Every country has its own etiquette. When it comes to dining, Japan is no different. Let’s learn proper Japanese table manners so you don’t stand out too much when dining out in Japan and show respect for Japanese culture. 

What should you do? What is taboo? The hardest part is learning the proper way to hold chopsticks, but it is a great achievement especially when you receive praise and admiration from locals. Without further ado, let’s have a deeper look at each Japanese table manners.

Table of Contents

Giving Thanks Before and After the Meal

In Japan, with your hands clapped together as if in prayer, “ittadakimasu (いただきます)” is said before the meal, and “gochisousama desu (ごちそうさまです)” after the meal. These phrases are said to give thanks to those who participated in the preparation of the meal, from the chef who cooked the meal, to the farmers who have worked hard cultivating and harvesting the ingredients. 

In Japanese restaurants, “gochisousama desu” is also used in lieu of “arigatou gozaimasu (ありがとうございます)”, which means “thank you”, when leaving the restaurant. 

Wet Towel (Oshibori) for Cleaning Hands Only

In Japanese restaurants, a wet towel called “oshibori” and a glass of iced water or hot tea is usually served to customers after they’ve been seated at their tables. The wet towel is to clean your hands before your meal or throughout the meal if your hands get dirty. Under no circumstances should the oshibori be used to wipe your face, body or the table. If you made an accidental spill on the table, use regular tissues or call a waiter to assist. 

Note that it is not uncommon to see people wiping their faces and arms with oshibori, especially salarymen on their lunch break. This is not good manners and so should never be followed.  

The Right Way of Holding Chopsticks

Not hiding the truth, holding chopsticks the right way is difficult and requires lots of practice, but the results are worth it as holding chopsticks the right way can look elegant. You may even get praise by a local Japanese.

You hold your chopsticks beautifully
お箸の持ち方綺麗ですね
Ohashi no mochikata kirei desune.

How to Hold Chopsticks The Right Way

First, hold one of the chopsticks (⅓ of the way from the top) between the base of your thumb and index finger, resting the center of the chopstick on the first joint of your ring finger to hold it in place. The second chopstick, positioned above the first chopstick, should be held with your middle finger, index finger, and thumb as if holding a pencil. 

How to Grab Food with Chopsticks

The lower chopstick should not be moved, only the upper chopstick. With up and down movements of the upper chopstick, controlled by your middle finger, index finger, and thumb, you can bring the tips of both chopsticks together to pick food up. 

Chopsticks Etiquette and Chopsticks Taboo

There is proper etiquette when using chopsticks. Some improper usage of chopsticks can be considered rude, and some are considered taboo. 

The two biggest taboos when using chopsticks are hashi-watashi (箸渡し) and tate-bashi (立て箸), both of which are indicative of Japanese funeral customs.

Tate-bashi, which is sticking chopsticks upright in your rice, is a huge breach of etiquette. The image of the chopsticks sticking straight up from the rice greatly resembles incense sticks or joss sticks in a Buddhist funeral. Note that this is also a huge taboo in Chinese culture where Buddhism is also a major religion.

On the other hand, hashi-watashi, which is passing food from one pair of chopsticks to another pair of chopsticks, also closely resembles the Japanese funeral custom of collecting bone fragments into an urn after the deceased’s body has been completely cremated. Hashi-watashi in funerals is usually performed by the deceased’s bereaved family and long funeral chopsticks are used, which further explains the reason for the taboo – the similarity. 

Aside from the above two extremely taboo chopstick no-nos, the following are considered rude and should be avoided to not breach eating etiquette:

  • Stabbing food with chopsticks like using a fork, even if because of difficulty picking the food up
  • Cutting food with chopsticks, using one chopstick in each hand like a knife and fork
  • Using your chopsticks to cut food in half with a scissoring motion
  • Banging the bowl with chopsticks like playing the drums
  • Pushing food around with chopsticks looking for something you like
  • Using chopsticks to pull the plate or bowl to you, or to push it away from you 
  • Pointing at other people with chopsticks is very rude and will damage your relationship with the other person. It can also be dangerous. 
  • Shoveling rice into your mouth with chopsticks
  • Leaving chopsticks on top of rice bowl mid-meal, chopsticks should go on the chopsticks rest or flat on the table
  • Licking the chopsticks
  • Biting the chopsticks

Note that the bad etiquette of “shoveling rice into the mouth with chopsticks” is also commonly practiced by salarymen on their lunch break who are rushing for time and sometimes elderly men. Likewise, this is not good manners so avoid gaining this habit.  

Right Posture at the Dining Table

In Japan, maintaining proper posture whilst seated at the dining table is considered good table manners. Slouching at the table and resting your elbows on the table is bad table manners. And needless to say, do not ever sit at the table; families with young children be especially careful. When dining out at restaurants, do not allow your children to climb on chairs and booth seats with their shoes on as well.

