The etiquette of business dining in Japan

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The etiquette of business dining in Japan

Japan is a country known for its unique culture and traditions and the etiquette of business dining is no exception. From formal meals to traditional tea ceremonies, it is wise to develop some understanding of what is considered good manners before venturing to Japan to do business.

Seating arrangements

Most traditional Japanese meals take place sat on a tatami, a reedlike mat inset in the top part of the floor and at formal dining events you may be expected to sit in a seiza position (with your legs tucked underneath you). If you are invited to get comfortable by your host, this means then men are able to sit cross-legged and women can sit with their legs tucked to one side, you should not sit with your legs out directly in front of you.

The host will generally sit in the middle of the table with most honoured guest sitting directly opposite on the side furthest from the door, the second most important guest will then sit next to them.

Table manners

Before a meal in Japan, the custom of o-shibori takes place, requiring you to wipe your hands with the towel provided.

When it comes to beginning the meal, follow the lead of your host, only drinking and eating once they have already done so themselves, first saying “itidakimasu” (“ I gratefully receive).

There are many aspects of Japanese dining etiquette that centre around the use of chopsticks, which are typically squarer and more formally handled than in China.

If possible you should learn to use chopsticks beforehand, as they are generally used to eat everything including soup and rice. Meat and fish are usually marinated before cooking, which means you should be easily able to cut it with your chopsticks. You should resort to using yours fingers unless you are eating sushi, which you should pick up with your fingers and dip into the soy sauce fish side down (a move made impossible by chopsticks).

Your chopsticks should be strictly for your own use, with shared dishes usually coming with their own serving chopsticks and it being frowned upon to pass others food directly from your own chopsticks. If serving chopsticks are not provide it is considerate and polite to turn your chopsticks round and use the blunt ends to take food from the shared plates. If you are presented with chopsticks in a paper wrapper, it is customary to remove the paper and fold it horizontally in half and then tie it in a knot, creating a chopstick rest, placing it at the right hand side of your plate, keeping the “mouth” end of the chopsticks off the table. You can then split the joined chopsticks apart, which should be done over your lap, to avoid small splinters going into any food. When not in use they should be placed on a rest, or resting on the plate itself, but should never be crossed into an X, rested on separate side of a plate, or left standing upright in rice.

When using chopsticks to eat soup, you should use them to lift any solid pieces of food to your mouth, before drinking the remaining broth straight from the bowl, which should be held with two hands. If your soup is served in a bowl which comes with a lid, you should place the lid back on the bowl when you are finished.

Rice is usually served in small individual bowls and can be eaten after the main dish, or can be eaten in conjunction with it, by taking some of the main dish with your chopsticks and holding it over your rice bowl before placing it in your mouth, before quickly scooping some rice into your mouth. You should not mix rice with food or sauce, it should always be eaten plain and you should try and eat every grain in the bowl.

You will be brought a small shallow bowl to be used for soya sauce and you should pour out only as much as you expect to use, leaving only a trace when you are finished. If you are eating sushi mix a little wasabi (a strong, green, horseradish like sauce) in to your soya sauce bowl with your chopstick and lightly stir. Wasabi should not be eaten on its own or applied directly to the fish.

When you have finished eating you should say “gochisosama (deshita)” (“Thank you for the meal”) with a bow. This becomes even more important if someone has cooked the meal for you themselves.

While tea at a home or office can be a more casual affair, a formal tea ceremony has its own strict set of rules designed to promote tranquility and it is important that you thoroughly research proceedings beforehand, so you don’t do anything to break the peace and harmony of the event.

Toasting and drinking

A host will generally make a toast at the start of the meal, which the honoured guest should reciprocate straight afterwards or at the end of the meal. The main toast is kampai which basically means “cheers”.

If alcohol is being served you should not fill your own glass, instead checking those of others, serving them when needed. It is considered bad manners in Japan to be seen drunk in public.

The bill

It is standard for whoever has invited you to the meal to pay the bill. Tipping is not usually required, although if you do tip it should be around 10%.

Emma Tidey
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