When you walk into a Japanese restaurant, you’re walking into a place with its own dining etiquette. I’ve made so many mistakes I could write a book about it. A pretty embarrassing book. So to avoid you these awkward moments, I’ve compiled below all the Japanese restaurant manners. Let’s break down what to do and what not to do when it comes to Japanese restaurant etiquette!

When You Enter a Japanese Restaurant

  • “Irasshaimase!”: When you come in, you’ll hear “irasshaimase!” which basically means “welcome.” Don’t answer “irasshaimase” or even “hello” back – if the staff is looking at you, a quick nod or smile back is all you need to do.
  • Show how many people you are with: the staff at the entrance will ask you how many people are in your party. If you don’t speak Japanese, use your fingers to show the correct number – you can do it even before they ask the question – and the staff will understand right away.
  • Shoes or no shoes?: In Japan, shoe etiquette is a big deal. Some places – especially more traditional restaurants with low seating – will ask you to take off your shoes and put them in a locker or shoe rack. No room for negotiation here.

Finding Your Seat

  • Wait for the cue: Don’t just go and grab a seat. Most of the time, the staff will show you where to seat. If not – like in most gyuudon (beef bowl) places like Sukiya or Yoshinoya, or in small ramen shops, you can just take the seat you like. And if someone’s taking you out, just follow their lead!
  • Smoking: most restaurants don’t allow smoking anymore. But some might have a smoking area. If that’s the case, the staff will ask you if you prefer to seat in the smoking or non-smoking area.
  • Give space: When you get to your seat, keep to your spot. Don’t spread out too much. In Japan, people like their personal space, even when eating.

After Seating at Your Table

We’re done with the easy part. Now let’s dive deeper into the Japanese restaurant etiquette:

  • Free water or tea: restaurants usually serve free water or tea to every customer. Sometimes the waiter will fill your glass (and you can ask for a refill if you finish it), sometimes it will be self-service either directly on your table, or somewhere in the restaurant.
  • Wet towel: the staff might give you a wet towel upon seating at your table. It is called an “oshibori” and it is used to clean your hands before eating.
  • How to call the restaurant staff: Try to raise your hand at head’s level and say “sumimasen” – which means “excuse me”. This is how all Japanese people do. But in some restaurants, you’ll find a kind of buzzer – a call button – on your table. In this case, press it and it will call the staff automatically.
  • English menu: nowadays a lot of restaurants – especially in Tokyo – have an English menu available. The staff might give it to you spontaneously if they see you’re a foreigner (even if you’re accompanied by Japanese people). If not, you can ask for it.

How to Order Your Meal in a Japanese Restaurant

  • Ask for recommendations: It’s okay to ask the waiter what’s good or what they recommend. Recommendations are called “osusume” in Japanese, and the the chef’s choice is “omakase”. And if you’re dining with Japanese people, buy all means ask them their recommendations. They will be happy to give you some and make you try their favorite dishes.
  • Don’t ask for modifications: avoid asking for a customized dish. “Remove the onions, add more salad, I’m allergic eat to nuts” – although it might be fine in other countries, in Japan this is not how restaurants operate. It will make the waiters confused, and the language barrier will make the situation very awkward. Try to find a dish to your liking as is.
  • To share or not to share: Decide if you’re sharing food or if everyone’s getting their own. If you are sharing – like it’s often the case in “izakaya”, traditional Japanese restaurants -, think about others first when you pick pieces from the shared plates.
  • “Itadakimasu”: Before you start eating, say “itadakimasu” – it means “I gratefully receive” and is a way to show thanks for your food. You can even say it when you’re eating alone – this word is not directed to other people like the French “bon appétit”, but to yourself.
woman seating at the counter of a Japanese restuarant in Tokyo

Chopstick Etiquette

I’ll only list a few the rules here, but for a more complete overview, you’ll want to check out my article about using chopsticks the right way in Japan. Here we go:

  • Where to find chopsticks: either your chopsticks will come with your food, or you will find a box somewhere on the edge your table. Open it, and you will see a bunch of chopsticks you can use.
  • Handle with care: Chopsticks aren’t toys. Don’t wave them around. And when you’re taking a break, lay them down in front of you or on a chopstick rest if there’s one.
  • Don’t mess up: There’s a right way to use chopsticks. Don’t stick them into your food or pass food directly from your chopsticks to someone else’s. That’s considered rude.

Navigating the Meal

Japanese dining isn’t just about filling your stomach; it’s about enjoying flavors and company. Here’s how to navigate your meal with grace:

  • Savor the moment: Don’t rush. Japanese meals are for enjoying each bite. Take your time, taste everything, and appreciate the meal.
  • Say no to noise – except slurping: Slurping noodles is fine – it actually shows you’re enjoying the food. But for everything else, eat quietly. Loud chewing or burping? Big no-nos.
  • Soup rules: If it’s miso soup or a clear soup, feel free to pick up the bowl and drink from it. You can also use a spoon if available and if you prefer this way.

Drinking Etiquette

Japanese meals often come with a drink, so let’s get the drinking right too:

  • Don’t start by yourself: If you’re with Japanese people, wait for everyone to have their drink before you start drinking! Once everybody is served, someone will likely say “Kanpai!” which means “Cheers!”, so wait for that cue.
  • Pour for others: In Japan, you don’t pour your own drink when you’re with others. Fill your neighbor’s cup, and they’ll fill yours. It’s polite and a way to bond.

Paying the Bill in a Japanese Restaurant

The meal’s done, and now it’s time to pay. It’s always an important part in any country, and here’s what to do to follow the Japanese restaurant etiquette:

  • Do not tip: It is just not something you do in Japan. If you do, it will not be considered nice, but just weird or even offensive. And if you leave money on the table without saying anything, the staff will probably chase after you to give it back to you.
  • How to ask for the bill in Japan: In some restaurants the staff will place the bill face down on your table after you’ve received your food. In this case, you’re supposed to take it with your when leaving and bring it to the cashier at the entrance of the restaurant. In some restaurants though, you’ll have to ask the staff to bring you the bill. In this case, you can say “okaikei onegaishimasu” which literally means “the bill, please”. If you’re in a crowded or noisy place, you can try to make eye contact with a staff and cross your two index fingers – it is the hand gesture used to ask for the bill.
  • Check for the split: Sometimes the bill gets split; sometimes one person treats everyone. If you’re not sure, ask. It’s not rude to clarify.
  • Cash or card: some old local restaurants might only accept cash, so try to have some with you. But in most cases, you can pay by credit card or other type of cashless payment.
  • Be discreet: When you’re paying, don’t flash your cash. Keep it low-key. Use the tray provided for the payment, if there’s one.

What to say when leaving a restaurant in Japan?

Like saying hello, saying goodbye in a Japanese restaurant is very scripted:

  • Saying thank you: As you leave, say “gochisosama deshita,” which means “It was a feast.” It’s like saying thanks for a great meal.
  • A final bow: A small bow on your way out is a classy touch. It’s like the cherry on top of a good dining experience.

Now that you’ve got the lowdown on dining etiquette in Japan, you’re all set to have a meal that’s as smooth as it is delicious. Enjoy the food, respect the culture, try to remember the Japanese restaurant etiquette but when in doubt, just smile and follow the lead of those around you!

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