- Juju Kurihara
Why Japanese say Itadakimasu together before they eat?
Updated: May 9
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.