How to Be Polite When Eating at a Japanese Restaurant

Having lived in Japan for nearly two years, I find it interesting how little many Americans know about the culture and customs of Japanese dining. With sushi and other Japanese-style restaurants increasing in popularity back in the United States, it is a good idea to think about what is — and what isn't — considered polite by the Japanese.

You may not know a lot about Japanese dining etiquette. Most Japanese probably don't know everything about dining American-style, either. But there are a few things you should know before the next time you visit your favorite Japanese restaurant (or, if you are lucky, before visiting Japan).

Chopsticks 101

The biggest part of Japanese dining etiquette involves the use of chopsticks. While you might have had good practice using chopsticks to pick up your food, there is a lot more to it than just avoiding dropping food all over the table and floor. Here are four basic Japanese "rules" when it comes to using chopsticks:

  1. Don't use the chopsticks like a sword and "spear" your food. The Japanese consider this behavior rude. If the food is too difficult to pick up (this happens often with slippery foods), go ahead and use a fork instead.
  2. Let's say you have picked up a piece of food and want to give it to someone else dining with you. Instead of handing it off — having the other person use their chopsticks to take it from within your chopsticks — just move the food from plate to plate. It is considered rude to pass food from one set of chopsticks to another.
  3. Family-style dishes and sharing is common with Asian food. Just make sure to take your portion without offending anyone. If no serving utensil is provided, use your chopsticks to move food to your plate. Use the larger end if you are dining with people you don't know well; you can use the thinner end when with close friends and family. Do not just eat off the larger serving dishes.
  4. Finally — and this is the big one — never stick your chopsticks into your bowl of rice! This is considered very rude, especially if you stick them in standing straight up. This is what is done during a ceremony to honor the dead, so this is definitely not good to do in any Japanese restaurant.

More Japanese Dining Etiquette Tips

Chopsticks aren't the only way to eat food in a Japanese restaurant. Here are three more tips to help you have a more authentic Japanese dining experience.

  1. Soup served in a small bowl, such as miso soup, which is typically served at the start of most Japanese meals, doesn't need to be eaten using a spoon. Instead, you may bring the bowl close to your mouth and drink it.
  2. For soup served in larger bowls — often containing noodles such as ramen, soba and udon — use the spoon provided for the broth. When eating the noodles, slurp away! Loud slurping may be rude in the U.S., but in Japan it is considered rude not to slurp. Oh, and don't forget to use your chopsticks to get the noodles into your mouth.
  3. It is also acceptable to bring your small bowl of food close to your face to eat, instead of bending your head down to get closer to your plate. For example, rice is a very common food to eat in Japan and is usually served in a small side bowl. Rice isn't always easy to eat with chopsticks, so moving the bowl closer to you means less distance between the bowl and your mouth.

When Dinner Has Ended

If you really enjoyed your meal, there are a few ways you let the chef, owner, server or host know. First, if the server comes by and asks how the food is and you think it tastes really good, say, "Oishi desu." (Note, the "u" is silent). This means, "It's delicious."

The second phrase to know — and I know this is a mouthful — is for the end of the meal. As you are leaving, say, "Gochisosama deshita." (Note, the "i" in deshita is not pronounced, and the first word is pronounced "Go-chee-so-sama."). Basically, this is a polite way to thank them for the meal.

While these tips are good etiquette for dining in Japan, most Japanese restaurant owners and servers in the U.S. don't expect American diners to be experts in their culture. I am sure they don't all find it rude or offensive when Americans do something that doesn't fit with their dining etiquette. After all, how can we all be experts in every single culture out there? But knowing these few easy tips can help you show respect for the Japanese culture and have a more authentic dining experience.

In the end, whether the restaurant is American, Japanese or any other culture, just knowing a few basic tips for that culture's etiquette will take you a long way. Food is central to cultures, religions and our social nature. It provides nourishment and the foundation of good health, but it also provides a foundation to our relationships with those similar to us, and those who are different. Don't take for granted all that you can learn from trying different foods from different cultures and learning how to be polite when eating a cuisine that is foreign to you.

Melinda Boyd on Twitter
Melinda Boyd
Melinda Boyd, MPH, MHR, RD, is a registered dietitian and military spouse living in Japan. She is co-author of Train Your Brain to Get Thin, and blogs at Nutrition, Food, Travel & More. Follow her on Twitter.