Making a good first impression is important. Whether we like it or not, a first impression can have a lasting effect not only on our social lives but also in a work environment.
Chances are if you are trying to network with people in Japan, your first impressions are going to be made over food. There are a lot of dos and don'ts at the Japanese dinner table and due to the nature of Japan, no one is going to tell you about them!
That's right, your Japanese acquaintances will let you accidentally offend the dead, insult the restaurant and draw uncomfortable stares from others, without you even being aware of it.
With that said, below are some ways to help avoid having your Japanese dinner companions raising a silent eyebrow at you.
1. Tools of the trade
Chopsticks. Probably the most important and daunting part of eating in a Japanese environment for those of us that have only ever known the fork and knife. As you struggle to get to grips with the sticks, let's avoid offering your rice to dead spirits and calling bad luck down upon everyone at the dinner table...
You heard me. Sticking your chopsticks upright in a bowl of rice is something Japanese people do at funerals to offer the rice to the departed, it's called ‘tsukitate-bashi' (突き立て箸). Doing this at the dinner table is almost a guaranteed way to make people uncomfortable and is one of the more important no-nos to avoid doing.
*You may also find ‘tsukitate-bashi' in front of a photograph at households you visit. This should go without saying, but don't touch it.
For similar reasons don't cross your chopsticks on your plate. This too has connotations of death and can remind people of a funeral ceremony. Most restaurants and households will supply you with chopstick holders; use them! If all else fails, rest your chopsticks on your plate or napkin parallel to one another; it's hard to go wrong with that.
No one wants to think about you eating the cremated bones of a close relative, so don't pass food from Chopstick to Chopstick. The only situation in Japanese culture where something is passed from Chopstick to Chopstick is called ‘Kotsuage' (骨揚げ). It's the act of family members at a funeral, passing the cremated bones of a loved one from Chopstick to Chopstick before placing the bones into an urn.
If you find yourself in a situation where you need to pass food from yourself to another person, use serving chopsticks to place the food directly onto that person's plate. More common is to reverse your grip on your own Chopsticks and using the opposite end, the end not covered in your saliva, to move the food across. The important thing to keep in mind here is the food is moving from Chopstick to plate and not Chopstick to Chopstick.
I'm sure no one is surprised that bringing up death and funerals at a dinner where you are trying to make a good first impression isn't a great idea. So if you take nothing else away from this article avoid the three things just mentioned and you should be able to avoid summoning the dead to dine with you.
A few other things you want to avoid doing with your Chopsticks:
►Spearing your food with your Chopsticks
It's frustrating trying to lift a piece of food from your plate only to have it fall back down again, but avoid stabbing your food with Chopsticks. It's looked down upon and can paint you in a negative light.
►Rubbing your chopsticks together
You're sending a message to the restaurant that you believe that their establishment is ‘cheap' and would supply you with low-quality Chopsticks that might give you splinters. Also not a great message to send someone you are on a date with, especially if you picked the restaurant.
►Eating with mismatched Chopsticks
The act is associated with funerals. Who would have guessed?
When taking food from a communal plate don't put it straight in your mouth. Place it first on your personal plate. Make sure your Chopsticks don't touch any food you don't plan to eat, nobody wants your saliva on their food.
►Washing your Chopsticks
I've been witness to this one more than once. It's not ok to ‘wash' your Chopsticks in your soup or glass of water. If you feel the need for clean Chopsticks just ask for a new pair.
►Pointing with your Chopsticks
You wouldn't point at someone with your fork or knife, the same applies to Chopsticks.
Above all else, if the prospect of using Chopsticks unnerves you, don't worry. Mistakenly breaking any of the above rules are not going to get you into any serious trouble as you're a foreigner and no one expects you to know all these things straight away.
More than once, my poor skills with Chopsticks turned into a funny conversation starter.
Though with all that said, if you're going to be having an important business dinner where your best table manners are required and the thought of Chopsticks makes you uncomfortable, call the waiter and ask for a fork and knife. Nine times out of ten the restaurant will have them in the back, if not on the table already, waiting for you.
Just watch out for ramen, sushi, and traditional Japanese restaurants. There, Chopsticks might be your only option.
There isn't much to say about plates. Unlike in the west where our meals tend to get served on one big plate, Japan presents your food on a satellite of small dishes normally accompanied by a bowl of rice.
Unlike what most of us are accustomed to, it's fine to lift your plate off the dinner table and it's always okay to lift your rice bowl. If you're ever uncertain just transfer food from any of your plates to your rice bowl and then lift that instead.
2. Remember to shout at your waiter
Trying to get your waiter's attention in Japan is not like back home. Sitting at your table expecting someone to come and take your order will eventually lead to an awkward stare-off between you and your waiter.
In Japan, you have to call your waiter. This is done by saying the Japanese equivalent of "excuse me" (Su-mi-ma-sen) loud enough that your voice carries across the restaurant.
Don't worry, it's not rude and the people around you won't mind. Personally, the English in me struggled sometimes to do this without hesitation and I often raised my hand slightly to help grab attention.
Now with your order made and your food arrived it's time to thank the food. Although not necessary it's considered good manners to thank the food before you eat it. ‘I-ta-da-ki-masu' is the phrase you'll hear said before people eat.
I say ‘thank the food', because you're not directly conveying your thanks to a waiter or chef. Think of it as a little prayer you say aloud before eating.
However, I strongly recommend you use this phrase before eating at someone's home. In this context, it is seen as showing gratitude towards your host and you will be seen as rude if left unsaid.
Just as there are words for the beginning of the meal, there are also words for the end of one. ‘Gochi-sou-sama-deshita' is a phrase often used to thank someone for the meal.
This phrase tends to be used more directly than the last and can be said to restaurant staff instead of ‘thank you' after paying your bill. However, most people don't say this phrase directly to a member of staff, more commonly they speak the phrase aloud as they are leaving the restaurant.
The same rules apply. Although not necessary in a restaurant setting, I would go as far as to say good manners require you to use both phrases when a guest in a person's home.
3. Become a noodle connoisseur
Chances are if you spend any amount of time in Japan you'll end up at a ramen shop. With each region of Japan comes its own variation of ramen and within those regions, shop owners have their own spin on the dish. Even with all this variety of ramen shops, one thing remains the same, slurping.
Unlike what our mothers may have told us when we were younger, not only is slurping perfectly acceptable when eating ramen, it's considered the right way to do it.
You may have heard at some point that Japanese people slurp their ramen as a form of conveying some sort of compliment to the chef; this simply is not true. It's a commonly repeated myth and you only have to ask a Japanese friend to receive a confused expression in return.
In fact, in modern-day Japan, if you were to ask someone why they slurp their noodles they'll mostly tell you "I don't know, I just do." It's become so rooted in the Japanese culture that the reason behind it has faded into obscurity.
For those of you still curious as to the 'why?', it has more in common with wine tasting then you might think. Just as with wine tasting sucking in the air alongside wine is said to release more of its aromas and taste, the Japanese believe the same is true with their noodles.
Whether you believe this or not it's still considered bad practice to bite your noodles off, leaving the remains to fall back down to the bowl from your mouth. Even though there is a learning curve to being able to slurp your noodles without splashing broth everywhere, I recommend you give it a go. If nothing else, it's fun to do.
4. The important part is trying
Although not every facet of Japanese dining is presented here, these are the ones I would consider to be the most important and recommend you start with if you see yourself at a Japanese dinner table in the near future.
As I mentioned before don't panic if you forget any of these; it takes time and practice for this to become second nature. The most important thing is that you are seen to be making an effort. That alone will take you a long way in making a great first impression in Japan.