Have you been in an awkward situation in a restaurant in Japan where you are served your meal first while no one else’s food arrives at the same time? Or reversely, everyone else gets served their meal but your food just does not arrive, making everyone on the table uncomfortable and making you try hard to stay calm and smile outwardly but inside feeling anxious whether the waiter got your order right?
I thought about why this happens.
First of all, in the Japanese dining culture in general, we don’t have a strict rule to wait for everyone’s meal to arrive (except for high-end restaurants I would say). Of course it’d be better if everyone can start eating at the same time, but if other’s food doesn’t arrive, let’s say after a couple of minutes after yours did, you’d probably get encouraged to go ahead and start eating, and they’d probably say something like “you should go ahead before it gets cold”. And when people say this they are serious, not just being polite. In a way we put more emphasis on food itself rather than following table manners, in order to appreciate food at its best state. For that reason (so I assume), we are not trained to wait for everyone to be served in the way Westerners are (diligently hold on until everyone’s plate arrives), and this understanding also applies to people working in the kitchen. My mum is the same – she always stays in the kitchen to finish up one last dish to serve after putting other food on the table for us, while urging us to start eating without her. She did the same thing when my Dutch in-laws came for dinner during their visit to Japan. Her main aim was to serve all the dishes at their best condition for the guests to enjoy, rather than her presence at the dinner table which was totally secondary in her mind (and this, ironically, made my mother-in-law uncomfortable and puzzled, who, unlike my mum, makes a painstaking effort to finish preparing all the dishes by the time everyone sits at the dining table).
I noticed this tendency when I was working for a multi-national company and had many occasions to go for lunches with my colleagues from different parts of the world. In central Tokyo where I worked, there are many good restaurants serving amazingly reasonable lunch sets, so we used to get out of the office and go for a warm meal on a regular basis. I quickly leaned, in the Western culture, you are supposed to wait until everyone at the table gets served, then start eating all together. Most Japanese restaurants, oblivious to this international norm, try very hard to bring whatever is ready first as quickly as possible. At many occasions I suggested it was all right to start, but most of the time my colleagues said it was ok for them to wait, and so they did, purposefully yet restlessly. I remember the perplexed looks we got from the restaurant staff, supposedly wondering why this foreign customer was not touching his/her hot meal. For them, it can be confusing and annoying that you don’t start eating, because the chef prepared the perfect dish for you with the right taste, temperature and texture (especially soup noodles where the texture means a lot. As you wait, noodles get soggier and soggier, and it’s a no-no in the Japanese context). They may think, “is something wrong with what is served, or is it the wrong order?”
So everyone, next time you come across this culturally awkward moment in Japan, do not hesitate to start your meal before others, once you are encouraged to do so. You can say “Osakini (I’ll start before you)”. It is not rude. Well no, not at all, most of the time, it actually makes us feel at ease.
(N.B. Don’t start your meal though if no one has suggested for you to go ahead – start eating without anyone’s acknowledgement is a bit rude here also)