Why Japanese say Itadakimasu together before they eat?

May 16, 2015 Juju Kurihara Culture, Lifestyle, Vocabulary Tags: , , , , 12 Comments

One of the things I was very surprised when I started to live outside of Japan is when people eat. I have lived with a family and eaten with many Western people in different cultures but until today, they are very similar. None of them was similar to how I grew up. What is it then?
 
First, whoever gets the food first starts eating. Second, no one says anything before they start the meal. A very first few days I arrived at London and started living with a family, I could´t know when to start. At least all the family members were always at the table but before everyone had the plate and the mother sit, some people were already a half way of their food.
 
OK, to be fair, I wasn´t expecting some pray before the meal but at least I thought we would wait for everyone to sit or someone would say, “Let´s start!”  
 
In Japan, people say, “Itadakimasu” before they eat. This is taught as a table manner since they are small. At nursery schools, kids even sing a Obento no uta (お弁当の歌/ Obento song) together and say Itadakimasu. It´s a bad manner to start without waiting everyone to have the food and saying itadakimasu. 
 
 
Lunch time at a nursery school.
I can see a small girl can´t wait and starts eating. 

 
 
 
 
The typical conversation at the family dinner table is, 
 
Father: Hey, you didn´t say, “Itadakimasu”!
Son: Oh, I´ve forgotten.
Mother: You must always say it!
Son: Why you get so angy?
Mother: I´m telling this for you. You will have a problem when you have a bad manner.
 
But why Japanese people say, Itadakimasu?
Itadakimasu in kanji is 頂きます. The kanji 頂 means “top" and is often used for the top of the mountain.  When ancient Japanese people ate the food they gave the god as an offering or when they received something from someone who had a higher position, they would first bring it up to 頂, above the head to show the appreciation and the respect. From this custom, the verb, Itadaku (頂く) is used as the Kenjogo (謙譲語/one of the formal form to show the modesty) of taberu (食べる/ eat) and morau (もらう/ receive). And later, itadakimasu stayed as a table manner. 
 
This way of itadaku still remains in some occasions in the modern Japan. At the graduation ceremony. when Japanese students receive the certificate, they low the head so that the certificate rises above the head.  
 
 
 
Or you might have seen Japanese people trying to exchange their business cards. Often one of them or sometimes both of them low the head lower than the other person. Well, this case, lowing the head comes from the politeness rather than the sense of receiving it from the God. But when they receive a business card, most of the Japanese people would low the head unless he/she thinks that is not necessary because he has a higher position.   
  
 
 
Saying Itadakimasu has two meanings.
One is to appreciate all the people who involved in the meal. The person who served you the meal, who grew the vegetables, who fished and of course who cooked for you. 
The other meaning is to appreciate the ingredients. Japanese people always believe that even vegetables and fruits have a life as well as the meat and the fish. By saying itadakimasu, show the appreciation of, “I receive your life and it becomes my life”. This seems to be the real meaning.
 
 
 
This is how middle/lower class samurai family had a meal. The food was very simple. They usually had rice, miso soup and pickles for breakfast. Lunch and/or dinner was the same as breakfast but had one or two extra dish such as cooked vegetable, dried fish, cooked seaweed or tofu. Even that, the family would have a meal together and until the master of the family (the father) pick up the chopsticks, no one could eat.
 
 
Apparently, there are the day of itadakimasu (いただきますの日/ Itadakimasu no hi), which Think the Earth Japan is also involved. The 11th of November as well as the 11th of every month are set as the day when anyone can talk and think about the topics and the problems related to the food. 
 
You appreciate five things on Itadakimasu no Hi.
Itadakimasu to the nature.
Itadakimasu to the life.
Itadakimasu to the work.
Itadakimasu to the knowledge.
Itadakimasu to the people around you. 
 
 
Why Japanese people say itadakimasu together before they eat?
There is no deep meaning for saying it together but by saying it together, it means more, “Let´s eat!”. Also to teach small children, it´s easier if everyone does it. But the important thing is, to appreciate the food you will have including all the people and the food that involved in each meal.
 
This custom is disappearing as the life style of Japanese people has changed. The father comes home late and the children go to a cram school. It´s getting harder to get all the family together at a dinner table. But I think this is a good custom no matter if you are a religious or not. I hope it doesn´t extinct from Japanese families. 
 
I´m used to now but still get a little disappointed rather than annoyed when people I invited or my boyfriend start eating as soon as they get their plate while I´m still not ready to eat. Can you wait for me? It´ll take only a few minutes.   

