In our Season 10 Episode 5 of the Nihongo Master Podcast, we covered a topic that is on one of the top Google searches when it comes to Japanese etiquette: table and dining manners. We bet it was the food of Japan which got a fair few of you interested in the culture in the first place. 

While we covered a bit of this in our Season 1 Episode 11: The Picture of Politeness, this episode goes into further details of eating etiquette as well as drinking etiquette in Japan! This article is a recap of the topics discussed in the episode, so check the full episode out for more in-depth information!

Eating

As soon as you sit down at a table in a restaurant in Japan, you’re going to be served with an oshibori (お絞り, wet towel). These are provided to customers to clean their hands. You get a cold one in summer, and a hot one in winter! Now here’s your unofficial first tip: only use the oshibori to wipe your hands, and not anywhere else like the face!

If you stick to these three table manners for eating, you’re not going to totally come across as a gaijin at restaurants in Japan. Promise.

1. Chopsticks

Chopsticks take up a crucial chunk in Japanese dining etiquette. If there’s a poster for it, chopsticks will be the main graphic. One of the big-time Japanese dining rules is to know your way around the ins and outs of proper chopsticks usage. If you can work a pair of chopsticks, you’re about halfway there — you just have to keep in mind the acts that are strict no-go’s. 

Say you’re at dinner with a couple of friends and decide to share a few dishes. Your own pair of chopsticks are considered dirty, so dipping directly into shared dishes and sauces is frowned upon — it’s similar to passing food from one pair of chopsticks to another. Instead, use the serving utensils or a separate pair of hashi. But if you absolutely can’t avoid it, use the back of your personal chopsticks instead.

While some groups of friends will overlook that last rule, there is one chopstick custom that is essential: never stick your chopsticks upwards in a bowl of rice. That’s because this is the way rice is offered to the dead, and it also resembles sticks of incense at funerals — not the most pleasant image to have at the dinner table, don’t you agree?

2. Bowls

The next eating etiquette has to do with dishes and bowls. Food is often served one at a time, rarely all at once. Most of the time, waiting for everyone’s meals to arrive before eating is the way to go. Then, the green light to start eating is when the “itadakimasu” has been said. This loosely translates to “Let’s eat!”

If you have a dish that’s better eaten right away, there’s a way out: say “Osaki ni itadakimasu” which translates to “allow me to start before you”. If your friend has a dish like that, say “osaki ni douzo”, “please go ahead”.

Dishes are often served in small bowls, and when eating, it’s better to pick up the bowl with your hand and bring it closer to your mouth when eating it, rather than bending down to get closer to the bowl. This is the ideal way, as compared to cupping your hands to catch falling food, which is considered bad manners! 

Here’s a fun tip: if you’re sharing a dish and there’s one last piece of food left, don’t snag it up instantly! Oftentimes people are reluctant to eat this. The best thing to do is leave this to the seniors of the group! This last piece of meal is called “enryo no Katamari”.

And when everyone’s finished their meal, conclude it with a “gochisousama deshita!” This translates to “thank you for the meal!”. Return your dishes to how they were at the start of the meal, like putting back the lids on bowls and chopsticks back on the chopstick rest. 

3. Slurping

The third and final eating etiquette we’re covering today is slurping! In Japan, the louder you slurp your noodles, the better. When you slurp your noodles, you’re indirectly letting the chef know you’re enjoying the meal.

For a conservative society, the Japanese aren’t afraid to shout out their satisfaction from one end of a restaurant to the other. If it goes against some of your personal customs, don’t worry, it’s not compulsory. 

Drinking

Now we move on to everyone’s favourite part: drinking! Yes, the Japanese have drinking etiquette too! In Japanese culture, drinking is more of  a shared experience, and there’s a bit of expectation to get the same drinks. But don’t worry, in my three years of living in Japan, I haven’t had anyone pressure me to not get my gin and tonic cocktail and get a haiboru instead. 

1. Wait for everyone

The first thing you need to know when drinking in Japan is to wait for everyone’s first drink to come first. When everyone’s drinks have arrived, if no one has said it yet, you do the honours of raising your glass while saying “Kanpai!” That’s the Japanese equivalent of “cheers!”

This “kanpai”-ing can happen a few times in a night, especially with every new drink. Some may expect the group to drink at the same pace and get another round of drinks at the same time, but don’t feel pressured to do so if you’re not as strong with alcohol. Keep your pace, and when the second round of kanpai comes around while you’re still at your first drink, just raise the same glass.

2. Pour for each other

The next drinking etiquette you ought to know is to not pour your own drink, but instead pour for each other. When drinking in Japan, it’s customary to let others refill your glass from communal bottles. Not only are you supposed to thank them, but also reciprocate when someone pours a drink for you. 

As hierarchy is a big thing in Japan, typically, the ones lower in the social ladder pours for the senior members. This is especially so during work drinking events or anything formal.

Hold your glass or sake cup when another is filling it up for you as a gesture of goodwill. 

3. Drink up

And the final drinking etiquette is…drink up! Japanese people love a good pint of beer or two, and it’s a common sight to see a group of businessmen at a bar as soon as it’s the end of the workday. Accepting an invitation for a few pints after work is pretty expected.

The thing is, Japanese drinking sessions can turn into a full-on drinking marathon that can go on till the sun comes up. Others might pressure you to get another round after another round. The trick here is to not start strong and fail to finish. Maintain a good pace and sip water in between. While we’re all about the team spirit here, we’re also all about drinking responsibly. 

Now, what if you’ve drank too much and need to stop? Hey, it’s bound to happen. And all you need to do is stop. Leave your glass full so no one refills your glass. And if you need to leave, don’t feel pressured to not do so. A simple farewell of “otsukaresama deshita”, which loosely translates to “you’ve worked hard” is the most common way to end a drinking session.

Vocab Recap

We used a lot of new Japanese vocabulary words in the episode, and here we list them down for your reference:

Oshibori (おしぼり) — wet towel

Hashi (箸) — chopsticks

Yūshoku (夕食) — dinner. The other meals of the day are chōshoku (朝食) or asagohan (朝ご飯) for breakfast, and chūshoku (昼食) or hirugohan (昼ごはん) for lunch

Osaki ni (お先に) — this translates to first, or to go ahead

Enryo no katamari (遠慮の塊) — the last piece of food

Itadakimasu (いただきます) — Let’s eat!

Gochisousama deshita (ご馳走様でした) — thank you for the meal

Gaijin (外人) — short for gaikokujin (外国人), to mean foreigner

Haiboru (ハイボール) — high ball, which is whiskey and soda water

Izakaya (居酒屋) — a Japanese bar that not only serves drinks but small dishes as well, like skewers

Kanpai (乾杯) — cheers!

Tokkuri (徳利) — sake bottles

Otsukaresama Sama deshita (お疲れ様でした) — you’ve worked hard

Conclusion

Japanese table manners are not at all hard to get used to. They’re pretty straight forward when it comes to why it exists, and mostly it’s the social awareness aspect and the team spirit. Don’t you think so? Check out the full episode of the Nihongo Master Podcast: Season 10 Episode 5!