Eating and Drinking Etiquette in Japan

Master the art of Japanese dining etiquette

Japanese dining etiquette is a blend of tradition, respect, and precision, reflecting the country's rich cultural heritage. Whether you're enjoying a multi-course kaiseki meal, sipping on sake, or grabbing a quick bite at a conveyor belt sushi restaurant, understanding the basic rules of eating and drinking etiquette in Japan can greatly enhance your dining experience. Here's a comprehensive guide to help you navigate the subtleties of Japanese table manners.

Before the Meal

  • Wash Your Hands: Cleanliness is paramount in Japanese culture. It's customary to wash your hands before sitting down to eat, and in some traditional eateries, you may be provided with a wet towel (oshibori) for this purpose.
  • Say "Itadakimasu": Before starting to eat, it's polite to say "itadakimasu" ("I gratefully receive"). This phrase expresses gratitude for the food and the effort that went into preparing it.

During the Meal

  • Handling Chopsticks: There are several chopstick etiquette rules to follow. Do not stick your chopsticks vertically into a bowl of rice, as this resembles a ritual for the dead. Avoid passing food directly from your chopsticks to someone else's, another action reminiscent of funeral customs. When not using your chopsticks, place them on a chopstick rest or on the side of your plate, not crossed over the top of your bowl.
  • Serving Yourself and Others: When eating from shared dishes, it’s polite to use the opposite end of your chopsticks or serving chopsticks provided to take food. Pouring drinks for others before filling your own glass is a sign of respect and camaraderie, especially when drinking alcohol.
  • Eating Rice and Soup: When eating rice from a small bowl, it's customary to pick up the bowl and bring it closer to your mouth. Similarly, it's acceptable to drink miso soup directly from the bowl, using chopsticks only to eat solid ingredients.
  • Soy Sauce Usage: When using soy sauce, avoid drenching your food. If dipping sushi in soy sauce, turn it so that only the fish part makes contact, preventing the rice from absorbing too much sauce and falling apart.

Drinking Etiquette

  • Starting to Drink: Similar to saying "itadakimasu" before eating, saying "kanpai" (cheers) with everyone at the table is customary before taking the first sip of your drink.
  • Serving Alcohol: In social settings, it's polite to serve others before pouring your own drink. Hold your bottle with both hands when pouring for someone else, and if someone offers to fill your glass, hold it up with one hand and support it with the other.

After the Meal

  • Finishing Your Meal: Try to finish all the food served to you as a sign of appreciation for the meal. Leaving large amounts of food uneaten may be considered disrespectful.
  • Saying "Gochisosama": After the meal, express your gratitude by saying “gochisosama” ("thank you for the feast"), acknowledging the host's or chef's effort in preparing the meal.

Additional Tips

  • Tipping: Tipping is not customary in Japan and can even be seen as rude. The exceptional service is part of the dining experience and does not require extra compensation.
  • Slurping Noodles: Contrary to Western table manners, slurping noodles is acceptable and even complimentary to the chef, indicating that you are enjoying the meal.

Understanding and adhering to Japanese dining etiquette not only shows respect for the local culture but also enhances your dining experience, allowing for a deeper appreciation of Japan's culinary traditions. Whether you're a first-time visitor or a seasoned traveller, these etiquette tips will help you navigate Japanese dining with confidence.