Japanese Eating Etiquette: Rules You Didn’t Know

When it comes to eating etiquette, the Japanese are not a particularly fussy people, but, unless you want to draw disapproving looks while dining in Japan, take a look at these seven rules of Japanese eating:

1. Make noise while you eat–especially noodles (soba or udon).

A noisy eater is enjoying the food more, according to the Japanese. If you want to show how much you’re savoring a bowl of udon, slurp and smack to your heart’s content. On the contrary, if you take care to eat quietly, your attempt at politeness is seen as a failure on the part of your Japanese host–he failed to offer you tasty food that you can enjoy.

2. No donut dunking–don’t dip anything in your beverage.

Japanese don’t dunk cookies, donuts, or anything else in their nomimono (beverages), from a sense that the dipped item (cookie, donut, etc.) is soiling the beverage with crumbs.

3. No tipping in Japan.

Tipping is virtually unheard of in Japan. At a typical Japanese restaurant, if you leave a tip on the table, your server is likely to call out to you as you leave, saying “o-kyakusama, o-wasuremono desu yo!” (“Sir, you forgot this!”) If you want to insist on the server keeping it as a tip, reply with, “chippu desu kara, o-uketori kudasai.” (“It’s a tip, so please accept it.”)

On the other hand, bell hops and other employees at large Western hotels in Japan have grown accustomed to tip-toting Westerners. They don’t expect a tip for service, but neither are they likely to decline a proffered tip.

4. Don’t eat on the street–unless it’s an ice cream cone.

This custom is slowly changing in Japan, but most Japanese still avoid eating while standing or walking on the street or waiting at a train station. The sole exception is an ice cream cone, called sofuto kuriimu (“soft cream”) in Japanese. You are free to enjoy an ice cream cone on the street, but most Japanese still frown on ice-cream eating inside train stations.

After you board a Japanese train, the rules are just as strict: eating or drinking is a faux pas on most Japanese trains (the shinkansen bullet train is an exception). However, as plastic bottles (“petto botoru“) have been popular, more young Japanese be seen taking sips from a bottle of ocha (green tea) that they keep concealed in a tote bag.

5. Place your chopsticks down carefully.

When you have finished a Japanese meal, there is etiquette involved in how to place your used chopsticks. If you have a chopstick rest (“hashi-oki“), rest your chopsticks in it. If there is no chopstick rest available, place the chopsticks across your bowl, again side by side with no space in between. If they won’t span the bowl, let the used ends rest inside the bowl, but try to keep the two chopsticks nestled together.

The point is to avoid separating the two chopsticks. Never stab your chopsticks upright into a bowl of rice–this is the way rice is offered to the spirit of a deceased person, so Japanese consider it the worst offense in chopstick etiquette.

6. Use a napkin only if you must.

Japanese are frugal with napkins. At many Japanese restaurants, the only “napkin” is the disposable hand towel you receive when first seated for the meal. Finer restaurants may offer a cloth napkin, but the large paper napkins found in most American eateries are rare in Japan.

7. Drink soup directly from the bowl.

Japanese soups, such as miso-shiru, are properly eaten by raising the bowl to your mouth and drinking from the bowl. While you hold the soup bowl with one hand, you can use your chopsticks to stir the liquid or pick up tofu or other ingredients. The rim along the bottom of Japanese bowls (“chawan“) is designed for holding; it keeps the hot contents away from your fingers and allows you to hold the bowl with just one hand.

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