In every culture, there are certain manners of dining that evolve and develop, becoming the basic etiquette when eating. As is the case, there are a few manners that are interesting to know when eating Japanese food, especially if you are visiting the country.
Comparison: Manners Between Japan and Overseas
Good table manners in one culture may be viewed with curiosity if done at the table of another. In an article like this, only broad comparisons can be made, but we highlight a few that illustrate the breadth of differences that exist.
In the U.S. the fork is customarily held in the left hand with the knife in the right when cutting food. Yet when eating, the knife is put down, the fork is passed over to the right hand for carrying the food from plate to mouth. In contrast, in Japan, many people cut their food in advance to make it easier to eat, while in the U.S., people cut their food as they eat it. At restaurants in Japan, people call out for the waiter, but in the U.S., people make eye contact and raise their hands slightly to draw attention.
What about in China, Japan's neighboring country? In China, there is no distinction between chopsticks for serving food and chopsticks for eating. They use their own chopsticks to pick up food that is on a common platter. Also, in Japan, it is common to eat all the food that you are served, while in China, it is polite to leave a little uneaten, as this shows that there was plenty of delicious food and that they are satisfied.
Korea is another East Asian country where both chopsticks and silverware are used. In Korea, chopsticks are used for eating side dishes, while spoons are used for eating rice. Another difference between Korean and Japanese table etiquette is that of making noise when eating. In Japan, it is generally considered bad manners to eat noisily, except for specific types of dishes. In Korea, eating noisily is a way of saying, "It's delicious," and gives a good impression.
In Europe, the French consider it bad luck to cross arms when clinking glasses for a toast. They will also insist on making deep eye contact with each person they clink glasses with. In Japan, purposeful eye contact with each individual at the table when clinking glasses may cause unease and may not be reciprocated.
Important Japanese Table Manners
Let's now take a look at some Japanese table manners. A feature of Japanese cuisine is that each dish is served as several separate dishes: you will have a bowl for rice, another for soup, yet another plate for your fish, pickled vegetables, and so on. With the purpose of ease of access and presentation in mind, each of these dishes has a proper place on the table as they are spread out in front of you:
- Rice: Brown or white rice (front left)
- Soup: Miso soup (front right)
- Main dish: Stir-fry or fried food (back right)
- Side dish: Pickled vegetables (middle)
- Side dish: Simmered vegetables (back left)
If sake (rice wine) is to be served, the rice is served afterwards, so the sake is placed where the bowl would usually be located. Also, normally, chopsticks are placed with the tip to the left because most people are right-handed. If the eater is left-handed, the chopsticks are placed so that the tips face right.
Traditionally, there is an order of eating each of these dishes as well, with lightly seasoned food being eaten first. This is because if heavily seasoned foods are eaten first, you will not be able to recognize the flavor and seasoning when you eat lightly seasoned foods later. With this logic in mind, people eat the gently flavored soup first, followed by rice, main dishes, and side dishes, in that order.
When you are served a hand towel in a Japanese restaurant, you will see some people wiping their faces, hands and forearms. Wiping your face and neck is common among men, but it is considered odd if a woman does the same. Oshibori, as the damp towel is called, is meant for wiping hands.
Another common faux pas is to stack plates in anticipation of the waiter to come take them off the table. Many people do this to make the waiter's job easier, but it is actually considered bad manners. If you stack them on top of each other, they may get dirty, so it is better to leave the plates as they are.
Having Fun with Table Manners
We all make the occasional mistake at the table, especially when in a foreign country. This is all a part of the fun of experiencing and learning about different cultures. In this article, we only introduced a very small selection of manners in Japan and a few other countries. Doing some quick research before visiting a country on their table manners will help you feel comfortable at the table and experience food as it is eaten in the host country.