Holding Dishes While Eating? Is It Considered as a Bad Manner in Japan? | Guidable - Your Guide to a Sustainable, Wellbeing-centred Life in Japan

Holding Dishes While Eating? Is It Considered as a Bad Manner in Japan?

By Yae Nov 18, 2017

If you’re a foreigner who lives in Japan or have been to Japan as a tourist, have you ever seen the people eating a meal with their dishes held up?
You may feel strange and think,

“Why Japanese people hold their dishes while they’re eating?”

Normally people don’t hold their dishes while eating in other countries, but Japan has a unique culture, this article will show you the backgrounds of Japanese table manners in terms of holding dishes.

1. When did Japanese People start to Eat Meal with Dishes Held up?

People say Japanese people started eating with dishes held up high to their chest around Heian Period which is about 1,200 years ago. This style became popular due to the Japanese sitting style while eating meals on low tables, as sitting on the chair was not standard at that time.

In Meiji Period (1867) the Japanese standard dining style was using small dining table and people had their own small table, what we call “Hakozen” in Japanese.

From Showa Period (1926), people started using low dining table, what we call “Chabudai” in Japanese.

Due to above situation, Japanese people started to hold dishes while they’re eating since it’s easier to eat by sitting upright on their heels.

This is off topic but let me share with you the story in France.
Louis XIV (around 1638) was used to eat food by using his hands like finger food.
At that time, people didn’t use any cutlery.
French people started to use knife and forks by the end of 17th century.
It’s the most natural thing people use knife and forks everywhere lately but if you review the past, you’ll see the generational changes.

2. Holding Dishes Manner in Japan

It’s a basic manner to hold dishes while eating in Japan. However, there are certain rules people should follow:

Rule 1. Hold Dishes That Are Smaller Than Palm Size

You need to hold following dishes:
1. Rice bowls
2. Soup bowls
3. Side dish with served in a small bowls
4. Soy sauce dishes
5. Small plates
6. Big bowls with rice inside

As you can see, No. 6 is an exception, but the key point is “Rice”.
Even the bowls are larger size than your palm, you must hold the bowls if the meal includes rice such as seafood don, chicken and egg rice bowl, or deep-fried pork cutlet rice bowl.
This is related to Japanese traditional culture that people respect rice by holding them up, the Japanese consider rice as their staple food from ancient times, they respect God for giving them rice and by doing so, they are showing the feeling of gratitude.

Rule 2. Do Not Hold Dishes That Are Larger Than Palm Size

You do not need to hold following dishes up to your chest:
1. Plates for tempura
2. Plates for grilled fish
3.  Big size bowls
4.  Big size bowls for noodles like ramen, soba, or udon

As an additional advice, you may see some Japanese people holding their left hand to avoid drips on their clothes when having juicy food, but actually, this is considered a bad manner. Taking a small plate by holding it with the left hand is expected according to the Japanese proper eating manner.

Why It’s Not Allowed to Use Left Hand?

1. If left hand gets dirty and need to wipe your left hand by wet towel, the wet towel gets dirty and your hands can’t be made clean by wet towel after all.

2. It may be difficult to make clean the dirty wet towel.

3. Good Attitude with Holding Dishes

If you follow this Japanese style of eating, there are several advantages you get such as follows:

1. You Will Have Good Posture

Even you’re sitting on tatami with sitting upright on your heels or sitting on the chair, you must bring the dishes close to your heart position, so you will have better posture all the time while eating.
It’s bad manner to eat with bending over posture close to the table like dog-eating so you always need to straighten yourself.

2. You Can Eat Slow With Adding Chopsticks Manner

Do you know there are certain flow/movements you have to follow when you pick up the chopsticks?
For instance, if you want to eat rice in a rice bowl, you first need to hold rice bowl by your left hand.
Next, you pick up chopsticks by your right hand but need putting ahead of chopsticks on your left hand little finger to hold chopsticks properly by your right hand.
When you want to drink miso soup, you need to put chopsticks down first, then put down rice bowl afterwards.
You follow the same step for picking up the rice bowl again.

If you use knife and fork eating meals, you can start eating immediately and don’t need to worry about picking up the food properly. However, if you use chopsticks to eat Japanese dishes, you must take several steps to eat, it takes time and provides your stomach with some rest. This can prevent from quick eating and avoid overeating. Need to train a bit for the technique, but it’s a very healthy habit, right?

Hopefully you have now some ideas why Japanese people been holding dishes while they’re eating.
If you’re interested in Japanese eating manners, there are more you can find out such as using chopsticks properly, how to eat sashimi, how to eat grilled fish and etc.

Even Japan is often described as a “Manner Country”, once you know the rules, I’m sure you will respect the traditions since each of them have certain meanings.