silverware as means to an end—the things you use to get food from the plate to your mouth. But in Japan, chopsticks are far more wide-ranging. They’re obviously used for eating and while cooking, but they’re also used in a number of funeral traditions. It’s important when using your chopsticks to lay them down neatly (preferably pointing right to left) on the holder. One must never stab them upright in a bowl of rice, cross them on your plate, or use them, as I did, in conversation by pointing at your dinner companion. All of this behavior is considered bad manners, and in some instances would be very upsetting to your table mates or other restaurant guests.
Food is a Sign of Respect
There are deep culinary traditions in Japan that don’t necessarily translate to Western culture. The skill and expertise it takes to prepare dishes like sushi or noodles is something that is deeply revered in Japanese culture. That’s why the polite thing to do is to finish everything that is placed before you. To leave something uneaten could be considered impolite to your host or chef.
Treatment of your food itself is something to consider. Doing what I did and dousing your sushi with soy sauce while lifting it above your mouth to get a glimpse of the underside is seen as disrespectful. By that same token, slurping your noodles both enhances the flavor and signifies your respect for the chef’s work. While other cultures show gratitude by verbalizing our thanks to the chef and perhaps leaving a large gratuity; in Japan, the act of eating itself—how you literally handle the food in front of you—can be a sign of respect.
Go with the Flow
When in doubt, take a breather and look around. If there is ever any uncertainty about how to enjoy your meal, the best thing you can do is follow the lead of those around you.
Ultimately, you have to approach dining etiquette in Japan with the tacit understanding that the occasional well-intentioned flub or mistake is inevitable. I was lucky enough to have a dinner companion who saw the humor in the error of my ways, and gave me the grace of explaining not only how things are done differently, but why. It ended up being one of my most memorable nights in Japan—because after all, learning about how people live in other places is one of the best parts of travel.