Just about at every turn I unwittingly make flagrant errors in etiquette in Japan. I’ve wanted to travel to Japan for a long time but making errors in Japanese etiquette and bringing dishonour to my family has always worried me. I had read a lot about Japanese traditions and etiquette. I believed that I had a handle on many daily customs which are really different from those in my Western world.
I now realise that just in the area of sushi-eating, I am so woefully boorish as far as manners go. Here are 10 errors I have made that have certainly brought me shame.
I’m always offered a hot, wet towel (oshibori) at the start of a meal and I’ve used it to clean my hands as required. When I’m finished, I leave it in a crumpled heap near the plate. I didn’t know it was to be folded neatly at the end of the meal.
I’ve seen people make little holders on which to place chopsticks during a meal when not in use. So I’ve always made that little chopstick stand from the sleeve that the chopsticks come in. But then I didn’t know that when I’m not using them, they should be placed parallel to me on the holder or on the soy sauce (shoyu) dish. I then leave them just anywhere when I’m finished with them. But they should be wrapped in the sleeve in which they came, the sleeve folded over at an angle and then placed on the soy sauce dish.
When wooden chopsticks have been provided, I’ve often rubbed them together. I don’t even know why I do it . I’ve just always seen it done. I guess it wasn’t a Japanese I’ve copied because it’s just not done. I don’t know the reason for this but it’s certainly not polite.
I’ve made a mixture of wasabi and soy sauce for dipping. I guess it was not a Japanese who showed me that one either. Wasabi, in an amount that is felt to be a proper balance between fish and wasabi, is already placed under the fish! And, only the fish is to be dipped not the rice lest it soak up too much soy sauce.
How many times have I rudely picked up a piece of food from my partner’s plate with the end of my chopsticks; the end I put in my mouth already. The end of the chopsticks where they are held is to be used. This is considered the polite way. I imagine this would be a little messy afterwards.
Who showed me to place the ginger (gari) on top of a piece of sushi and eat it together? It is only considered a palate cleanser and to be eaten between bites or between different types of sushi.
I’ve never been able to eat a piece in one bite . Am I imagining or have they been making sushi larger and larger in North America? They are made the proper size in Japan because they should be eaten in one single bite.
I did know that chopsticks were never to be stuck in my rice and left sticking straight up. I knew that it resembled incense sticks at a Japanese funeral and so it just should not be done . But, I didn’t know that passing food to another person using chopsticks is also never to be done because it resembles the passing of a deceased relative’s bones at a Japanese funeral.
How many times have I ordered sake with sushi? I always thought they went hand-in-hand like a good cheese plate and wine. But sake is not to be drunk with sushi (or any rice). It can be drunk only with sashimi or before or after a meal. It is believed that since they are both rice based, they don’t complement each other and should not be drunk together. Green tea would be considered a better option with sushi or sashimi.
Finishing a meal with a clinking of glasses and toasting the meal with “Kanpai!” (“empty your cup”) is traditional. Often, when asked what we say in our country, we rhyme off many of the common toasts from other countries, “chin chin” among them. Japanese usually titter and laugh at this but I’ve never known why. They would never use this toast because they use chin chin to refer to something best left out of a polite conversation (a certain male body part). Who knew?