The correct posture is to sit upright near but not touching the table. In Japan, there is also a belief that having a proper posture whilst dining is good for digestion and brings positive benefits to one’s health. At the same time, it is also good practice for maintaining good posture throughout the day which is good for your back and spinal health.

Lifting the Rice Bowl when Eating

Bringing the rice bowl, soup bowl, and small dish (okazu) bowl or plate up to your mouth is not bad manners, on the contrary, it is considered good table manners. For small plates, bowls and dishes, you can hold them in one hand whilst using chopsticks to lift the food to your mouth. This way, it prevents food or liquid from dropping on the table. If the plate or bowl is too large or heavy, do not force yourselves to lift it up as you may drop it. 

Slurping when Eating Noodle Dishes

 Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash

It is well known to many people even outside Japan that slurping on ramen noodles is considered good manners and a compliment to the chef. Not just ramen, slurping on noodles is also for udon, soba, tsukemen, and other Japanese noodle dishes. Note that we said Japanese noodle dishes! Slurping on pasta and spaghetti is rude! 

Slurping on noodles can be quite messy. Soup droplets will fly everywhere and may dirty your clothes. Many noodle restaurants offer paper aprons and rubber bands to tie up your hair. Ask the server if you require one. Slurping may be good manners, but doing so too loudly will bother the other customers, so do it at a moderate volume. If in doubt, observe the restaurant’s other patrons. 

An interesting thing to know about eating noodles in Japan is that most Japanese people usually only use chopsticks when eating noodles. A spoon, if provided, is usually used to drink the soup only. Quite rarely do people put noodles on the spoon and then eat the spoonful of noodles, this is apparently a more Chinese custom rather than Japanese. Additionally, many people do not even bother with using a spoon, simply lifting the bowl and drinking down the soup! 

No Leftovers

Leaving no leftovers is good table manners in Japan and part of the act of expressing gratitude for the food (refer ittadakimasu and gochisousamadesu above). It is also part of the Japanese idea that “leaving things behind is wasteful” which is frequently expressed with the phrase “mottainai (勿体ない)”. If you have no choice but to leave some food behind, perhaps due to a rush for time or cannot finish it, you should apologize for not being able to finish and express gratitude and thanks for the food. 

Returning Dishes and Tray when Dining (Certain Types of Restaurants)

In Japan, certain types of restaurants require customers to return their dishes and trays to a tray return area after finishing dining. Food courts, canteens, cafeterias, fast food restaurants, noodle shops, and some coffee shops are common restaurant types that practice this. Depending on the place, you may also need to separate your trash by plastic, burnable, and liquids/food remains. It is considered rude, selfish and inconsiderate to not do so. Some places also provide dust cloths or table wipes for you to clear up any spillage. 

Conclusion

Learning and practicing proper Japanese eating etiquette and table manners will bring you one step closer to embracing Japanese culture. For those living in Japan, it will make you feel so much more at home and not stand out so much as that “gaikokujin (外国人; foreigner)”. Impress your friends, coworkers, and most importantly yourself with your refined table manners that reflect the elegance of Japanese culture. 

One last thing, generally food-sharing is not a common practice in Japan, even during family home-cooked dinners everyone receives their own individual plated portions of food. However, the exception is nomikai (飲み会; drinking party) and similar events. During these events, serving chopsticks are sometimes provided for you to take food to your own plate. But if not, use the other end of your chopsticks to take food from the sharing plate and not the eating end. This is more so for hygiene purposes but is also considered an important etiquette. 

What does “ittadakimasu” mean?

It means “thank you for this meal” for a meal just served, or “I thankfully receive this meal”. 

What does “gochisousama desu” mean?

It means “thank you for the meal” after partaking in a meal. 

Is it okay to ask for a fork and spoon in Japan if I can’t use chopsticks?

Yes, it is fine. In fact, restaurant staff that sees you struggling with chopsticks may even offer alternative utensils of forks or spoons to you. 

How do I start learning to hold chopsticks?

Just buy a pair of cheap chopsticks and start with the correct holding method before slowly progressing to picking up food. Practice picking up small non-food items first, like erasers before progressing to real food. There are chopstick training tools available, usually targeted at children, and you can try them. Cheap 100 yen items can be found at Daiso. 

How do I know if a restaurant has a tray return area?

Look for “Tray Return” or “返却口”. 

Why do Japanese people slurp on noodles?

It is said that slurping on noodles makes them more delicious. For more practical reasons, it makes eating hot noodles easier. The action of slurping is said to cool down the noodles faster. Moreover, the slurping sound is a way of expressing the deliciousness of the noodle dish to the chef, but do this at a moderate volume in consideration of other diners. 

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