For those unfamiliar with the intricacies of Japanese dining etiquette, the do’s and don’ts can seem strange, and can make Japanese seem like over-sensitive elitists.
However, because Japanese are usually very polite, it would be rare to have faux pas pointed out to you at the risk of making you feel uncomfortable.
With this in mind, I will try to humbly share with you some of the things I most commonly observe among visitors and help make you look like a seasoned pro dining in Japan.
While the use of English in Japan is improving with the influx of visitors to Japan and helped by technology, keep in mind that most Japanese speak little or no English.
This means some small restaurants may not even have an English menu or have anyone who speaks English. If you speak to them in English and they wave their hands in front of their face and giggle, it’s not meant as a gesture of disrespect, rather, they are simply embarrassed they can’t communicate with you.
At the core of Japanese hospitality is the concept of omotenashi which is the spirit of providing guests with the best experience possible, and anticipating their needs. Omotenashi became ritualized by the tea master Sen no Rikyu which is based on ichi-go-ichi-e , translated as “one time, one meeting” and how that encounter may never be repeated.
The subtleties of omotenashi can go unnoticed which highlights the attention to detail practiced in restaurants and everyday life in Japan. In the summer, cold oshibori towels are often provided before meals as relief for the heat, while in the winter, hot oshibori towels may be used. Without inquiring, sushi chefs may adjust the size of the shari rice depending upon the appetite of the diner. When giving change after paying, crisp, new notes may be provided. Upon departing a restaurant or home where shoes are taken off, one’s shoes will have been turned facing out, making it easier to put on one’s shoes.
Conversely, as chefs are respected as shokunin (craftsman) — some who have spent decades learning their craft across generations – they’re bestowed a degree of respect which may surprise even veteran international diners.
While many of the rules of Japanese etiquette may not make sense, the simple concept of not causing meiwaku or inconvenience to others is one good rule of thumb to follow. Being a very small country with closely confined spaces, Japanese can be ultra sensitive in terms of the five senses. Talking loudly in restaurants or in public can give the impression you are not respectful of others. The strong scent of perfumes, particularly at higher end sushi, tempura and kaiseki restaurants is perceived to negatively affect your enjoyment of the delicate food, as well as the experience of other diners.
Because restaurants in Japan can be extremely small, some with less than 8 seats and one dinner service per day, a last minute cancellation can have a significant financial effect on the business. The recent increase in such cancellations has prompted many restaurants to implement strict cancellation policies, but many still trust the integrity of guests showing up, and on time.
Some restaurants will not take reservations from first-time visitors, only take reservations from jyorenkyaku (regular customers) or from hotel concierges who will be charged in the event of a no-show, or even arriving 15 minutes late. If you are introduced to a special restaurant by a jyorenkyaku and the reservation is cancelled without sufficient notice, that individual’s ability to make reservations for others in the future will be hampered or may even be obliged to pay for that meal.
Japanese are particularly punctual, with hosts arriving early and assumed that guests will arrive on time. With Japan’s illogical address system, it’s easy to become delayed, so at the risk of losing a reservation or keeping people waiting, it’s wise to try to arrive at least 5 minutes early. If you are running late, call the restaurant to let them know you are on your way, or have them give directions to your taxi driver in Japanese who may be having trouble finding the restaurant.
The Japanese concept of TPO (Time/Place/Occasion) is a helpful term in knowing how to behave at various establishments. Simply observing the ambiance and behavior of fellow guests will tell you if it’s necessary to speak quietly, shout sumimasen (excuse me) across the room to call a server, or if you need to get up to pay at the register, or ask for the check to be paid at the table.
If the restaurant doesn’t take reservations and there are people waiting to be seated like at ramen or sushi shops, try not to linger after you’ve finished eating.
Assume most traditional and small Japanese restaurants will only accept cash and confirm beforehand if they accept credit cards. Splitting checks across multiple credit cards is not a common practice.
If seated at the counter with the chef in front of you, it’s good form to say konnichiwa (good day) or konbanwa (good evening), then say yoroshiku onegai shimasu (best regards) as a sign of respect to the shokunin (artisan chef) and that you’re looking forward to the meal.
If you haven’t ordered ahead of time, ask for an English menu (if available), but feel free to ask osusume wa nan desu ka (what do you recommend) as there may be seasonal dishes not on the menu, but can be expensive.
When presented with an oshibori (wet towel) wipe your hands, then fold the oshibori back and place on the holder.
Because a great deal of effort has gone into preparing even the smallest of dishes, leaving uneaten or partially eaten dishes at nicer restaurants can make you look disrespectful. If you don’t have a large appetite, let the chef know so before he begins preparing your meal. If you have any food allergies or preferences, inquire well ahead of your arrival or else they may not be able to accommodate your needs. Most Japanese restaurants specialize in serving only one specific type of cuisine, whether it’s fish, chicken, beef or ramen, so it may not even be possible to be serve other food.
Japanese chefs take a great deal of pride and responsibility in their cooking. Acknowledging their efforts and communicating how much you are enjoying their food is appreciated and a form of respect.
