How to eat in a Japanese restaurant and not offend anybody
We all know that Japan is a country that takes manners, politeness and courtesy very seriously. Though visitors are expected to make the occasional faux pas, breaking the rules of civility frequently is very bad form. If you are in Japan on business, this becomes even more of an issue as so much will depend on your ability to build a strong, respectful relationship with the people you meet.
One potential minefield for the green gaijin is the dinner table. Ensuring you behave yourself correctly when the time comes to eat could be the difference between an unpleasant atmosphere and a successful trip. Here are the essential dos and don'ts for not making a fool of yourself in a Japanese restaurant.
If you want to really show that you know how to behave yourself in Japan, then put your palms together and say “Itadakimasu” at the beginning of the meal. This simple gesture will show your hosts that you respect and appreciate their hospitality. When the meal is over, put your palms together again and say “Gochiso sama deshita.”
One of the main reasons that so many Westerners have trouble with chopsticks is that they use them incorrectly. If you are served food such as rice in or noodles in a small bowl or on a small plate, lift it from the table closer to your mouth. You will find the sticks easier to use from this position. For large dishes, however, leave them on the table. If you still can't hack it, just ask for a knife and fork – nobody will be offended and you'll enjoy your meal better.
On the subject of chopsticks, it is considered extremely rude to point at anything – be it a person or an inanimate object – with your sticks.
There are certain bodily functions that the Japanese believe should be kept private. Blowing your nose and burping are absolute no-nos in any public space but are considered particularly rude when others are eating. Also, if you need to use a toothpick, make sure you keep your mouth covered at all times – nobody wants to see your teeth being cleaned.
When booze is on the menu, be careful not to seem too eager to get stuck in. Ensure everybody's glass has been filled before you put yours to your lips. Chances are there will be a toast before the table drinks. “Kampai” is the word for cheers in Japan. You can say “Cheers” if you prefer but, under no circumstances, say “Chin-Chin”. It has a very different meaning in Japan than it does in the west and, trust us, it's not something you want to bring up at a business meeting.
If you finish what's in your glass, it will be taken as a sign that you are finished drinking for the meal. If you want a refill, leave a small amount and somebody will refresh it for you.
When it's time for sushi, be careful with the soy sauce. Never pour it directly on your sashimi, instead pouring it into the small dish provided and then dipping your fish into it. Do not pour more than you intend to use – the Japanese hate wasteful eating habits.