A historical look at dining etiquette in Japan
Traditional Japanese cuisine is characterized by serving small portions on a variety of dishes. Appreciating the pure taste of every ingredient is the heart of kaiseki ryori, the ultimate showmanship of a Japanese chef. With a luxurious meal comes exquisite pottery, lacquerware, and impeccable table manners to match. In the old days, it was only nobles and high-ranking officials who had the time to sit down and leisurely enjoy a meal. It is no surprise that this rank of society bestowed an eating order upon every dish to maximize its flavour in combination with the other ingredients present.
Slowly, over the years and as the societal gap began to close, these table manners spread to the general populace in diluted form. Dietary etiquette was regarded as a culture and discipline passed down within the family on the same level as general mannerisms and customs. This whole package of ‘rules’ is considered the correct and polite thing to do when being served or serving food.
Tipping etiquette in Japan
The level of hospitality bestowed upon you needs only to be reciprocated with an elegant appreciation of the food before you. As such, there is no need for a monetary reward when it comes to dining, and there is no real tipping etiquette in Japan. This tends to be a particularly interesting and occasionally confusing aspect of Japanese culture for American guests in particular, due to the strong tipping culture in the United States. Oku Japan was featured in an interesting article Matador Network about Japan’s dining etiquette and why you should never tip.
What to expect when being served a meal in Japan
Upon being served your first traditional Japanese meal, you will notice the attention to detail in some of the smallest things. Special lacquerware spoons are provided for lacquerware dishes, not for aesthetic purposes, but because silverware might scratch the delicate lacquer surface. Rice is always served on your left, so you may hold it in your left hand while holding your chopsticks in your right.
In Japan, it is common to pick up dishes and bring them closer to your mouth for cleaner eating. Bringing your face closer to the plates is called ‘eating like a dog’ and is considered improper. The chopstick rests that you see on your table are actually quite a recent invention starting in the Meiji era. Before eating at a dining table became common, people ate from their personal serving tray and their eating utensils never made contact with another surface. Keeping chopsticks clean from other surfaces was only done during Shinto rituals.
Even now, most family members have their own personal chopsticks that they use for every meal. Maybe this is because the idea of clean chopsticks used to be associated with the divine? While Japan is modern and even boasts some incredibly advanced technology, many traditional beliefs and superstitions are alive and well.
Japanese dining rules are not as strict as one may think
While there is a plethora of rules connected to Japanese cuisine, the truth of the matter is that they have become quite relaxed over the years as foreign cuisine started to mix with mainstream culture. While most locals will not call you out on minor mistakes, and it is best to follow the example of the people around you, there are three big offenders that you would do best to avoid.
The first faux pas is placing your chopsticks upright in your rice, as this looks very similar to a funeral offering for the deceased. The second faux pas also has a connection to funerals. Passing anything from chopstick to chopstick is only done during funerals as a ritual after cremation, when relatives pass the remaining bones of the deceased to each other and place them in the funerary urn. To pass food to someone, first place it on a plate and then pass the plate on. The last faux pas is fairly simple as it is uncommon in most cultures as well - pointing with your chopsticks to people. This has no cultural background, but is simply considered messy and rude, your chopstick is an eating tool after all.
Seeing so many rules laid out may seem overwhelming or difficult to remember. Even in the country itself there is debate on certain rules and even the names for certain utensils. This just goes to show that no one singular rule sticks and that learning as you go is the best approach – in general, be mindful and respectful, and those you are interacting with will appreciate your efforts. See it as another way of connecting with the local people and their culture. You might even learn something new that you can share with your friends who have visited other regions in Japan.