 

 

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12 Comments

  1. Melody Girard 1 year Reply

    In the U.S. it is generally considered ill-mannered and boorish to attack your food before everyone is seated at the table. People usually excuse themselves or make some remark acknowledging their breech of manners when they start to eat before everyone is seated at the table. When someone makes such a gaffe, their friends or family present at the table may chide him or her with teasing remarks. The host usually indicates to the guests whent they may begin eating. It seems to me that waiting until your hosts and other guests are seated is usually observed when dining at someone’s home or when you are invited to be someone’s guest for dinner at a restaurant. .
    Usually, if people go to a fast food restaurant for lunch and one of them has to rush his or her meal because of an appointment, the person may ask if the other diner minds if he or she starts to eat right away. Other exceptions to waiting may include not waiting for very late guests for lunch at restaurant when dining with co-workers, or very casual eating situations, such as having a hot dog or burrito on a bench in a park . Even then people often ask if the other diner(s) mind if if he or she starts to eat.

    Of course, there are ranges of behavior and some people who do not observe such conventions.

  2. Marvin 2 years Reply

    Hello,
    I’m from germany and it’s custom here aswell, to first wait till everyone is at the table and than wich each other a good appetite (“Guten Appetit”).
    In more religious families they also tend to say grace before eating.
    So I had no troubles remembering to say “Itadakimasu” before each meal during my visit to japan.

  3. Lindsey 2 years Reply

    While it might be a more religious obligation than a cultural one in the Southern United States, where religion is essentially the culture, it is typical to wait for the mother (Typically the one who prepared the meal) or often times in my case when we did participate in this culture obligation, my grandmother, before saying “grace” and then eating.

    I wasn’t raised religiously by my parents so it didn’t happen a lot in my life and I almost considered it a bit of hindrance when I was kid. However the summer months I spent with my grandparents we did this for every dinner. I never did this for religious purposes but for respect for my grandmother because it was good manners and it was the least I could do to thank her for preparing the meal which often took her a good portion of the day. My friend, who is Catholic like my grandmother was, often silently bows her head and says grace and I always feel terrible if I start eating before her. However, if surrounded by my friends, like where I live now in Massachusetts, I just eat as the food comes because I know that they aren’t going to wait for me.

    I don’t feel like this is lost on Western Culture, I just feel it is done differently for different reasons. Generally it’s religious here in the U.S. as opposed to a tradition or just a respect for the food and where it comes from.

  4. Csaba 2 years Reply

    Dear Japanese Friend,

    I am Hugarian, I live in Budapest. Hungarian people are really proud of their cuisine, hospitality and their traditions (unfortunately there are bad tendencies here as well) that include family gatherings and eating together. Traditionally we have the Sunday lunch as an important family get-together, but some families have their weekday dinners together as well. As Hungary is one of the oldest and most traditional countries in Europe (certainly the one in Central Europe), eating involves traditions as well. We usually wait for each other, at least when we have our Sunday lunch. On weekdays, we do not always have the time to wait for the ones who come home too late.

    As my country is a Christian country even today (or for some Hungarian people at least in its traditions), a lot of people say prayers or blessings before starting their meals. I am a Catholic, so I always do. What is certainly and always told by everybody, religious and non-religious alike, is “Jó étvágyat” which is the same as the Italian “Buon Appetito” or the French “Bon appetit”, also similar to the Japanese “Itadakimasu”. However, it would be unfair to deny that it’s not as common as it was to say prayers before meals these days. According to what you have written about Japanese people, you and us share some of the same problems (maybe everybody does): lack of time, increasing working hours, weakening of faith and fading traditions. I’m not saying that all these things will die out of our life, of course, it’s just the “winds of change”, sadly in a bad way. Fortunately, Hugarian people keep most of their traditions alive, especially in connection with eating (that includes drinking customs as well), and many people like folk music and dances, too.

    I hope that politeness and the appreciation of others will not become merely a custom in the future. In my opinion, saying at least something kind or polite before we start eating is something not only expectable, but also natural from anybody whith whom you share your time and table.

  5. Eigomaster 3 years Reply

    I heard recently about some children refusing to say “Itadakimasu” at school lunches, since their parents had told him that it isn’t necessary if they, not the school, are the ones paying for the meal. It’s sad to see how the true meaning of “Itadakimasu” appears to have somehow lost its way in today’s culture.
    Incidentally, in my family, it is my father (who grew up with working parents) who has the worst manners and starts eating before everyone has been served. My 3 year-old niece is the one who reminds him: “No, you have to wait until everyone is ready!”

