The Japanese place a very strong emphasis on table manners. Having good table manners is an important part of Japanese culture – an important part of being Japanese. And “manners” here is not restricted to what the Japanese people during meals – but before and after as well.
Saying 「いただきます」“itadakimasu” and 「ご馳走様でした」“gochiso sama deshita” is one of the most basic aspects of Japanese table manners. Before eating, Japanese people are supposed to clap their hands together and say “itadakimasu”. After a meal, they have to clap their hands together once more and say “gochiso sama deshita”. Just what do these two phrases mean?
Basically, saying “itadakimasu” and “gochiso sama deshita” are ways of expressing gratitude.
“Itadakimasu” literally means “I receive”. Saying “itadakimasu” expresses appreciation for the gift of the nature (veggies) and lives (animals) that have been turned into the food lying in front of the diner. How this relates to the literal meaning is that the diner is about to receive “life” (i.e. the food), and protect it (in his/her belly...).
“Gochiso” means “run around”. In the past, when visitors went to someone's house, the host oftentimes had to search high and low to find food for them - even as far as the seas and mountains. Hence, “gochiso sama deshita” is an expression of thanks for the people who went to the trouble of preparing the food for them.
Interestingly though, hardly anyone ever says “itadakimasu” in public eating places, though a small number may say “gochiso sama deshita”…
The position of food that is placed on a tray is another important aspect of Japanese food culture. For a traditional Japanese set meal, the rice bowl is to be placed on the left side of the tray, on the side nearer to the chair, while the soup is placed on the right side. The side dishes (meat or vegetables, or both) are placed on the far side. At any Japanese restaurant – whether it's a fast food chain or a fancy high-class one – Japanese set meals are always arranged in this way before they're served to the customers.
Traditional Japanese set meals (regardless of the actual content, as long as they are set meals) are known to be healthy and nutritious, and not just because the content consists of a balanced mix of carbohydrates, meat, vegetables and whatnot. The way Japanese diners eat the food apparently plays an important part as well: The Japanese are taught from young to eat in a “circular” motion – eat a little bit from one dish (e.g. rice), then switch to another dish (e.g. vegetables), then another one (e.g. soup), and so on, instead of finishing up one dish before moving on to the next. Supposedly, eating in this way allows the diner to freely control the nutritional balance. For some reason, instead of being merely a traditional practice or custom, this is considered (read: hyped as) part of the “table manners” category. Likely, this is a ploy used by teachers to fool kids into adopting such a way of eating.
As mentioned in a previous article on Japanese School Lunches, table manners are emphasized very heavily at school. For instance, diners should hold up their bowl of rice when eating from it, instead of leaving the bowl on the table and bringing the rice to their mouths with their chopsticks. While eating, diners should refrain from making any noise while chewing their food. Not doing so is considered bad manners.
However, Japanese diners do the opposite while eating noodle dishes – they leave their bowl of noodles (regardless of whether it's udon or soba) on the table while eating from it. Also, they're supposed to make loud, slurping noises while eating noodles, to indicate that they find what they're having delicious... Doing otherwise is considered out of the norm. This is yet another instance of contradictions in the Japanese way of thinking. So as you can see, contradictions exist not only in how Japanese think with regards to religion and blood type beliefs, but in table manners as well.
And that's it for this week. The Japanese people do not expect foreigners to be well-versed in Japanese table manners, so you can now impress them with your new-found knowledge on your next trip to a restaurant in Japan. Bon Appetit... er - itadakimasu!