Japanese etiquette has many cultural differences when contrasted with common practices in the Western world. One great cultural feature is that when you approach a typical Japanese restaurant you will usually see the main menu of foods displayed in realistic-looking plastic mock-ups in the window along with the prices. This can be very helpful in choosing your meal.
Below are a few tips to know and apply at mealtime while in Japan, or at the home of a traditional Japanese family so that you will not appear as a “Barbarian” and can feel more comfortable while you eat.
As you enter a Japanese restaurant, the server will bow and say “Irrashaimase,” with a meaning of “welcome.” It is Japanese etiquette to bow slightly in any situation where you meet someone. If there is no one to meet you at the door, then you may assume that you can sit at the table of your choice. If the person you are meeting is important you will show respect by bowing lower than that person and holding the bow longer.
In formal eating restaurants or as a guest in the traditional Japanese home you will be required to remove your shoes at the door and add slippers if they are provided for you by the host. When you come to tatami woven straw mat, you must also remove your slippers and wear only socks or go bare-footed.
If you need to visit the restroom, you will remove normal slippers at the bathroom and replace them with slippers worn only in the bathroom, replacing your slippers when you come out.
You may be required to sit on a pillow on the floor under a low table. A Japanese person used to this formal custom sits tightly on their haunches; their feet tucked under them for a long amount of time (seiza), but a foreigner probably cannot stay in this position for more than a few minutes. If a woman, you may need to put your legs to one side as you sit on your haunches on the pillow. A man may sit cross-legged.
The most important person is seated furthest from the entrance, while the host is next to the entrance.
Chopsticks (o-hashi) are fairly easy to use. Practice using them at home with a variety of foods, including noodles. Japanese chopsticks are rounded, usually made of lacquered wood, and about an inch shorter than Chinese chopsticks. Holding the chopsticks near their ends (opposite of pointing ends) place one chopstick in your right hand like a pen, this chopstick is anchored against the bottom of the area between your thumb and index finger. The other chopstick is also placed between the thumb and index finger, but it moves, using the index and middle fingers to maneuver it.
Never set down your chopsticks in the rice. This potentially forms a “V,” which is the character for death. When needing to set them down, place them together in front of you with the points facing to your left.
Do not spear food with your chopsticks.
You may use your chopsticks to pick up a larger piece of food, take a bite, and set the piece of food back down.
Do not motion, point, or wave with your chopsticks.
Use the opposite ends of the chopsticks to remove food from a common dish.
Spoons are used with some rice-and-sauce dishes such as Curry Rice (kare risu). Chinese-style ceramic spoons are used with some soups.
Often when you sit down you will be brought a wash towel for cleaning your hands, do not use it on your face. You will also be brought water or tea for no charge.
When you begin a meal it is polite to say: “Itadakimasu,” or “I humbly receive.” At the end of the meal one says “Gochisosama deshita,” more or less “Thank you for the meal.” Compliment your host or cook on the food, by saying something like “Oishikatta desu, ” meaning “it was delicious.”
Hold your rice bowl in your left hand and lift the bowl toward your mouth, scooping it into your mouth, if necessary. Japanese is easy to eat with chopsticks as it sticks together more than other types of rice. Finish every grain of rice given to you. Do not pour soy sauce, or any other sauce into a bowl of white rice.
Miso soup is sipped from the bowl, with the help of chopsticks for particles of food.
A small amount of noodles are scooped and held by the chopsticks. Slurp these noodles into your mouth without letting any noodles fall back into the bowl. Slurping noises are good etiquette in Japan while eating noodles. A ceramic spoon may be provided to help drink the liquid, otherwise, lift the bowl to your mouth and sip the broth.
Blowing your nose and burping in public is considered rude in Japan.
You should pour a small amount of soy sauce into a small dish given to you with sushi. If eating sushi that has raw fish on the top (nigiri zushi), dip into the soy sauce with the fish side down so that the rice does not fall apart. Don’t insult the chef by using too much hot wasabi or soy sauce. Try to eat the sushi in one bite.
A great thing to know: you do not leave tips in Japan—not for anything! If eating at a Japanese restaurant in a country that tips, however, be sure to leave an adequate tip.