Traditionally, the Japanese eat at a low table and sit on the floor. It is good etiquette to sit with your legs folded under you, but it is hard on the knees! You can also sit cross legged, but in either case, always keep your back straight in good posture! One should never crouch over the table.
Before eating, you say “itadakimasu”, which means “I gratefully receive”.
Spread out before each diner will be a bowl for rice, a bowl for miso soup, a plate of a type of protein, and several small side dishes of vegetables. All should be eaten little by little, never completing one dish first before moving on to the next.
You will notice a set of chopsticks positioned parallel to the edge of the table, just a few centimeters away. These will normally be your only utensil to eat with. Japanese style chopsticks are made from bamboo, and are tapered to a point at the end. They can be lacquered or not, smooth or slightly textured. Often, they are decorated where the hand holds them, and never decorated at the end where they pick up food.
Normally, soup is eaten with the meal, rather than before as is the custom for Western meal. You will never find a spoon if a small bowl of soup is served, like miso or clear soup. You can sip this soup straight from the bowl, making a slight sipping sound, like a cup of tea. Use your chopsticks to pick out the solid pieces.
However, for bigger bowls of soup such as udon or soba, a spoon will be provided for you to sip from rather than straight from the bowl. Typically for women, the noodles can be placed delicately on the spoon to eat them, rather than slurping them out of the bowl. This may be difficult, but it is only necessary if you want to appear elegant and dignified. If not, slurp them out of the bowl!
If you have a small bowl of rice, it is eaten as an accompaniment to the main dishes. The main dishes are flavoured in a way that the rice should not be flavoured as well. Therefore, never pour sauce over your bowl of rice, since it will affect the flavour of the main dishes.
When picking things up from dishes meant to be shared with others, use the other end of the chopsticks.
If you’re not using your chopsticks, you can place them across your plate with the tips to the left. Alternatively, some restaurants provide a chopstick holder to rest them on. You can make one yourself if the chopsticks come in a paper sleeve.
At the end of the meal, you can say “gochisosama deshita”, which means “I thank you for the meal”.
Never blow your nose at the dinner table. If you must, leave the table or turn away.
Remember to never stick your chopsticks straight up into a bowl of rice. It is how rice is offered to the dead.
Never suck on your chopsticks, or lick them.
Never pull dishes toward you with your chopsticks.
Never leave even a grain of rice in your bowl or on your plate. Eat every last grain, as rice is considered extremely valuable.
Never wave around your chopsticks, or gesture with them.
Never stab your food to pick it up.