Even the humble onigiri isn’t safe from the complexities of Japanese etiquette.

With rules regarding chopstick use and taboos dictating the order in which dishes should be eaten, the world of Japanese food can be a confusing one to navigate, not just for foreigners but locals as well.

Now, a new morsel of eating etiquette has appeared on the culinary landscape, with a recent revelation made by Michiko Honda, Vice-Principal of “Infinity Finishing Academy” in Fukuoka City. She’s made waves online for pointing out the proper way to eat onigiri rice balls, and now people around the country aren’t sure what’s right or wrong anymore.

According to Honda, the best way to understand the importance of the rice ball is to first understand the importance of rice itself in Japanese culture. Not only is it an important food staple in Japan, rice cultivation has been credited with helping people form permanent settlements in ancient times, increasing the population and encouraging a group-centred way of life due to its production and related harvest festivals.

▼ Planting and harvesting large fields of rice is too big a job for one person to take on.

Prayers to the gods for ideal weather conditions led to rituals which are still performed today, even influencing ceremonies seen in traditional performing arts and sports like sumo. Major turning points in life also include rituals where rice is indispensable, like ubutatemeshia thanksgiving rice made for the gods after safe childbirth, and okuizome, the ceremonial first meal made for a baby on their 100th day of life.

So much of Japanese culture can be traced back to the importance of the grain, and rice balls themselves have a long and interesting history that deserves a mention. In the Nara Period (710-794), before the use of chopsticks became common, rice was often shaped into small balls so they could be picked up easily. Then in the Heian Period (794-1185), rice was shaped into small oval shapes and known as tonjiki.

The word “onigiri” came into use in the Edo Period (1603-1868), when these rice balls became triangular in shape and were widely popularised as a food that could travel well, allowing people to enjoy them on journeys, at hanami cherry blossom viewing picnics, and while watching plays.

Rice balls as we know them today are commonly purchased from supermarkets and convenience stores, but nothing beats the fresh taste of a homemade onigiri. Making a perfect triangle requires firm but gentle pressure from the palms of both hands, and it’s often said that thinking fond thoughts of the one you’re making the rice ball for is an act of love that will help it taste even more delicious. Honda points out that the word for palm, “tanagokoro“, means “te no kokoro” (“the hand’s heart”), which connects it to deeper meanings of love.

So, now that we’ve learnt about the history of onigiri and the importance of rice in daily life, what’s the right way to eat a rice ball? Well, according to Honda, the first thing people should be careful of is concealing the bitten part of the onigiri. Honda says the bitten portion is unsightly for others to see, so after taking a bite you should either keep the onigiri horizontal to your mouth as you eat it or split it in two before taking a bite, as this will make it easier to eat.

▼ Onigiri etiquette lesson: failed

The second point to remember is that you shouldn’t let the grains of rice stick to your hands in public. If this happens, licking the grains of rice off your fingers might seem like the most unwasteful option, but this doesn’t make a good impression on anyone, even if you tilt your head to try to hide what you’re doing. So use a hand towel to remove the rice grains instead.

One last thing to remember is that, as a general rule, if onigiri rice balls are included in bento boxes, they should be eaten with chopsticks and not with your hands.

With most people in Japan eating onigiri without any regard to etiquette, these three manner points immediately sparked debate online.

“What? It’s going to look a lot worse if the rice ball breaks and falls when you’re trying to halve it.”
“Onigiri is eaten by hand – it’s not designed to be elegant.”
“Next we’ll be told that all rice balls should be eaten with chopsticks instead of hands!”
“Isn’t it still too big to eat in one bite if you halve it?”
“Maybe they should just make rice balls bite-sized to avoid all this confusion.”

This pushback against onigiri etiquette is largely tied to the casual nature of the rice ball, which is commonly eaten in laid-back, relaxed situations. However, as an etiquette coach, Honda is always thinking of ways to add elegance and refinement to even the most casual situations.

She believes it’s good manners to show respect to the rice ball, and the rice within it, by acknowledging the hard work of farmers and communities involved in its production. And given that there are said to be seven gods in every grain of rice, it’s not a bad thing to consider.

Still, people in Japan are more than happy to leave manners by the wayside when it comes to eating rice balls. Because there’s already enough to keep in mind when it comes to food etiquette in Japan.

Source: Nishinippon Shimbun via Hachima Kikou
Top image: Pakutaso
Insert images: Gahag, Pakutaso (1, 2)
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