Japanese hospitality, sometimes called omotenashi, is praised as being a step above the rest of the world. With this reputation for elegant respect and ceaseless courtesy, travelers fresh off the plane and hungry for their first authentic bowl of Japanese ramen may be in for a shock.
Lift the curtain and step into any ramen restaurant in Tokyo to be met with a loud symphony of slurping noises as customers happily squelch down their noodles. Your inner etiquette may scream at the sound, but the truth is that slurping in Japan is not just accepted- it’s expected!
Why is it polite to slurp in Japan?
For those of us who still hear an echo of our mother’s voices correcting our manners while we eat, the idea of loudly slurping down noodles may seem horrifying. Slurping in the States would get you some dirty looks- so what makes doing so polite in a country that takes pride in its elegance and etiquette?
A history of slurping noodles in Japan
While there is no exact date pinpointing when slurping first became a cultural norm in Japan, records show that the Japanese have been slurping noodles for centuries- if not thousands of years!
After all, Japan did not have widespread access to Western utensils until the mid-1800s when Japan was opened to the world. Traditional Japanese cuisine boasts many mouth-watering noodle dishes that would have been difficult to maneuver into your mouth using only chopsticks. Slurping noodles was something done by the masses as a time-tested way to enjoy delicious food.
Is Slurping Noodles in Japan polite or rude?
In Japan, slurping noodles and certain other foods is considered polite because it is interpreted as a compliment to the chef. When done respectfully, eating enthusiastically expresses your gratitude to the cook for their hard efforts. The same display (with significantly more slurping rules to follow) is expected during Japanese Tea Ceremonies.
So rather than be disgusted by the sounds, thank your cook for a yummy meal by joyfully slurping down every last noodle in your bowl.
If slurping is okay- how can I show good Japanese table manners?
You may be thinking that eating is a free-for-all slurping frenzy in Japan. But before you go casting your good table manners aside, know that that couldn’t be farther from the truth! The different opinions around slurping come from different cultural norms across the globe. What is considered proper eating etiquette in Japan may be different from what you are used to, but with a few quick tips you can still impress your Japanese friends with good table manners!
Here are a few cultural pointers to keep in mind so that you can impress your Japanese friends with your best table manners while happily slurping your ramen.
Setting the scene for slurping
If you are invited over for a meal at a Japanese house or traditional restaurant- be prepared to leave your shoes at the door. Any footwear worn outside is considered dirty and should be left at the genkan entrance of most buildings (a shoe cupboard and informative signs will help to tip you off that it is time to swap footwear).
Once inside, continue to the dining area in your socks or borrow slippers if some are provided by the host. Keep slippers off of natural tatami mats and always switch into the special bathroom slippers when you need to excuse yourself to the restroom.
The right tools for slurping
Called hashi in Japanese, chopsticks are going to be your go-to utensil to help you slurp up those tasty noodles. Although ramen and other soups (such as miso-shiru or shabu-shabu hotpot) are often served with a spoon to help assist with scooping up broth, forks are a rare occurrence at most establishments.
When you need to take a breather from all the slurping, be sure to set your chopsticks down neatly on the special chopstick rest, the edge of your plate, or return them to your napkin. Never stick them vertically into your bowl of rice- this is reminiscent of funeral offerings and is seen as very disrespectful.
Slurp while sitting silently
Ramen and Japanese curries can be custom ordered at various levels across the spectrum of spice. So when you get a sniffle from slurping hot n’ spicy noodles, you may be tempted to reach for the pile of courtesy napkins always close at hand. This may feel like a trap for those unaware- as blowing your nose at the dining table is forbidden in Japan!
As a country with a respectfully quiet culture (slurping aside), blowing your nose is seen as disturbing and gross in Japan. The same goes for all bodily noises- slurp, but don’t burp! Remember that while it is okay to slurp noodles in, bodily fluids and sounds should not come out. Those tempting napkins are for tidying up slurp splashes and other food spills. So if you do need to blow your nose or make some natural sounds, consider excusing yourself from the table to do so in private.
Now you know why slurping is not only okay, but actually a polite thing to do in Japan! You can dig into your ramen and show your appreciation by enthusiastically slurping away, while still impressing your friends with your good Japanese table manners.
When you’ve reached the bottom of your ramen bowl and slurped down the final noodle, end your meal on one last good note with the phrase:
(Thanks for the meal)