Rice is part of almost every traditional Japanese meal, but should the rest of the meal be part of the rice?

Japan is a country that highly values tasty food and proper etiquette, and so of course table manners are important to this nation of polite foodies. Some things everyone agrees on, like not passing food from one set of chopsticks to another or using the utensils to point at things.

But then there are less cut-and-dry questions. Recently, a user posted a question to women’s interest Internet portal Girls Channel, setting off a debate when she asked “Is it OK to put other food on top of the rice in your rice bowl before you take a bite?”

Most Japanese meals are served with plain white rice in its own bowl (called an ochawan) and the non-rice items (called okazu) on separate dishes. While it’s OK to pick up the rice bowl in your hand, the other plates should stay on the table, as you use your chopsticks to pluck up the piece you’re about to eat.

While the woman puts her okazu directly into her mouth after picking it up, her husband usually sets his down on top of the rice in his bowl for a moment first, or, in her words, “bounces it on the rice” before eating it, sometimes simultaneously with some of the rice. “I don’t like doing this…even though the sauce drippings from meat sometimes make the rice look tasty,” she says.

Since the question of “bouncing” your food is one of those things that’s slipped through the cracks of Japan’s ordinarily well-defined rules of social conduct, the idea has both advocates and critics. Those who are against the practice left comments such as:

“Your rice isn’t a plate for the rest of your food. Eating that way is sloppy.”
“It makes the rice dirty.”
“I can’t stand it when people do that. It’s unforgivable.”
“If you want to taste the rice and okazu together, put the okazu in your mouth, then take a bite of rice. It’s really not that hard.”
“If you want to do that, just eat a donburi [pre-made rice bowl with toppings].”
“I don’t really care when a guy does it, but if a girl does it I can’t say I like it very much.”

On the other hand, the pro-bouncing crowd said:

“I end up doing this. I know it looks messy, but I just can’t help myself.”
“Putting a piece of yakiniku on your rice bowl, then eating it together with rice in the same bite, is just the BEST. I don’t care what anyone else thinks about it.”
“Getting the rice all messy with sauces makes it taste better.”
“I hear people complain about this a lot, but what’s the big deal? I don’t do it, but I don’t care if other people do.”
“I’ve seen an actor bounce his okazu on his rice in a TV commercial.”
“I wouldn’t do it in a fancy restaurant, but in a casual place? Sure.”

As alluded to in the last comment, even though there’s no absolute rule against “bouncing” other foods on your white rice, it’s generally not seen as a particularly elegant eating style. In that sense, it’s sort of like using the moist towel restaurants in Japan give you when you sit down to wipe your face or neck: sort of slovenly, but a tempting minor faux pas that even some Japanese people can’t resist.

So while “bouncing” your food is something you’ll generally want to avoid if you’re trying to make a good impression on potential business partners, your significant other’s parents, and other people you’re trying to project an aura of suave sophistication towards, if you’re out at a casual place with your pals, a bounce or two isn’t going to wreck the atmosphere of the meal.

That said, it’s important to make sure you limit yourself to bouncing, as blatantly dunking or stabbing the morsel into your rice to spread the sauce around is going to make you look like a glutton at best, and a slob at worst. Also, directly pouring sauce onto your white rice, especially soy sauce, remains outside the bounds of acceptable table manners in Japan.

Source: Girls Channel, Nico Nico News/Shirabee via Jin
Top image: Pakutaso
Insert images: Pakutaso (1, 2)

Follow Casey on Twitter, where he considers it a minor victory every time he gets through a meal without dropping food on the table or himself.