In Food + Drink

A Two-Minute Guide To Japanese Dining Etiquette

If you’re travelling to Japan and eating out, here’s what you’ll need to know about Japanese dining etiquette. As a communications expert, Australian ex-pat and now a Tokyo local, it’s a topic Kate McQuestin knows a thing or two about.

She says the first thing to understand is that Japanese people typically won’t eat ‘on-the-go’ like we do in Australia. You’ll also rarely see them eating in public.

If you do happen to find yourself in their company at a Japanese restaurant, it’s best to have at least some understanding about the customs.

“While foreign visitors are not expected to be familiar with Japanese dining etiquette, an understanding of nonverbal cues and nuances will greatly improve a visitor’s experience,” she says.

“From the moment we landed in Japan, we quickly realised that communication is beyond words, so we needed to be aware of non-verbal cues, such as bowing and their reluctance to say ‘no’ or give a negative response,” she says.

While she says you shouldn’t feel daunted by Japanese dining etiquette, her tips are a great start.

General Japanese table manners to know

japanese dining etiquette

Leaving your chopsticks on the table indicates you haven’t finished your meal. Credit: Japan National Tourism

Many general behaviours are second nature, but also meaningful. For example, leaving your chopsticks on the table indicates you haven’t finished your meal, so if you have finished – and only when you have finished – place them together and sideways across your bowl to indicate you’re done.

Resting them on your bowl during a meal service is typically frowned upon.

McQuestin says that Australians in general are a lot louder when dining out, so she suggests keeping noise levels to a minimum, and avoiding talking on a mobile at the table.

Slurping however is one noise that’s completely accepted – encouraged even.  Slurping your ramen or other noodle dishes signifies you’re enjoying your meal.

Unlike a fork, you’re not supposed to put chopsticks directly into your mouth, but rather, use them to pass food to your mouth. Licking chopsticks like you would a spoon or fork, or using them to pass food to someone else’s isn’t done either.

How to use soy sauce at the table

japanese dining etiquette

Soy sauce should be used sparingly, otherwise it’s considered an insult to the flavour of your food. Credit: Buenosia Carol / Pexels

If you’re the type who pools a dish of soy sauce or pours it generously on your rice, now’s the time to stop. Soy sauce should be used sparingly, otherwise it’ll be considered an insult to the flavour of your food. Similarly, mixing together your wasabi with soy sauce also shows a lack of respect for the delicate flavours of the dish.

Instead, dip your sushi with the fish side down into the soy and spread the wasabi on the top. It’s also appropriate to eat your sushi upside down so the fish side touches your tongue first to better experience the flavour. Dipping your rice in the soy sauce will absorb far too much and can cause the rice to break up in the dish making it rather messy.

What to know about Japanese drinking

japanese dining etiquette

It’s customary to wait until everyone’s glass is full before you drink. Credit: Japan National Tourism

It’s customary to wait until everyone’s glass is full before you drink. Once everyone has a drink, you can say “kampai!” – which means “cheers” in Japanese.

“When drinking alcoholic drinks, it is customary to serve each other,” says McQuestin. So, if you really want to impress, rather than pouring your own drink, refill your friend’s and hopefully they will do the same for you.

What to know about tipping in Japan

Tipping in Japan is not considered mandatory. In Japan, prices set on any menu are considered fair and reasonable – period. That’s why anything left in addition could come across as insulting, if not entirely unnecessary and confusing.

“The service in Japan is excellent and they take great pride in their work,” says McQuestin.

“I love Japan. It is beyond anything I ever expected. There are many wonderfully unique experiences and sites to see. As well as its traditional culture and wonderful food, it is the nation of politeness, hospitality, punctuality, safety, cleanliness, convenience and beauty.

“English has an increasing presence in Japan ahead of the 2020 Olympics, but it is not widely understood so learning a few common key Japanese phrases before your visit will go a very long way.”

(Lead image: Rawpixel.com / Pexels

Published 14 March, 2019