If you want to take photos, ask if it’s acceptable beforehand. Don’t use flash as it could intrude on the experience of other guests and avoid including other guests in your photos without their permission.
If you know the chef or have been introduced to the restaurant by a jyorenkyaku (regular customer) a small gift from where you are visiting may be appropriate since Japan has an ingrained gift giving culture, like when visiting someone’s home.
At the end of the meal, say gochisosama (thank you for the delicious food) to the chef if possible. At some restaurants, the chef will accompany you to the door and wait until you are out of sight.
It’s customary to pick up one’s glass when drinking beer or sake with someone and pour each other’s drink. This is particularly true when one is drinking with a superior where the junior person should being pouring, or with a client. While friends drinking may not follow this routine all evening, as a visitor, it would be a nice gesture when drinking with a Japanese person.
Chopsticks are the trickiest item in Japanese dining to avoid committing a faux pas. While common in some countries to rub wooden chopsticks together before using, it can be offensive to the restaurant in suggesting they’re providing low quality chopsticks that require removing splintery wood.
Because long chopsticks are used at funerals, passing food to others, chopsticks to chopsticks, is taboo. The same applies to chopsticks inserted vertically into dishes which is a ritual when a bowl of rice is offered to a deceased family member
In addition, using chopsticks to pierce food, move dishes or point would be considered bad manners. In between dishes, keep chopsticks neatly together and place on the hashi-oki (chopstick rest) often provided at nicer restaurants.
Rice is sacred in Japan and leaving uneaten rice or even morsels of rice in a rice bowl are frowned upon. While visitors will be forgiven, if you don’t plan to finish your rice, ask for small portions, decline rice or make an effort to eat every rice morsel. Also, pick up rice bowls from which to eat, as well as with soup unless a spoon is provided.
Upon being served sushi, observe if the itasan (chef) is seasoning your sushi with shoyu (soy sauce), salt or other seasoning. This would make it unnecessary to have a dish of soy sauce and wasabi to season your sushi. Dipping your sushi in additional shoyu or adding wasabi could indicate to the itasan that you’re not happy with the way he’s seasoning your sushi. He may in fact increase the seasoning to match your taste, but it can be the equivalent of adding a lot of salt to a dish at a French fine dining restaurant in front of the chef.
This being said, a dish with wasabi and other condiments like negi (green onion) may be provided for you to season sashimi.
Quality shoyu is not inexpensive and similar to leaving food uneaten, even unused shoyu can be seen to be wasteful. Therefore, filling your small dish full of shoyu would be viewed negatively. In places where the sushi has not been seasoned with shoyu, dipping your sushi rice face down in the shoyu will result in the shari (sushi rice) coming apart so dip sparingly with the neta (fish) side down.
Mixing wasabi into the dish of shoyu weakens the flavor and texture of freshly grated wasabi, so better to add a bit of wasabi to the sashimi slices then dip in shoyu.
Gari (pickled ginger) is a palate cleanser between different types of fish, so shouldn’t be placed on top of sushi which would diminish its taste.
It’s encouraged to eat sushi with your fingers, especially at nicer establishments where a separate small, wet towel will be provided to wipe your fingers. However, it’s acceptable to use chopsticks, but always use chopsticks for sashimi.
Eating soba properly takes practice, but some simple tips can make a big difference. The tsuyu (dipping sauce) for cold soba is very concentrated so the soba is not meant to be fully immersed. Add the wasabi and negi (onions) to the tsuyu as you eat.
Take small portions of soba enough for a small bite, dip 1/4 to 1/3 the amount in the tsuyu, then suck up the needles to create a vortex of noodles and air in your mouth to enjoy the aroma and flavor as you chew. Some soba shops will offer seasonal hot soba like arare (small scallops) or matsutake mushrooms, but can be very expensive. Just make sure to eat the soba relatively quickly accompanied by sips of the soup before the soba loses its al dente state.
What’s particularly enjoyable at traditional soba restaurants are the appetizers, like tamagoyaki (egg omelette), kamoboko (fish cakes), sashimi, and other small dishes, followed by hot soba, cold soba, accompanied by beer and/or sake.
The list of do’s and don’ts encompasses nearly every type of specialized cuisine in Japan, from sushi, soba, sukiyaki, shabu-shabu to kaiseki, so will end here. The rituals practiced at these establishments can be quite complicated, so may be helpful to do further online research or seek the advice of Japanese friends.
Seating places in restaurants, cars and conference rooms require diagrams for young Japanese, so it can be very complicated. Based on old Japanese homes with a tokonama (alcove), the most important guest would be seated with his or her back facing the tokonama. This is a gesture of modesty so that the host would not be seen to be showing off the scroll on display.
In modern Japan, this practice is still practiced even in rooms without a tokonama so the guest of honor would generally be seated furthest from the door, and the person with the lowest rank near the door, to be able to retrieve anything if needed. However, when dining among non-Japanese, there is no need to follow this practice, and with Japanese, they will likely guide take the lead in guiding you.