Japanese Dining Etiquette and Table Manners

by Flora Baker

Dining Etiquette in Japan

Respect is an important aspect of Japanese culture, and it’s most clearly seen while dining. Children learn the rules of Japanese dining etiquette early on in life – you won’t see them playing drums with their chopsticks no matter where you look – and by following this polite behavior you’ll be respecting your fellow diners, the chef preparing the meal, and Japanese traditions as a whole. 

Seating  

If you're dining in a traditional restaurant, you might encounter low tables (chabudai) with cushions placed on tatami mat flooring. This may be instead of Western seating, or in addition to it. You'll need to remove shoes and slippers before stepping onto the cushions. 

Dining table on a traditional tatami mat.

When sitting down, you can either choose a cross-legged position (if you’re male) or tuck both your legs to one side (if you’re female). The traditional sitting position, called seiza, is expected in more formal settings with respected elders, but this can be uncomfortable for some. It involves kneeling with your back upright, heels tucked beneath you, and hands resting on the thighs.  

Positions around the dining table may be carefully orchestrated too, designating the ranking of each guest, and is used particularly in business settings to show respect. Protocol indicates that the guest of honor sits at the kamiza, usually in the middle of the table and farthest from the entrance. If there’s an alcove in the room - a tokonoma - then the guest of honor sits in front of it. The lowest ranked guest sits closest to the entrance. 

Before you start the meal, hot towels (oshibori) will be provided. These are only used to wipe your hands prior to eating, though – don’t use them on your face or neck! 

Drinking 

Toasting at the start of a meal is traditional in Japan. When everyone has received their drink, you can salute the table with kampai! - the standard Japanese cheers - and a raised glass. 

Alcohol choices at dinner are typically beer or sake. Make sure to empty your glass if the host does, and never pour your own drink but instead wait for your fellow diners to do this for you. 

Remember too that it’s considered impolite to get overly drunk at a Japanese meal – unless that’s the general consensus. With Japanese alcohol etiquette, you can imitate the behavior of other guests. 

Of course, you’re not required to drink alcohol. Other common choices are tea, juice, and carbonated drinks. 

Eating 

Before commencing with your meal, you should say itadaki-masu. This translates to ‘I humbly receive’, and is both a polite and humble way to express thanks for the food and those who’ve prepared it. If the chef is present, you may hear the reply ‘douzo meshiagare’, which means ‘please help yourself.’

Most Japanese dishes and condiments are served in bowls, like these beautiful Sakura bowls, and have etiquette rules to be followed. Some of the most important to remember are: 

  • Soup and ramen: Because it often contains lots of solid ingredients, you should use your chopsticks to eat soup or noodles – and slurp at the liquid too! 
  • Miso soup: For miso, you can drink the liquid like you’re sipping from a cup
  • Rice: You can lift the rice bowl towards your mouth and use chopsticks to eat.
  • Soy sauce: You’ll be given a small shallow bowl specifically for your soy sauce. Pour a modest amount into the bowl, ensuring you’ll use it all. Dip your food into this bowl instead of pouring soy sauce onto your food directly. If there are any stray grains of rice in the bowl, please eat them quickly, as it’s not appropriate to leave them in there!
  • Wasabi: Though it might be common in Western culture, mixing wasabi into your soy sauce bowl is impolite in Japan. Instead, brush a small amount onto the sushi or fish with your chopsticks.
  • Sushi: You might be surprised to hear that eating sushi with your fingers is happily accepted in Japan - if you’ve cleaned your hands using your hot towel!  
  • Nigiri: Nigiri should be dipped into soy sauce once it's been turned upside down, so it’s the fish that touches the soy sauce. It can also be eaten with your fingers.
  • Sashimi: Like nigiri, dip your sashimi directly into the soy sauce – but use your chopsticks for this.
  • Ginger: This should be eaten separately as a palate cleanser, not in the same bite as sushi.

Where possible, eat a piece of food with just one bite, instead of taking a bite then placing the morsel back on your plate. You should also try not to raise your food above your mouth as this is considered impolite. 

Wonderfully enough, slurping your noodles is considered a sign of enjoyment in Japan, so feel free to get enthusiastic with it! 

Chopstick Etiquette in Japan

Chopsticks are usually the only utensils used at a meal. As they’re replacing knives and forks, treat them in the same manner: don’t rub them together, point them at people, stab them into food or rice, or generally play with them. 

Dining table on a traditional tatami mat.

Though it might be tempting, don’t rest chopsticks on the edge of your bowl or on the table itself. You’ll be provided with a chopstick rest instead, or use the paper holder they’re initially packaged in. Keep them parallel instead of crossing the chopsticks over in an ‘X’ shape too. 

Though it might seem logical, you must never pass food with your chopsticks directly to your friend’s chopsticks. Called hashi watashi, it’s reminiscent of a funeral ritual - and thus cannot be imitated at the table during dining. 

There should be communal chopsticks available to move food from serving dishes to your own plate, which successfully avoids cross-contamination. If none are provided, you can use the thicker top ends of your own chopsticks to serve yourself with. 

If the amount of Japanese chopstick etiquette worries you, never fear: You don’t actually have to use chopsticks! The Japanese are understanding of Western culture and the use of forks isn’t impolite if you need to eat with them. Ceramic spoons are also sometimes used for eating soup, and for serving meals with a certain amount of liquid involved like Japanese-style curry rice or donburi bowls. 

Table Behavior

It’s considered rude to leave food on your own plate. This is due to a crucial concept of Japanese culture known as mottainai – to feel regret at wastage. Ensure that you only serve yourself with food that you’re certain you’ll be able to finish; otherwise, leave food on the serving plates. 

If any food falls from your chopsticks or the serving plate, simply let it lay there –don’t try to catch it with a cupped hand. 

No burping or blowing your nose at the table. Don’t munch your food loudly or eat with your mouth open. 

End of the Meal 

At the end of the meal, return all dishes to their original state: this means replacing their lids, and putting chopsticks onto their rests or into the holders. 

You can express a formal thank you by saying “gochisosama deshita” (thank you for the meal). 

Whoever made the invites is the person who pays the bill. If that’s you, place the money onto the small tray you’re provided with instead of handing money directly to your server where possible. Tipping isn’t customary, although if you feel the desire then 10% is sufficient. 

How to Dine Like the Japanese

Eating like the Japanese is a great way to show appreciation for their culture, and you can also sample plenty of Japan’s most delicious snacks at Bokksu Boutique! Why not try a Japanese subscription box - or pick up a beautiful Sakura sake set to accompany your next Japanese dinner?