    Also, what usually happens in restaurants is, the person who is served first will usually wait until everyone else tells them to go ahead and eat before their meal gets cold. So if you dine with a Japanese person who just sits there letting their meal go cold, it might be worth remembering that most people will wait to be prompted in this way, rather than asking if they can start early.

  6. sherri 3 years Reply

    When I eat out with my friends we usually wait for each other’s food, or if one person is really hungry or don’t want their food to get cold, then it’s polite for that person to ask “Is it okay if I start eating first?” and no one would mind. Some restaurants are not very good at serving food at the same time, so it’s not unusual for the last person’s food to arrive 15 minutes after the first person’s food (in this case the first person’s food would be cold already if he or she waited). But it’s always polite to tell people you would like to start eating first and no one would be offended =)

    I kept forgetting to say Itadakimasu first before I eat in Japan, though >_<

  7. Yukiko Murano 3 years Reply

    Yes, I agree, Caudio,
    It is easy to say, I think, to have a respect and be respected. Also is is easy to say Education is the solution. But the reality is not easy, I mean, the matter lies in deep down in the society and at home. Eating habit, for example, is a manifestation of the deep magma. In Japan, Zen Mind rooted itself historically and unconciously prevailing in modern times, luckily. And Thank you Clara, yes, I think we are too.
    On the contrary, Claudio, I hightly evaluate your culture in Italy, like saying `Buon Appetitio’. Unlike religion and the polite manner background, it is direectly to the others who are eating together at table. Very different from us. Because as long as Zen is a self-descipline, the matter targets to the Self. How we think down abou the food, how to analyze it, or something serious mind, not that fun. Good thing we share in common is to wait for someboy to eat together, since we originally know it much better to eat with love ones than by ourselves alone. I like to say `Buon Appetito’ with Itadakimasu, because you have a positive attitude to care each other and bless the food, not to mention the enough health to be able to have taste together with a good appetite to enjoy the meal in utmost. Very humanistic. We are polite, and the other side of politeness, it tends to be a lack of enjoyment and generosity to others. I can see pictures, Japanese are polite, and Italians are full of love. Every culture have Ying and Yang. To know and to understand is a beautiful thing. That is, I think, the education. It leads us to Respect.

  8. abdullah 3 years Reply

    Dear Japanese friend 🙂
    Really love ur cultire so much, but for us we have same thing in my religion. We wait everybody and say “Bism allah” and then we start eating… and we say ” Alhamdulillah” once we done…
    Having rules and similar foundations and morals is very good to have a strong family.
    Love u japanese pple all

  9. Petra 3 years Reply

    Well, it’s common here in Germany to sit until everyone has a full plate and to say “Guten Appetit” or “Mahlzeit” before you start eating… it’s not an “anglo-saxon” thing to say nothing (remember where they came from, yeah, exactly) You just don’t start when someone is missing at the table or doesn’t have a full plate… I can’t recall a single family I’ve eaten with who did not follow this simply rule of respect (even if we don’t pray, that’s rather uncommon these days and I only ate with religious people a couple of times)

    And even with cultural changes and the fast-paced times we’re in, exactly this shared meal sticks to its roots by saying “Guten Appetit” and waiting for everyone to be ready… No idea, where you might have encountered something else, except as Conor mentioned some rude people.

  10. Conor 3 years Reply

    I think you have been unlucky enough to find yourself with rude people when abroad or with foreigners. It is customary and polite for all at the table to wait until everyone has their food before beginning to eat – at least in Europe.

  11. Conor 3 years Reply

    Sounds like you simply know some rude people. It is customary in all of Europe for everyone at the table to wait until all seated have their food before beginning to eat.

  12. Misato 3 years Reply

    Hi,

    That’s not exclusively a Japanese custom. In southern Europe it’s also good manners to say something like “bon apetit” (in French), or “bom apetite” (in Portuguese) before starting a meal and it’s really bad manners to start before everyone is ready. The only accepted exception is at restaurants when customers get their meal at different instances, or someone is in a hurry, but it’s still good manners to ask to start before everybody else, so your meal doesn’t get cold.

    I think not saying anything before a meal is an anglo-saxon thing, as, at least in Europe, I’ve only noticed it in anglo-saxon countries. Of course, like in Japan, the custom is slowly dissapearing, mostly due to modern habits, but for me it still feels awkward, when eating with someone else, if they start before me and don’t say anything.

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