Japanese table manners explained

Why do the Japanese not eat while walking?

As standing or squatting outside a convenience store seems to be okay, I guess it’s to avoid the very small chance of having the major embarrassment of getting your food on someone else.

Why do some Japanese put their disposable chopsticks back into the paper cover when they finish eating?

Tidying up after yourself seems to be the rule in Japanese bars and restaurants, as seen in people clearing their own café tables, mopping up the mess that their children made, putting the lid back on miso soup bowl, etc. Why that would be I really couldn’t say…

Why do members of a family usually have their own individual chopsticks?

As a chopstick is made of wood, it isn’t entirely hygienic to share them, however good the lacquer is.

Why are you supposed to take food off your chopsticks with your teeth rather than your lips?/ Why is it rude to suck at the end of your chopsticks?

The thing described above might be a factor.

Why do children put the honorific “-san” after food names?

According to animist religions like Shinto, everything has a soul. Food particularly deserves respect as it gives its life up to feed you (the same reason as for “Gochisosama” below).

Why do the Japanese not address anyone in particular when they say “Itadakimasu” (something like “Thanks for the meal”) and “Gochisosama deshita” (“It was a treat”) before and after meals?

Unlike the English equivalents of “Thanks for a lovely meal” etc, as well as the cook, you are thanking the farmer etc and even the food itself, as traditionally all life including plants has a soul.

Why is it only okay to slurp noodles in Japan (not rice, soup, spaghetti, etc)?

Although you do read that slurping make noodles taste better because you can eat them hotter, the oyaji (older men) who slurp their soup, coffee and rice would probably say the same about those things. Slurping noodles also seems to help with no getting whiplash and hence stains all over your shirt (or even your neighbour), so it could be that this reason is more of an influence on manners than the taste thing.

Why do people look at you funny if you wipe your face and neck with the “oshibori” wet flannel in bars and restaurants, even though you see Japanese doing it?

It’s something only “oyaji” (ill-mannered older guys) do.

Why is there a taboo against passing food from chopsticks to chopsticks?

It’s something you do with the bones at funerals.

Why is there a taboo against leaving your chopsticks sticking up in your food?

Again, it’s similar to what is done in funerals, although this time with joss sticks.

Why do the Japanese eat every bit of rice?

Countries tend to be divided into ones where food is left to show that you are satisfied and ones where everything is eaten to show you loved it, and Japan is mainly the latter (but see below). This is particular so with rice, which is seen as an almost or actual religious thing.

Why are the last few things left on the shared plates in an izakaya?

Otherwise they’d have to order more???

Why is it okay to use your fingers to eat sushi?

You are supposed to dip the top into the soy sauce, and that is almost impossible to do well with chopsticks. Alternatively, it could be because sushi started as street food.

Why do some sushi bars serve the sushi directly on the counter?

Although this mainly happens in the poshest places, they often also have a simplistic throwback feel to them, so it could either be to show how impressively clean everything is and/ or to show to connection to street food mentioned above.

Why do the Japanese sometimes serve the rice or noodles later?

Particularly for the poor or in times of shortage, rice is eaten early to fill yourself up and save money on other dishes. Eating rice later is therefore a kind of treat.

Why do Japanese customers and servers use different words for the check/ bill (kanjo and kaikei)?

As in the rest of the exchanges in such situations, the servers use a more formal term. I read somewhere there is a special reason to be sensitive about it with these specific words, but I’m afraid I can’t remember what that was…

Why is Japanese arguing about the bill generally so short?

It doesn’t seem to be a case of how much people actually want to pay, as after Koreans physically fight over the bill, run to the counter to pay first, etc the host is just as likely to pay as after a typically British exchange of “Let me pay” “Don’t be silly, it’s my turn” “Okay, thanks!” The Japanese just seem to have generally settled on somewhere between the two and closer to the latter, and like all nationalities just stick to that ritualistic length. However, it could also suit the Japanese somewhat as it makes the exchange predictable.

Why do Japanese restaurants and shops have a tray to put the money into?

It is to make it easier on the customer, because that way they don’t have to worry about politeness of how they hand the money over (with two hands, etc).

Why is it okay to eat on some Japanese trains but not on others?

As is often the case in Japan, if enough other people are doing it, it is okay. It tends to be associated with holidaying and long distance travel, as on bullet trains, but I’ve also been on a few commuter trains where it is comparatively common in the evenings, especially when the train isn’t so busy.

Why is it rude to spear food with chopsticks?

This comes up more with Japanese food than with Chinese etc as the chopsticks tend to be thinner and so perfect for spearing things and trickier for grabbing things with. All I can guess is that as with things like peas on the back of forks in certain households in the UK, table manners are generally about making life more difficult.

Why is it okay to pick up your rice bowl when eating Japanese food?

I’ve read that it saves the danger of dropping food, but that sounds like an explanation after the fact to me because if that was the case it would make as much sense to leave your bowl on the table and eat rice with a spoon as traditionally done in Korea. It seems more likely to be something that came from miso soup bowls etc being picked up to drink directly from.

Why is it okay to drink directly from the soup and noodles bowl?

Unlike with Chinese food, there is rarely a spoon on the table that you could use, and in fact deep spoons for soup like Chinese ones don’t exist in Japanese food.

Why is it so normal to have both beer and other drinks like sake in one night of drinking?

Beer is the only drink considered informal enough to break the ice, perhaps because you can swig it, but can make you bloated if you are eating too (which is usual).

Why are you supposed to break your waribari disposable chopsticks with the chopsticks vertical and your elbows out?

To make sure you get two equal chopsticks split exactly down the middle. Although this makes it into some etiquette books, the only people I know who do it are complete otaku.

Why do the Japanese avoid drinking out of bottles?

In a very informal, all male setting Japanese men sometimes drink directly out of the (usually very large) sake (rice wine) bottle. As that is the setting it is associated with, a child seeing their English teacher swigging from a “PET bottle” (plastic, not domesticated) they can be a little shocked. Would be something like a school teacher in England downing a pint of water in the classroom.

Why do Japanese people keep telling me not to sit in a seiza position on my knees?

The fact that it is used in formal situations means that using it with friends could suggest that you don’t feel relaxed around them. Or they could just be concerned it’s uncomfortable, although I for one find agura (crossed legs) just as likely to make me lose sensation in the lower half of my body and stagger when I stand up.

Why is seating position so important in Japan?

Before flat tatami floors became standard, people’s status would be shown by the height of the mat (or a dias for the very important) that they sat on. Seating position became more important as this faded out. Sitting on more cushions as a way of showing who is better can still be seen in traditional competitive comedy performances.

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