Osaka, Japan
Photo: Type specimen (Creative Commons)

Visting Japan? Or perhaps you already live in the country. Here are some handy rules to follow for eating and drinking protocol.

Generally, Japanese society is rather lenient towards the manners of foreigners. As long as you try to follow along with how things are usually done and don’t leave a mess after yourself, you’ll probably be fine.

But what if you want to delve into the nitty-gritty of Japanese manners? Amy’s Guide to Best Behavior in Japan: Do it Right and Be Polite! might be the guide for you. It was written by long-time resident Amy Chavez, and while the book might seem too polite in parts, that’s the point!

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The book covers an array of manners and answers the eternal question of why Japanese people don’t walk and eat. According to Chavez, etiquette courses taught in the Meiji Period (1868-1912) dictated that one was not to eat or drink while walking. This has since become ingrained into society, which is why typically people in Japan consume beverages near vending machines (though, not always) and don’t walk and eat (though, not always), preferring to sit down and eat instead.

But what about eating on trains? It’s generally discouraged on local trains, though there aren’t signs stating eating isn’t allowed. So, how do you know if it is?

Via Amy’s Guide to Best Behavior in Japan: Do it Right and Be Polite!, here are some tips.

The best way to tell if it’s okay to consume food and drink is to look for a food tray or drink holder provided for that purpose.

Eating is OK on the Shinkansen bullet train, and even encouraged as the snack trolley makes its way down the aisle selling bento lunches, snacks, coffee, and beer (plus omiyage in case you forgot to buy a gift for someone!).

When bringing your own food onto the train, be tidy and lay down a tissue or cloth on your lap to catch bits and pieces of orange peels or crumbs. If you discover crumbs on the train seat when you stand up to leave, gather the crumbs in your hand and put them into a tissue or cloth rather than brushing them onto the floor where others will step on them.

You may drink alcohol on the Shinkansen and long-distance “rapid” trains in Japan; no biggie. You’ll often see business people enjoying a can of beer on their journey home at the end of the workday. This does not mean it’s okay to get hammered on the train.

Do not drink on local trains and transportation.

Avoid smelly foods like kimchee or curry.

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Most of your eating in Japan will be done at restaurants. There are some good basics to follow when entering an establishment, ordering food and eating.

In most Japanese restaurants, a hostess will seat you when you walk in. Even if it’s a sushi bar with only a few seats open at the bar, it’s good manners to acknowledge the chef behind the counter (if he looks your way) before sitting down. If there is no hostess, many people will ask for the chef’s permission before sitting down at the bar. This can be done by merely pointing to the open seats (with an open palm, of course) and saying, “OK?”

If you’re adventurous, you can usually get a local, nutritious, reasonably priced, delectable lunch at a Japanese restaurant by ordering the teishoku, the set lunch of the day. Don’t bother asking what the teishoku contains (unless your server speaks fluent English); it’s complicated and unless you’re extremely familiar with Japanese food, you probably won’t recognize the names of the items anyway. But there is usually a variety of vegetables, meat, or fish, and it almost always comes with miso soup and rice.

Many restaurants will have a basket on the floor next to the table. Stow your belongings here. It’s a great way to keep your items together so they don’t get in others’ way.

When you sit down at any type of restaurant in Japan, you will be offered a wet towel called an oshibori (cold in summer, hot in winter) to clean your hands. You may also use it during the meal to wipe your hands or mouth and to clean up spills. Some people also use oshibori to wipe their face or neck when they first sit down, but they’re not really supposed to. Definitely avoid doing this in a fancy restaurant; keep the wet towel to hands only. Lay it on the table by the side of your plate or bowl. Do not place it on your lap.

Do not ask for exceptions or substitutions in your order. Items are delivered as they are offered on the menu, not according to customers’ special requests. Take the food as it is presented to you.

No one will start eating until either the guest, or the most important person at the table, picks up their chopsticks to start.

Japanese meals typically feature small bowls of food, many with lids. Take off the lids and rest them upside down on the table (so as not to spill condensation on the table or tray). If the top doesn’t come off easily, gently squeeze the bowl with your fingers wrapped around it to break the seal created by the steam. Put lids back on the bowls when finished.

Gracefully choose foods from different bowls (without hovering indecisively with your chopsticks) and savor the flavors. Try some rice, then a bit of this and that, then some more rice, etc. You’ll find that certain flavors complement each other, such as rice with miso soup. This is the art of eating in Japan.

Bring small bowls up to your mouth rather than hunching over the bowl on the table. Hold the bowl with four fingers under the bowl, your thumb supporting one side while using the opposite hand to work the chopsticks. Never put your thumb on the rim.

You can drink straight from soup bowls, but do so while holding the bowl with two hands. Place one hand underneath the bowl (as instructed above), and use the other hand to cup the side.

Never ever, ever put sugar in green tea. It’s supposed to be healthy and enjoyed as is. Seek the joy.

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Japan isn’t only a great place to drink, but it is one of the greatest places in the world to drink. The country makes some of the best booze you can imbibe, whether that is beer, sake, shochu or whisky.

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You can also get some seriously good cocktails and have a great night out. But there are some things to keep in mind.

If you got drunk and don’t remember anything from the night before, don’t worry. The Japanese forgive easily, and as long as no harm was done, no one will ever mention it!

Getting happily drunk and being a vociferous and rowdy drunk are two different things, however. If you are loud, people may call the police. If you put others out because of your behavior, a “sorry” gift is in order the next day. Don’t expect to ever be asked out drinking again. Know how you behave when you drink and don’t be stupid.

You don’t have to consume alcohol to fit in in Japan. You just have to drink something—even tea or cola.

Why? Because you need to have some liquid in your glass to do the proper kanpai (toast) that officially starts off dinners, parties, banquets, or just end-of-the-day boozing engagements.

It is quite acceptable to just take a small swallow of beer in a glass for the purpose of the kanpai and then change to a non-alcoholic beverage for the rest of the evening.

Always do a toast before drinking, even if there are just two of you. Touch your glasses together and say “kanpai!”

It is considered the height of good manners to refill another’s glass when it’s empty. As a result, topping up people’s glasses with beer, shochu (the local spirit), or sake before they’re finished avoids the horror of someone being left staring at an empty glass. This, however, just fuels more and more ordering and consumption of alcohol! The key here is moderation of a constantly full glass.

As someone is refilling your glass, it is polite practice to hold it up (with both hands). When your glass is full, acknowledge the kindness by taking a sip. Always check to make sure that the other person’s glass is also full.

You may politely refuse when someone tries to fill your glass, but it’s better to just leave your glass full so no one can pour more into it!

At formal occasions, make sure your superior’s (or your host’s) glass is always full! Remember to use both hands to hold the bottle or carafe when pouring.

It is perfectly okay to leave behind a full glass of beer or other beverage when it’s time to exit an establishment.

Never drink and drive in Japan. There is “zero toler-ance” for driving under the influence. Most Japanese people will not drive even if they’ve had just a sip of alcohol or beer.

You may find everyone leaving near the same time in order to catch the last train home. If you end up missing that train, take a taxi or find a capsule hotel. There are plenty of people who hang out on public benches awaiting the first train in the morning, so you can always join them.

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Photo: Pxhere

For more, check out the book’s official site right here.


Kotaku East is your slice of Asian internet culture, bringing you the latest talking points from Japan, Korea, China and beyond. Tune in every morning from 4am to 8am.