If you’ve read up on Japanese table manners you’ll realize that most people generally say
the same things. The problem is that some of these ‘rules’ are not always followed in
Japan, and in some cases Japanese people have never even heard of them!
So today I’m going to go over a couple of these outdated rules,
as well as a lot of other things.
Now I’ll never be able to cover every situation, so what I’m going to talk
about is what’s common in normal, everyday situations with your friends co-workers,
or host family.
I’ll start with meal preparation.
If you have your purse with you you should never set it on the table.
The floor is considered very dirty in Japan, even though they don’t wear
their shoes inside.
Since your purse sits on the floor, it’s inappropriate to set it on the table.
It’s okay to place on a chair or the floor, though.
If you’re homestaying, the family may ask you to help prepare the meal or
set the table.
As is common in most places most people don’t care about proper place-setting.
Just make sure to place each family member’s chopsticks at their usual seat.
Also, it’s not unusual for Japanese people eat their meal without drinking
anything, either, so don’t be surprised if they don’t want anything to drink.
In that case they’re probably waiting until after the meal for tea.
In Japan, if it’s not practical for everyone’s meals to be served at the
same time, they may ask you to starting eating first so that your food doesn’t
This happens frequently in restaurants, where food is typically brought out as it’s
made and not altogether.
Before you begin eating, at home or at a restaurant,
you should say ‘itadakimasu’.
some people put their hands together in a praying motion but this isn’t always
At the end of the meal you should say ‘gochisousama deshita’.
If someone took you out to the restaurant,
you should say ‘gochisousama deshita’ either once everyone has finished
eating, or once the meal has been paid for.
While eating your chopsticks should go in your right hand,
and small bowls or plates, like rice, soups, side dishes, etc,
should be held in your left hand
with your thumb on the edge of the bowl, and your four fingers underneath.
Bring the bowl up to your mouth while you eat so the food does not drop onto the table.
It’s considered bad manners to bend your head down to your plate.
That way of eating is said to resemble a dog.
Many meals will have a shared dish that everyone eats from.
Traditional rules say that you should use the back end of your chopsticks to
take food from this dish since it’s the most sanitary,
but in reality most people don’t actually do this.
Whether you should do this or not will really depend on people you’re with.
In fact, if the main meal is nabe, which is a pot dish,
some families may dump their bowls back into the nabe pot at the end of the meal
and then use the remaining sauce for a meal the next day.
But don’t worry! If your host family does this they shouldn’t ask you to eat it,
and if they do they will probably be understanding if you decline.
As for eating sushi!
There are many types of sushi, but the two most familiar to Westerners are
sushi rolls and nigiri.
Nigiri is rice, called shari, and a topping, called neta.
When eating nigiri, traditional rules say to dip only the neta in soy sauce.
However, these days no one really cares how you dip it in soy sauce.
Shari first? That’s fine!
In fact, at some modern restaurants, they will ask you to conserve soy sauce by
pouring it directly onto the sushi.
This is the case at my favorite kaiten-zushi, or
conveyor belt sushi restaurant, Sushiro.
Traditional rules say you should eat sushi in one bite.
However, if your mouth simply is not big enough to eat the whole thing at once,
you can either cut in half of your chopsticks, or just bite half of it off.
It’s more rude to shove too much food in your mouth,
so don’t force yourself to eat the whole thing at once!
If you don’t think you can bite it off without making a mess
and if you’re not good at cutting things with your chopsticks,
you can try my method, which is using both hands.
Whenever you use both your hands with chopsticks it’s considered a bit childish.
But if you’re not in a formal setting,
or since you’re a foreigner it’s usually not a big deal.
Poking through your food with chopsticks is also considered really childish,
so do your best to try to pick them up even if it’s really slippery.
Burping in Japan is considered extremely rude.
If you have a runny nose you should leave the room to blow it.
Men will often snort or sniff to avoid having to blow their nose.
It’s pretty gross, especially when you’re trying to eat, but they’ll do it anyway so
don’t be surprised.
So, what do you do if you don’t like the food your family made for you?
Well unfortunately you’re in a really tough spot, because it’s very rude to not eat the
food someone made for you.
If someone is inviting you over for a meal,
they’ll probably work out the main dish with you beforehand so they don’t accidentally
make something you hate.
However, what if you’re homestaying and your family’s making normal meals every day?
Well, to be honest you should really do your best to eat it.
If you have a food you absolutely cannot eat, it would probably be best to find a
good time to mention it to them before they accidentally make it.
If you absolutely cannot confront them with a food that really kills you
then you can also consider telling them that you’re allergic.
It’s not ideal but it is done from time to time.
Other tricks coming from someone who is a picky eater:
Do your best to eat as much as you can and then say you’re too full to finish.
It’s not THAT rude to not finish a meal, if it’s just an occasional occurrence.
If you’re with a friend you can also try to work out having them finish your food
for you. For example, if I can’t finish my meal, my husband will eat it for me.
I also always give him my mushrooms.
Or, if you absolutely have to refuse you can say
‘sumimasen, chotto (food name) wa nigate de’
Which roughly translates to,
‘I’m sorry. About this food, I can’t really…’
Oh, and don’t worry! No Japanese person is going to expect you to eat natto!
No matter what you shouldn’t give your host family a whole list of foods you don’t like
because this will give them a really negative image of you.
Being picky about anything here is bad,
and it’s especially rude to inconvience others with your food preferences.
Eventually they’ll come to view you as someone who always complains about things,
which is one of the worst things you can do about your image in Japan!
But, as always, it’s okay to make mistakes because we all do!
And if you’re not sure what rules apply with the people you’re with, just ask!
If there are any other table manners you’re curious about, or if you have any
comments or questions, leave them in the comment section below!