Are You Eating These Japanese Foods Wrong?

Are You Eating These Japanese Foods Wrong?

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Eating Japanese food wrong
Picture: KiRi / PIXTA(ピクスタ); Canva
Japanese food etiquette has a series of dos and don'ts. But one etiquette expert says even most Japanese people get these things wrong. Learn how to level-up your food manners game in Japan.

Dining in a different culture means learning new rules of etiquette for what you should and shouldn’t do at the dinner table. As you’d expect, Japan has its own rules around what’s considered well-mannered eating. However, an etiquette expert says there are a few rules even some Japanese people don’t know (or are ignoring at their own social peril).

Basic etiquette

Picture: ユキ / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

Casual visitors to Japan have probably heard some of the basic rules around Japanese food manners. Most know of the custom of saying いただきます (itadakimasu) before eating and ご馳走様 (go-shisou-sama) before and after a meal as a way of giving thanks for the food.

You’ve probably heard one or more of the rules surrounding usage of chopsticks (箸; hashi) as well. For example, in a group setting, you should grab food using the common utensils/serving chopsticks provided, as opposed to your own (a rule violation known as 直箸; jikabashi). There’s also sashibashi (刺し箸), or spearing your food with the chopstick, mayoibashi (迷い箸; hovering your chopsticks over multiple plates wondering what to eat next), and many others.

An excerpt from a brochure from the city of Naruto, in Tokushima Prefecture, reviewing chopstick manners.

(I remember the time I posted a photo to Instagram that had a pair of chopsticks standing up in rice – i.e., 立て箸, tatebashi. This is also known as hotokebashi – “Buddha chopsticks” – as it’s reserved for giving rice to the dead at their funerals. I have never deleted a post so quickly.)

There are also a handful of other rules you may or may not know. The site JAC Skill summarizes a few:

  • Don’t leave food on your plate (insulting + wasteful)
  • When you eat from a bowl, hold it in your hands
  • Set any bowl lids aside, handle side down
  • Don’t wipe your face or the table with the oshibori (おしぼり, wet cloth) meant to clean your hands
  • Don’t pile up your plates

Are you making these mistakes? (And does it matter?)

However, there’s well-mannered, and then there’s well-mannered. Japanese author Emi Sunai, who runs a manners school in Aoyama, Tokyo, says there are a few tips and tricks that even many Japanese people miss.

These aren’t “rules” of etiquette. In fact, says Sunai, they’re recommendations she makes because no hard-and-fast societal rule currently exists. Rather, they’re ways either to avoid making a mess or simply look slightly more dignified while you’re chowing down.

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Sunai captures some of these non-rule rules in her bestselling book What Well-Raised People Know (育ちのいい人知ってること). (Note: Affiliate link – Unseen Japan earns a small commission if you make a purchase.) She’s been publishing a few of her food-related tips recently on Diamond Online. Here are a few things she says you can do to up your food etiquette game in Japan – and maybe save yourself some embarrassment in the process.

Are you dipping your sushi wrong?

Dipping sushi in soy sauce
If you do this, you are uncultured and will have your visa canceled. (Okay, maybe not, but…) (Picture: jazzman / PIXTA(ピクスタ))

There are many debates around how to eat sushi properly. For example, is it okay to swirl wasabi into the soy sauce? (Obligatory click-bait text: The answer may surprise you!)

There’s another point to pay attention to: how you dip your sushi into your bowl of soy sauce. You typically eat nigiri-zushi after picking it up with either chopsticks or your hands (either is fine) and dipping it lightly in a bowl with a thin layer of shoyu.

But which way should you dip it: topping-first? Or rice-first?

Sunai says you should dip the sushi topping-first. The reason? Dipping it rice-first will dissolve the stickiness holding the rice bed together. That’ll cause grains of rice to fall into the soy sauce bowl, which is unsightly.

So, when eating sushi with chopsticks, Sunai recommends tilting it at a 90-degree angle before placing it in the soy sauce bowl. That way, you keep the rice intact and avoid floaters.

Onigiri? More like “Ohnogiri”

Woman eating onigiri with one hand
My god, were you raised in a barn? (Picture: nonpii / PIXTA(ピクスタ))

“Hold on,” you might say. “Are you telling me there’s a wrong way to eat the 100 yen spam onigiri I bought at 7-11?!”

Yes. Yes, that’s exactly what Sunai is telling you.

Sunai says it’s normally considered polite to consume an onigiri by holding it with both hands. However, as you chomp down and the onigiri diminishes in size, you should switch to holding it in a single hand.

Sunai encourages this same behavior for eating anything by hand – e.g., snacks at an afternoon tea. If it’s large enough for two hands, hold it in two hands. If it’s closer to bite-size, hold it in one hand. Otherwise “you’ll look like a child” holding a tiny morsel in two hands, the etiquette experts warns.

Temper your tempura eating

Tempura on a plate
Picture: gontabunta / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

What could be more simple than tempura? The battered and deep-fried treat, containing either vegetables or seafood, is a stomach-destroying delicacy loved the world over.

However, Sunai emphasizes, there are rules. Well, okay, not rules – but if you want to be considered cultured while slogging through your plate of veggies soaked in saturated fat, you’ll follow these guidelines.

The first is to eat tempura as soon as it’s served. It’s a dish meant to be eaten fresh and tastes best when it’s straight out of the fryer, says Sunai. So eat away as soon as it hits the table to show respect to the chef for the effort they spent cooking it for you. This also applies, she says, to noodle dishes.

Second, there’s how you salt your tempura. The dish is often served with a little bowl of salt you can use to punch up the flavor. Many people will just dip their tempura directly into the salt.

That, says Sunai, is a no-no. The salt can clump up in a single spot on the tempura, which isn’t very tasty. Instead, she says, take a pinch of salt between your thumb and forefinger and sprinkle it evenly from the top down before eating.

Again, none of these are hard-and-fast rules. And as a foreigner, most people in Japan will be satisfied if you know even the basics of Japanese food manners. Still, these tips are a nice way to level-up your manners game, particularly if you’re conducting business here.

Sources

日本の食事マナーを知ろう!NGなご飯の食べ方も確認!JAC Skill

おにぎりを食べるとき、育ちがいい人は決してしないこと. Diamond Online

お寿司にしょう油をつけるとき、育ちがいい人はしないこと. Diamond Online

天ぷらを食べるとき、育ちがいい人がしないこと. Diamond Online

日本ではNGマナー!覚えておきたい「直箸」のアレコレ. Macaroni

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Jay Allen

Jay is a resident of Tokyo where he works as a reporter for Unseen Japan and as a technial writer. A lifelong geek, wordsmith, and language fanatic, he has level N1 certification in the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) and is fervently working on his Kanji Kentei Level 2 certification.

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