All About Asian Food

Japanese Etiquette Blog

Sushi Ginger

Chopsticks

Chopsticks are an integral part of Japan's history and culture, and have been for a thousand years. Because of this they are seen as so much more than mere utensils. There are approximately 40 basic rules concerning chopsticks and proper etiquette, but we picked out a few of the more important ones.

  • Do NOT stab your chopsticks into the rice so that they are standing straight up. This action is reserved for funerals only, and doing so at a typical meal is considered extraordinarily offensive. (Of all the rules you learn, this first one may be the most important)
  • Do not spear your food with chopsticks.
  • Don't rub your chopsticks together. If you must rub them together to get rid of any splinters in the wood, do it under the table, as doing so in plain view suggests the restaurant owner is cheap.
  • Do not use your chopsticks to get food from a serving plate, as there should be serving chopsticks.
  • Do not point with your chopsticks.
  • Chopsticks should be placed right-left direction; the tips should be on the left. Placing diagonal, vertical or crossing each stick are not acceptable. Using a Chopstick Rest is also perfectly acceptable.
  • Never pass food from your chopsticks to someone else's chopsticks.

Sushi

Sushi as it is known today is relatively young in terms of Japan's history, only about 200 years old. Sushi is considered a type of edible art, and is meant to be appreciated as a beautiful dish as well as a tasty one. That being said, don't treat it like fries at a fast food place, eat them one piece at a time, taking time to enjoy the full flavor of the food.

  • It helps to know a little about what you're ordering or eating. Nigiri is fish over a ball of sticky rice; Maki is fish and rice and other ingredients in a roll of seaweed; Temaki is a hand roll of sushi, often made to look like a cone shape; Sashimi is raw fish with no rice.
  • Sushi is meant to be eaten all in one bite. The portions in Japan are generally smaller, as Americans have added a bit of girth to the food. But nonetheless, the food is meant to be eaten one piece at a time, all at once, so don't ask for a knife to cut it, as it will make you look bad.
  • Don't be afraid to ask for a chef's recommendation. Fish stocks change by day and by season. It will show that you respect the food, and want only the freshest when you ask what his or her recommendation is.
  • Sushi is designed to be finger food. Traditionally, Japanese food was eaten with the thumb, index and middle finger, but not the pinky or ring finger. So don't be afraid to ignore those chopsticks.
  • It has become western tradition to lather your food in condiments, whether it's gravy, ketchup, or even Soy Sauce. However with sushi, the idea is to add a subtle and accentuating flavor, not an overpowering taste. Dip lightly, do not douse.
  • The ginger is not to be eaten as a meal, it's a way of getting the taste out of your mouth, so that you don't mix flavors and can enjoy one item at a time. It has a strong taste, so beware.
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Sushi Ginger

 

Alcohol

The history of alcohol in Japan is ancient, and because of that there is a long list of rules to consider. However, since we've been rambling on long enough we'll keep this one short.

  • In Japan people say "Kanpai" when they drink. This is their version of "cheers."
  • It is considered rude to pour sake for yourself. You should pour it for others, and they will do so for you.
  • Don't smoke at a sushi bar. The smoke will overpower the taste and natural aromas of the food and drink being consumed.

 

Miscellaneous

There are too many rules and traditions in Japanese cuisine to break it all down into tight little groups, but here are a few last minute quick tips.

  • Tipping in Japan is considered unnecessary and is unexpected. American sushi restaurants, however, expect it just as any other restaurant would.
  • If your waiter/waitress brings you a hot towel, that is for washing your hands, and not so much for the food. This is also common on Japanese airlines.
  • It's ok to drink from your soup bowl. It's also ok to use your chopsticks to push the solids within the soup toward your mouth.
  • Slurping is ok when you are eating noodle dishes. It is even considered polite on occasion, though you should be polite to your neighbor too and not slurp so that you distract anyone.
  • If someone sneezes it is considered polite to ignore it, instead of saying "bless you," as is common in the west.
  • Don't blow your nose at the table. This is considered very offensive, and something to be done in private.

These general tips should leave you prepared to walk into any Japanese restaurant and hold your own. Enjoy!

9 Comments

Catherine said:

This was very helpful. Some suggestions I already knew from visiting Japan others were informative for next time

David in San Antonio said:

I especially like the comment about sushi being finger food, because in my old age my right hand has lost its ability to hold chop sticks. I have been picking up my sushi for the last few years, and now don't have to be concerned about making a social blunder!

Mary said:

Is it offensive if you stick a knife straight up in a burger does that represent the same?

Not quite- the chopsticks being stuck into rice looks similar to the way that incense stands during a funeral. I guess it would be sort of like standing a ketchup packet up against your hotdog so that it looks like a gravestone and a grave- just because it's a reminder of death while eating. But please, feel free to play with your cheeseburgers as you wish, as far as we know there aren't any taboos against that :)

Pate said:

This was very helpful & interesting. Do you know of any other websites with more information on Japanese rules and traditions?

Hi Pate :)
We're glad you liked it. We sent our writer to Japan for some first hand experience, and we also gathered our information from our staff members. Keep posted because we will be putting up some more helpful Japan living blogs soon. As far as other sites, I don't think I could send you to any specific one. We try to gather our information from several sources and then do fact checking before we post our blogs.

Isabel Porto said:

Hello, thank you for posting this information about etiquette. It is very useful. I have a question. I have some mild food allergies that make my nose run when I am eating some foods. I just read that it is bad manners to blow one's nose at the table, and my problem always happens when I eat. What should I do? I have postponed invitations to Japanese restaurants for fear of embarrasing myself or others. Thank you.

Taki said:

I've noticed that some (if not most) children's chopsticks are shorter than that of adults for easier handling. They also help if you have more delicate fingers. Also eating with chopsticks in general help with portion control.

Zircor said:

Thank you for the etiquette, guys! I'm always concerned about this type of stuff when interacting with people from Asian cultures, even though I know the Japanese usually are forgiving since I'm foreign. I always like to be polite, though :) At a sushi bar, I've read that it's a signal that you are finished with your meal when you cross your chopsticks or lay them across your plate. Can I get a clarification on this, as it's been a while since I read it and am no longer clear on what exactly it was.

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