Soy sauce (shōyu) is not usually poured over most foods at the table; a dipping dish is usually provided. Soy sauce is, however, meant to be poured directly onto tōfu and grated daikon dishes, and in the raw egg when preparing tamago kake gohan (“egg on rice”). In particular, soy sauce should never be poured onto rice or into soup.
When taking food from a communal dish, unless they are family or very close friends, one should turn the chopsticks around to grab the food; it is considered more sanitary. Alternatively, one could have a separate set of chopsticks for communal dishes.
The proper usage of chopsticks (hashi) is the most important table etiquette in Japan. Chopsticks are never left sticking vertically into rice, as this resembles incense sticks (which are usually placed vertically in sand during offerings to the dead). This may easily offend some Japanese people. Using chopsticks to spear food or to point is also frowned upon and it is considered very bad manners to bite chopsticks. Other important chopsticks rules to remember include the following:
- Hold chopsticks towards their end, and not in the middle or the front third.
- Chopsticks not in use should be laid down in front of the diner with the tip to the left. This is also the correct position in which to place chopsticks after the meal’s conclusion.
- Do not pass food with chopsticks directly to somebody else’s chopsticks. This technique is only used at funerals, where the bones of the cremated body of the dead person are passed from person to person in this manner.
- Do not move chopsticks around in the air too much or play with them.
- Do not move around plates or bowls with chopsticks.
- To separate a piece of food into two pieces, exert controlled pressure on the chopsticks while moving them apart from each other.
Eat what is given
It is customary to eat rice to the last grain. Being a picky eater is frowned upon, and it is not customary to ask for special requests or substitutions at restaurants. It is considered ungrateful to make these requests especially in circumstances where one is being hosted, as in a business dinner environment. After eating, try to move all dishes back to the same position they were at the start of the meal. This includes replacing the lids on dishes and putting one’s chopsticks on the chopstick holder or back into their paper slip. Good manners dictate that one respects the selections of the host. However, this can be set aside for a diner with allergies such as a peanut allergy, or a religious prohibition against certain foods like pork.
Even in informal situations, drinking alcohol starts with a toast (kanpai) when everyone is ready. Do not start drinking until everybody is served and has finished the toast. It is not customary to pour oneself a drink; rather, people are expected to keep each other’s drinks topped up. When someone moves to pour one’s drink, one should hold one’s glass with both hands and thank the pourer.
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