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How to Eat Sushi and Dining Etiquette in Japan

Japanese Dining Etiquette - how to eat sushi

Dining rituals are fundamental in Japan. While there for business, you may have occasion to eat or take tea with someone. Sushi is very popular in the United States, but as much as you may like it you are likely eating it wrong. That’s not a big deal in the States, but it may reflect poorly on you in Japan. How to eat sushi the right way may surprise you. Did you know you aren’t supposed to use chopsticks to eat sushi, but you do with soup? 

Follow these tips on Japanese dining etiquette to make the best impression. 

At the Start of the Meal

O-shibori occurs at the start of the meal. Before touching anything, a warm towel is provided to wipe your hands. Unlike in China, this is not okay to use on your face. In homes or places without the warm towel, you are expected to wash your hands just prior. 

Customary phrases are part of Japanese dining etiquette. Wait until the guest of honor, host, or server makes a gesture to begin, usually one expressing gratitude. At the beginning, you say “itadaki-masu”. This means “I humbly receive” and is part of showing appreciation. At the end of the meal, you say “gochisou-sama” or “gochisosama deshita” to say thank you. 

How to Use Chopsticks the Right Way

Using chopsticks has unique etiquette, called o-hashi. You can easily seem coarse or insult fellow diners without knowing. Be sure not to point, wave, or gesture with chopsticks. Do not lick chopsticks. When you are using chopsticks, be careful not to rub them together. That intimates that the chopsticks are cheap. 

Meals usually involve conversation, but it’s rude to talk while holding your chopsticks. Put down your chopsticks while talking.  

How to eat sushi and Japanese manners

O-hashi, or Chopstick Etiquette

  • For paper-wrapped chopsticks, provided there is no chopstick rest: remove the wrapper and lay chopsticks to the right of your bowl or plate. The connected portion should be at the top of your plate. Fold your wrapper horizontally and knot it. This knot can be placed at the two-o’clock position. Use this to rest the food-touching part of your chopsticks when not in use.
  • Only once you have created a rest should you break wooden chopsticks apart over your lap, not the plate. You should only rub wooden chopsticks together.
  • If there is a serving set of chopsticks, use those and not your own to serve. 
  • If there is no serving set of chopsticks, use the back end of your chopsticks to serve.
  • Use chopsticks for all food—even difficult food—except sushi.
  • Do not pass food with chopsticks, which happens at funeral rituals.
  • Do not pull bowls or plates with your chopsticks.
  • Avoid sticking your chopsticks straight up from your rice. This is an Asian wide way of offering rice to the dead.
  • Never point or gesture with chopsticks. 
  • Never cross chopsticks in an x-pattern or separate them on opposing sides of the plate. If no rest is available, lay them next to each other north-to-south on the right side of the plate.

How to Eat in Japan

Sitting on a Traditional Tatami Mat or Zabuton Pillow

Eating out in Japan, you may come across mats or pillows placed on a raised floor instead of chairs. Be prepared to remove your shoes and sit correctly. That means clean socks with no holes or well-cared for feet. 

  • You will be expected to remove your shoes. 
  • After removing your shoes, step immediately up to the mat to avoid getting dirt on the clean dining area. 
  • Once you have stepped into the mat area, or tatami room, bow to the guests without talking or hand shaking. 
  • Take your seat as directed. 
  • Sit on your heels. 
  • If the host allows you to make yourself “comfortable” you may move into a cross-legged position if you are a man. If you are a woman, you have been invited to sit with your legs tucked to one side. Do not spread legs in front of your body

Wait to be seated. There is a seat of honor in Japanese culture called the kamiza. This is usually farthest from the entrance. 

tea and dining manners in japan

Tea and Drinks

When you are greeted, even in business, tea will often be served. Do not drink the tea right away. Wait for the host to begin drinking tea first. Take sips from the tea. Avoid finishing it too quickly. 

You may be presented special small cakes at a tea service. Hold the plate to your chest with one hand. Do not get crumbs anywhere but the plate. 

There are very specific rituals for tea ceremonies. If you are invited to one, research the proper etiquette. You will be expected to drink and bow in specific order. 

If out for drinks or if drinks are served with dinner, be mindful of your company. Wait for everyone to have a full glass and raise a toast before drinking. The toast will be “Kanpai.” 

Sake is served cold or hot. Unfiltered sake is creamier in appearance and a little sweeter. If the sake is served in a box on a plate, it will likely be overpoured so there is spill. This is to show abundance. Leave the sake on the plate. Do not drink it. 

drinking culture and manners in Japan

Never pour your own beverage. When pouring a drink, the bottle should always be poured forward. Pouring backward is considered an insult. Watch others to get the technique down. 

Yes, karaoke bars are popular even with the most serious of people. If you are invited, you will be expected to sing. Don’t worry if you have a bad voice. 

Holding a Bowl 

It’s okay to slurp, especially when eating udon or soup. However, it is not okay to spill everywhere. If eating from small bowls, it’s okay to bring the bowl to your mouth or chest rather than spill. Crumbs are a no-no. 

how to eat Japanese food

Leave a Little

Leaving a little of each item shows that there was enough food. No clean plate clubs here. 

However, do not leave shells in the bowl they were served in. If you have a dish with shells, like clams, put the emptied shells onto a separate plate or the lid of the bowl.

How to Eat Sushi

You have likely been eating sushi wrong. Sushi is different than maki or sashimi. Maki is the rolls that are cut. Sashimi is the raw fish without the rice. You can use chopsticks for both of those, but not sushi. 

  • Avoid putting a lot of soy sauce in your dipping bowl. You should only have a trace left when done.
  • Do not put wasabi onto the fish, but mix it without spilling into the soy sauce.
  • Use your fingers to pick up sushi, not your chopsticks. 
  • Gently touch the fish side of your sushi to the soy sauce rather than dipping the rice.
  • Avoid leaving rice floating in the bowl.
  • All sushi or maki should be eaten in one, single bite. Do not bite pieces in half.

how to eat sushi in japan

Soup, Noodles, and Rice 

It’s normal to slurp when eating noodles. The Japanese believe that inhaling air while eating noodles brings out the full taste.

To consume soup: 

  • Eat all solid pieces with chopsticks, holding the bowl close to your mouth to help scoop items into your mouth. 
  • Once the solids are eaten, put the chopsticks aside. Sip broth from the bowl, holding it with both hands.

Rice is eaten like soup, held to the mouth and scooped from the bowl. You can eat the rice after the main course as its own dedicated course. Alternately, you can hold a bit of the main course over the bowl (held to your chest). Take a bite of the main dish and then put a bite of rice into your mouth quickly after.

japanese dining

Paying for a Meal

Take and give things, like money, with both hands.

The bill is generally paid in its entirety by the person who invites the rest to dinner.

Tipping is considered rude, so do not leave money in addition to the bill.

Now you know how to eat sushi and most of what you'll need for your next trip to Japan. 


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