In a lot of casual restaurants, such as ramen or beef bowl joints, almost all the seating is at a counter. There might be a table or two stuck in the corner, but the vast majority of customers will take a seat along the counter, and it’s pretty much where all single diners are expected to sit.
The reason why is simple: counters take up less space, and having strangers sit next to each other means that there are no wasted, empty seats. For further efficiency, restaurants usually leave a few container full of chopsticks on the counter, along with pitchers of water and condiments, so that customers can grab whatever they need.
But as you can see in the photo above, there isn’t a chopstick station set up in front of each and every seat. If there’s not one in front of you, you’re supposed to reach over and grab a pair from the closest container, but for a subset of Japanese diners, this is easier said than done, because they feel anxious or awkward about reaching in front of another diner who’s a complete stranger.
As an extreme example, a user of Japanese Internet forum 2channel recently posted that he went into a beef bowl restaurant, placed his order, and then, once his meal came, noticed that the chopstick container was in front of the person sitting next to him.“I’ve been sitting here for 15 minutes,” he wrote, unable to bring himself to procure a set of eating utensils. “My food’s cold now…”
A number of other commenters chimed in to say they feel similar disease in such a situation. “I totally know what you mean. I get nervous enough talking to the restaurant staff,” said one. Another added “I’m OK getting chopsticks, because you have to have those to eat, but I always hesitate to take the condiments if they’re not right in front of me.”
Something that likely exacerbates the anxiety is that at many casual Japanese restaurants, ordering is done by purchasing a meal ticket from a vending machine at the entrance. You then hand the ticket to the waiter or cook, with no need for any verbal, and only the bare minimum interpersonal, interaction. Diners who’re painfully shy are likely to gravitate to such establishments, and for them the hurdle of entering another customer’s line of sight no doubt feels especially high.
It should be noted, though, that most Japanese people don’t have any problem grabbing what they need. “It’s a lot bigger nuisance to just sit there without eating and weirding everyone out,” remarked one commenter.
In any case, know that the unwritten but commonly followed etiquette is simply to say sumimasen or shitsurei shimasu (both of which translate as “excuse me”) as you reach for the chopsticks or whatever else you need from that common-use section of the counter, and if anyone gets upset at you for it, Japanese society considers him to be the rude one. And should you happen to notice the person next to you sitting there idly and staring at the chopstick container in front of you, you can always throw him a bone by gesturing towards the utensils and saying dozo (“please, go ahead”) to make extra sure he knows you don’t mind his reach.
Source: Livedoor News via Jin
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