Japan is a country of many traditions and
etiquettes. Everything in Japan has its own way to be done and if you do
something different, everyone will look at you wonderingly. Tourists coming to
Japan are amazed and interested by the large variety of food available. However,
there are some basic table manners that foreigners should know so that they
don't feel like a fish out of water in Japan.
In Japan, it is an important etiquette to say traditional phrases before and after a meal. People start a meal by saying "itadakimasu" ("I gratefully receive") and after finishing eating they say "gochisosama (deshita)" ("Thank you for the meal") with a bow. It is crucial for you to say these phrases, especially when you are invited for a meal or someone cooks for you.
Chopsticks are used widely in all Japanese homes and restaurants. It may be very difficult for foreigners to become familiar with using Japanese chopsticks. Besides knowing how to eat using chopsticks, foreigners have to know some rules of this kind of utensil. One of the most important rules is not to pass food with your chopsticks directly to somebody else's chopsticks and vice versa. You shouldn't point your chopsticks at somebody or something. Playing with your chopsticks at a meal is also inadvisable. When you want to get food from a shared plate to your own plate, use the other ends of your chopsticks. This is considered polite and considerate in Japan.
It is appreciated in Japan to wait until everyone is served before you start eating. It is also considered considerate to empty your dishes completely because the Japanese are very economical. When eating, try to chew with your mouth closed and don't burp during the meal because that is considered bad manners. If you are given some extra food, for example a bowl of rice, accept it with both hands. When eating, try not to eat in big pieces. You should separate the large piece with your chopsticks and eat every small piece. In contrast to some Western countries where people are often taught not to make slurping noises when eating soup or noodles, it is considered a normal thing in Japan. It even seems strange in Japan if you eat noodles without a sound!
If there are alcoholic drinks at the meal, you shouldn't just pour the alcohol into your own glass. You should check your friends' glasses frequently and if their glasses are getting empty, you should serve them with more. It is considered bad manner to be seen drunk in public in some formal restaurants. However, in some informal ones drunkenness is acceptable as long as you don't bother others.
There are usually no napkins used at Japanese meals, thus you should prepare for yourself some tissues or a handkerchief. In Japan and in some other Asian countries, during the meal you shouldn't talk about anything related to the toilet or any similar topics. This is strictly unappreciated because it is assumed that people lose their appetite when hearing about those things.
About the Author
Michael Russell, Your Independent guide to Japan