Are you planning a trip to Japan but worried that you’ll accidentally offend the locals because you don’t know the etiquette? Or are you concerned that your lack of cultural knowledge will make you look like a fool? I know I felt that way when I moved from England to Japan. And not only did I worry about making mistakes, I actually excelled at faux pas! I can only now think back and say: I didn’t know any better.
But slowly I learned most of the common cultural peculiarities and after having lived in Japan for nearly three years many of the everyday conventions had become so familiar to me that I didn’t even notice them anymore. It’s only now that I have been back in the UK for a couple of weeks that I am aware of the behavioural differences between Japan and the UK again (for my regular readers who didn’t know yet, yes, I’ve now moved back to the UK, and will write about the move soon).
Since the cultural quirks of Japan are still fresh in my mind, I thought this would be a perfect time for me to write a little list of them, not only to help any Japan novices going to Japan but maybe also to remind myself of these things a year (let alone twenty!) from now.
Below I list some tips for eating/drinking out. These should help you sail through your holiday eatery experiences as effortlessly as Nigella Lawson licks a spoon.
When you go to restaurants, cafes or bars in Japan you will be given a hot towel (in up-market places) or a cold wet-wipe (everywhere else) to wipe your hands as soon as you sit down. When you’ve wiped your hands, fold the towel and place it next to your plate. You can use it for wiping your hands during your meal, but don’t wipe your face with it.
(2) Restaurant service
In places like England, it’s rude to shout to get the waiter’s attention (in England you need to make an eye contact with a member of staff…even if it takes you half an hour!). In Japan, don’t wait for the waiter to spontaneously come to you. The waiter is waiting for you to shout ‘sumimasen’ (Eng: ‘Excuse me’) to indicate that you are ready to order. This is not considered impolite, and if you don’t do it, you’ll be there for a long while before the waiter finally comes to ask if you’ve decided already (I know this from experience).
When eating out with family members, colleagues or friends, it’s typical that as a group you order several dishes and share them. The waitress will bring the food dishes and place them in the middle of the table and bring everyone a small plate (if there are no small plates on the table already). Everyone can help themselves to the food, or if you want to be polite, you can dish food onto everyone else’s plates first and then onto yours. If you are concerned about hygiene, use the opposite end of your chopsticks to dish out the food rather than the end that has been in your mouth.
(4) No shoes
In many Japanese restaurants (that have tatami floors) you need to take your shoes off in the foyer. You put your shoes in a locker, take the key with you and walk to your table. If you need to use the toilet while in the restaurant, you should see some slippers in close proximity to the toilet or the foyer. Wear the slippers to the toilet and return them to where you found them on your way back from the toilet.
shoe locker keys (and green tea)
When you need to put your chopsticks down during your meal you can lean them against your plate or put them over your plate/bowl (see photos below).
When you’ve finished eating, if the chopsticks came in a small paper envelope, put them back in there (see photo below).
If there is a little chopstick rest on the table which is (usually) between you and your plate, place the chopsticks there (see photo below).
Or you can even just leave them on your plate so that they are horizontally resting on two points of the dish (as in some of the photos above). However, there are two things you should not do:
a) Never leave your chopsticks sticking out of a bowl of rice i.e. standing up in the rice. The reason for this is that this resembles their use at a funeral (in relation to a person’s ashes), and should not be used in this way in any other context.
b) Also deriving from a convention practiced in funerals, you should never pass food from one person’s chopsticks directly to another person’s chopsticks. If you are giving someone food e.g. from a shared plate, you need to put the food on their plate.
(6) Finger foods
Even though in Europe it’s acceptable to use your hands to eat quite a few foods in a restaurant, a good rule of thumb in Japan is that you should eat nothing with fingers (other than maybe sushi and a burger). Even though to a novice in Japan some of these might feel quite comical and downright ‘wrong’ you should eat fries, a slice of pizza, sandwich or many types of desserts (e.g. cake) with your chopsticks (if you haven’t been provided with a fork and a knife or a spoon).
Pizza with chopsticks
(7) Picking up your plate/bowl
In Europe the etiquette determines that (with most foods) you need to try to get the food off your plate and into your mouth by using cutlery instead of lifting the plate off the table and bringing it closer to your mouth. In Japan, people commonly hold a dish in one hand and chopsticks in the other while eating, and you can do the same.
In particular in posh restaurants, rice is usually served as the last dish of the meal consisting of several courses, and it is served on its own! It does not come with a sauce like it does in Europe. However tempting it might be, try not to put soy sauce over the rice (but you can add e.g. roasted sesame seeds).
It’s impolite if you don’t eat all your rice. This is the case in particular if you are visiting someone’s home. And when I say that it is impolite not to finish your rice, I mean you need to eat every grain in your bowl to indicate that the corner stone of the Japanese diet and agriculture, rice, is precious.
It might seem like an impossible task for an inexperienced chopstick user to pick up individual grains of rice, but you can lift your rice bowl of the table close to your mouth (see point 7 above) and with your chopsticks kind of shovel the rice from the bowl into your mouth.
Rice that is part of a dish (e.g. curry or fried rice) is usually eaten with a spoon (not chopsticks).
If you are a noisy eater, feel free to let your hair down in an udonya. However, if you can’t tolerate noisy eaters, I recommend not going to these types of noodle places where you will find everyone loudly slurping their noodles from the bowl into their mouths.
(10) Intestines (horumo)
In Japan they use a lot of intestines in cooking, especially in a Yakiniku (i.e. beef BBQ) places. If you are not a big fan of pancreas, diaphragm, womb or the large intestine you can say: Horumo irimasen which means that you will only want to eat the ‘meaty’ parts of the cow.
(11) The one drink rule
Be aware that there seems to be some kind of a one-drink-on-the-table rule in Japan. Only order another drink when you’ve finished your earlier one. When the waiter brings your new drink the chances are they will take your old drink glass away regardless of whether there is still some liquid in it.
(12) You should not pour your own drink.
If out with a Japanese person, and if you have ordered a bottle of wine, sake or beer you should not fill your own glass. The other person should notice when your glass is empty and fill it – and you should of course fill theirs. Given that Japanese society is patriarchal, Japanese men often expect the women to pour the mens’ drinks (this is one cultural feature of Japan that a feminist like myself might choose not to adopt).
(13) Sake and masu
If you order sake you often get it in a glass that is placed in a square vessel (called masu). The waiter will fill your sake glass at the table from a big bottle of sake, but surprisingly to many Westerners, when the glass if full, they will carry on pouring so that the glass overflows into the masu. Don’t panic. He’s just indicating their generosity by the overflowing ‘measure’.
When you drink the sake you’ve just been poured you need to do it without hands. That is, you need to bend over and take the first gulp so that you don’t touch the glass with your hands. After the first gulp you can lift the glass as normal but place it back in the masu in between gulps. When your glass is empty, you pour the excess sake from masu into your glass, and drink it.
(14) Service charge
There is no tipping in Japan. If you leave a tip the waiter will run after you in order to return your change.
There are bakeries everywhere in Japan and you should try some of the Japanese buns when visiting Japan! It’s usually self-service. Take a tray and tongs and select the buns you want from the counters. Go to the cashier and give her the tray and the tongs (they will clean them before giving them to the next person).
I got a bit carried away!
This is not to do with etiquette, but here’s a little additional tip:
The wee hours of the morning are often represented slightly differently on the windows of izakayas than in pub windows in Europe, e.g. 26 hours corresponding to 2am.
ps. If you are Japanese or an expat in Japan feel free to correct any misunderstandings on my behalf or add any other restaurant/bar related tips that I have missed in the comments below.