Many languages (if not all) have set phrases that are used before beginning a meal. In English, we say things such as “let’s eat” or “dig in” and such. So what do Japanese people say before eating?
That’s the topic of today’s lesson and the first thing you’ll learn in the next part. In addition to the set phrase, you’ll also get a little bit of background on the word, and then some of the other phrases that will be useful either during the meal, or once you’ve finished.
What to Say Before Starting a Meal
The set phrase that you’ll want to use is いただきます (itadakimasu) which is usually spelled entirely in hiragana like I’ve listed just now, but can also be spelled by using one of two kanji. Here are the alternative spellings now:
As far as I have seen, there’s not much of a difference between these two, except that the first one is more commonly used than the second.
Now, if you’ve watched a lot of Japanese anime with the English subtitles on, then you’ve no doubt heard this phrase used dozens of times with any of the following translations:
- Let’s eat!
- Bon appétit!
- I humbly receive!
That last translation is actually pretty close to the literal meaning of いただきます in Japanese. But in order to understand it more fully, we have to take a short trip into the grammar behind the verb. Don’t worry, it’ll be quick!
The first thing you’ll want to know is that the normal Japanese verb for “to receive” is もらう (morau). This is a verb that had many possible uses in different grammatical constructs, but that’s something we can save for another time.
The second thing you’ll need to know is how もらう is related to いただく (the plan form of いただきます).
In Japanese, as I’m sure you probably know, there are several levels of formality. One of those levels if often called the “humble form” which means that it is the one you use when speaking to (or about) people who are higher than you in social standing.
- いただく is this humble version of the verb もらう.
This means that while both of these words mean “to receive” in Japanese, the いただく is the appropriate one to use in situations where you are expressing humility.
So when would be a good time to be polite? When you’re about to receive a meal of course!
You’ll no doubt have noticed that the phrase いただきます is the mass-form of いただく, which means that it’s even more polite than just the plain いただく.
Anyway, that’s the basic story behind the word, although you could certainly spend a lot more time going into depth on it if you wanted to. For now, all you really need to remember is the following:
- いただきます is a set phrase used before begining a meal.
In fact, the definition in my Random house dictionary is as follows:
itadakimasu 頂きます I am about to partake (civility exchanged before meal)
If you keep those in mind, then you should be good 99% of the time. In addition to meals, it’s not uncommon to use this phrase in other situations where it may have similar connotations.
For example, in the (amazing) anime Kakegurui「賭ケグルイ」which you can watch on and learn Japanese from Netflix, after winning a huge round of gambling, one of the girls yells 「頂きま～す」 while scooping up her pile of winnings.
Something else that you should at least be aware of is that many times this word will be altered phonetically in order to show the emotion (usually happy) of the speaker. I’ve heard the following many times, but there are probably more as well:
いただきます | The normal version.
いっただきまーす | Adding a っ in between the first two mora and then holding the ぁ vowel one beat longer.
いただきま～す | Holding the ぁ vowel again, but this time fluctuating the tone up or down.
So now that you know what this word means, let’s take a look at a few other things that might be useful while you’re eating food in Japan, or in a Japanese restaurant.
What to Say After the Meal
Just as there is a set phrase to use before you eat a meal, there is also one to use after you are finished eating. That Japanese phrase is ごちそうさまでした (gochisō samadeshita) and you say it primarily to thank and honor the people who have prepared the food for you.
The kanji for this phrase is ご馳走様でした and the first part ご馳走 means “a feast” in Japanese, so this phrase can be understood to mean something like “The meal was a feast! Thank you so much for this treat!”
You’ve heard is said that the Japanese people are incredibly polite. The interesting thing is that this high praise would be said to someone who had prepared you even a simple meal of say, rice and fish.
It’s also pretty common to just hear ごちそうさま used as a shorter version of this same phrase. Look out for the same types of phonetic changes that いただきます sometimes receives when a person is expressing positive emotion.
Let’s now flip it over to the person who made the food:
They would then typically reply with お粗末様でした (o-somastsu samadeshita) which basically means “it was nothing special” and is said in response to ご馳走様でした.
These are some of the essential Japanese phrases that you’ll want to become familiar with so that you can use them yourself when it’s appropriate. Using polite manners can go a long way in any language.
Speaking of manners, let’s talk about a few Japanese table manners before ending this lesson.
Japanese Table Manners
Here are a few pointers when it comes to eating with proper manners in Japanese. This won’t cover everything, but it’ll go over some of the big ones that you probably wouldn’t consider unless you’ve already spent some time living in Asia.
So besides the phrases that we went over above, let’s first talk about chopsticks.
There are a couple of things to keep in mind when eating with chopsticks. The first thing is that you never want to stab your chopsticks into your food. The reason is that it looks too similar to incense that is burned during funeral rites… Not exactly something you want to think about while eating!
Another “no-no” is to pass food from one person’s chopsticks directly to another person’s chopsticks. Again, there is something similar to this done at funerals, so stay clear of that behavior. Instead, if you’re going to serve someone a piece of food, pick it up with your chopsticks and place it on their plate.
Usually when you eat, there will be lots of food on many different plates. You should take what you want and put in onto your own plate before then proceeding to eat it. Go ahead and refill on food as needed, but just be sure not to eat directly from the communal plates of food.
When it comes to drinks, you shouldn’t serve yourself but instead you should serve other people their refills, and then allow them to refill your cup. The basic rule is to keep people’s cups full. If you see one empty or really low, go ahead and refill it.
So what if you’re done drinking, but people keep giving you refills? Just stop drinking and let the cup remain filled.
Also, slurping is allowed!
There is probably some confusion on this part of Japanese culture, as a lot of foreigner thinks that Japanese people are a little rude or something when they make audible slurping noises while eating food such as udon or ramen, but in Japanese society, this is seen as a compliment to the chef for making delicious food.
But there’s no need to intentionally go overboard and make really loud noises while you eat. Just let them fly naturally, baby!
Like I said, just a quick briefing on table manners, but you could go more into depth if you wish.
Do you know of any other table manner tips for people in Japan? Let me know by leaving a comment below!
Further Resources for Learning Japanese: