The display of proper manners is often said to be the mark of an educated and civilized person. Each country and each culture has their own set of what they consider to be good manners that should be adhered to. While people vary from strictness to leniency with regards observing manners, perhaps there are no other people in the world who take manners seriously than the Japanese. The Japanese may cut a little slack for the gaijin, which means “foreigner” in their language, but even a gaijin may lose face if he displays what are considered to be bad manners in Japan in front of his Japanese hosts.
Displaying good manners at the table is just one of the ways that a gaijin can impress his or her host in Japan. What are considered good table manners by the Japanese?
Seating arrangement. When dining with a group either in a restaurant or in a private home, the Japanese observe a seating arrangement. The most important guest is always seated farthest away from the entrance, usually with his back to the front of the tokonoma, the raised alcove that contains decorative scrolls, bonsai and ikebana. The host, on the other hand, is supposed to sit nearest to the entrance to the room.
While many homes in Japan are already furnished the Western style, there are still homes where the traditional low tables are used during mealtimes and everyone joining the meal sits on the floor. In this case, women are supposed to sit with their knees folded and their legs to one side. Only men are allowed to sit cross-legged.
Greetings and thanks. Before starting a meal, the Japanese say itadakimasu, which is an expression of gratefulness for the food served. After eating, they say gochisosama deshita, meaning “Thank you for the meal.”
Chopsticks. Chopsticks are simple to use with practice. The etiquette surrounding the use of chopsticks, however, is not so simple. Here are the reasons why:
- Chopsticks are held at the end, not in the middle or on the tip.
- Chopsticks are not supposed to be used to point at people or at things. Waving chopsticks about in the air, playing with them and using them to move objects on the table are also frowned upon.
- It is bad manners to stick chopsticks into food, especially rice. Chopsticks are poked through rice only at funerals. It is also the height of bad manners to give people food directly to their chopsticks. That is because during funerals, the bones of the cremated person are passed along from person to person in that way.
- After the meal, chopsticks are supposed to be laid down with the tips pointing left.
Serving food. In the west, when food is served, they are either served individually or placed in platters accompanied by serving utensils. In Japan, food is seldom served individually and the diner is supposed to serve himself. Unless there are serving chopsticks provided, if the diner has already eaten with his chopsticks, he should use the ends of his chopsticks when getting more food.
Eating rice. The rice bowl is lifted to the mouth. Rice is then pushed to the mouth using chopsticks. If there is sauce on the rice, like in Japanese curry, spoons are provided.
Eating soups. Miso soup is drunk straight from the bowl. The same goes for ramen, although ceramic spoons are often provided with ramen.
Eating noodles. Noodles, especially ramen, are eaten hot through controlled slurping. Yes, it is good manners to slurp noodles. While the noodles are slurped in, the diner uses his chopsticks to guide the noodles from the bowl at the same time.
Soy sauce and wasabi. Pour only a small amount of soy sauce when eating sushi and sashimi, enough for what you need. Wasting soy sauce is seen as offensive in Japan. Also, it is not necessary to add wasabi to the soy sauce when eating sushi because some sushi already have it added while some are not supposed to be eaten with wasabi.
Drinking alcohol. The drinking does not start until everyone is served their cups or glasses and the drinking salute of kampai is called. The Japanese do not serve themselves when drinking; instead, they serve their companions. They continually check their companions’ cups and refill when needed. Whenever one is offered a refill, if the glass still has some drinks in it, it is considered good manners to finish that glass quickly and hold it out towards the person offering the refill.