いただきます。 Itadakimasu. The importance of food etiquette.
Like most countries, Japan places a strong emphasis on manners and etiquette. The famous Japanese tea ceremony is perhaps the ultimate embodiment of manners and form. Society (as a general rule) is still quite strict with its enforcement of social norms and values, and people still adhere to them quite strongly.
When it comes to food, the rules of what is (and is not) acceptable in Japan are numerous. Many of them—for the uninformed—may not seem so obvious.
Perhaps one of the classic examples is the foreigner walking down the street munching a hamburger, completely oblivious to the fact that walking and eating is a major faux pas in Japan.
Another major example is “Itadakimasu”, the phrase that literally means “to receive” said by Japanese people just before they eat. The idea is that we are grateful for the life that has been sacrificed to provide us with sustenance. It is similar to the Christian idea of saying grace, although these days this seems to be confined to important meals of big events like Christmas or Easter.
My wife, for example, says “Itadakimasu” for every meal, and it doesn’t matter where or what she’s eating. Whilst most people my age in England wouldn’t dream of placing fast food in the same category as a meal at a five-star restaurant (and will often just tuck in without saying anything), there is something heartening about the fact that people in Japan still hold respect for food no matter what it is.
These days, I always say “Itadakimasu” before eating. Even when I’m back in England or away from Japan. It is a habit I now do without thinking. I am not perfect when it comes to food dos and don’ts: I still make noise when I eat my pasta, forget to hold my soup bowl etc., but I like to think that a little of the Japanese respect for food has rubbed off on me.