Cultural Differences Observed at the Dinner Tables in the U.S. and Japan
The French author André Maurois wrote in his book The Art of Living (1939), “In restaurants, the duration of silence between couples is too often proportionate to the length of their life together.” Very interesting. Relationships seem to be more apparent around the dining table. Therefore, in order to compare families in the United States and Japan and to dig deeper, I have fixed the point of view at the dining table. By conducting an observation on and measurements of a variety of familial table manners in the two countries, I found that families in the United States and Japan differ in terms of the meal settings, purpose of dinner and response to faddiness.
In the United States, although having a wide variety of meals is one of the unique characteristics, it can still be said that typically meal settings have a certain flow. Even at a casual dining where an average family goes, appetizers, the main dish and desserts are often served separately. When eating three dishes following the order--for example, a salad first, New York steak with mashed potatoes second, and a piece of apple pie with a scoop or two of vanilla ice cream on side at the end--you would not have two plates in front of you together at the same time. Each stage should be distinctively deployed. And, all family members at the table usually proceed to the next stage together at the very same time. However, in Japan, the main axis of meal settings is not time, but place. There is a certain manner of mapping plates. Very basic idea is that having a bowl of rice on the left front, a bowl of miso soup on the right front, the main dish in the middle and side dishes in the back. Depending on the size of plates, miso soup can go back and side dishes fill other available spaces, but a bowl of rice usually keeps in the pole position and the main dish remains at the center of the stage to create certain beauty on the table. Parents usually teach their children to eat in a balanced manner. In that manner, unlike the tradition in the United States, people do not eat dishes separately, that means not in the order of soup first, salad second, the main dish third and so on, but in a more mixed manner.
In the United States, as mentioned above, meals are served at the same time with other table members. Family members, in principle, do not start eating until all members are served and ready to eat. It is because sharing a quality of time between family members is the important value of the meal in the United States. The main purpose of a meal seemed to be to have a good time by exchanging stories and laughter with family and friends. Foods and dishes are providing a setting where families and familiar people can share precious time. In Japan, in contrast, meals are served individually and it is the widely accepted manner to suggest to your partner not to wait your meal’s arrival at restaurants. At home, traditionally, mother who cooks meals lets other family members eat without her presence at the table, and she joins the table after all cooking has been completed. That is because eating quality foods is the important value of the meal in Japan. Waiting for other member’s meal is wasting and ruining of the food quality that could have been achieved, and that will make the mother as cook sad, if not angry. It would be wrong to state that eating buddies are merely set pieces for providing a setting in which people can enjoy the taste of meals. However, I believe that comparing to the United States, there is certainly such tendency.
According to the Chapter 11 of American Ways written by Maryanne Kearny Datesman, et. al., “Some American families tend to place more emphasis on the needs and desires of the child than on the child’s social and family responsibilities.” With this tendency which was formed after World War II, likes and dislikes about food are socially accepted in the United States for a degree much more than any other countries as such needs and desires belonging in the category of individual freedom. American people seemed to believe that they have all rights to substitute ingredients of meals based on their faddiness, or at least popular chain restaurants accept such requests without a murmur. This cultural value has been able to continue to be real only with the support of the country’s material wealth. In Japan, likes and dislikes are not so accepted. Wasting of food is one of the biggest sins, which is probably stemmed from the material poverty of the land. People are proud to have the word “mottai-nai” which expresses the guilt of waste, and willing to teach the value to their children. Moreover, finishing the served meal is seemed to be people’s basic responsibilities toward the cook and the foodstuffs, while serving a tasty food is the responsibility of the cook against the eater and the foodstuffs. As such, although removing an ingredient in the recipe is somewhat allowed nowadays, not many people are willing to ask to substitute those with another ingredient as it is believed to be asking too much.
We have so far observed the differences between the two countries, but there always be similarities on the flip sides of the coins. In both countries, we saw that there are certain manners to provide a variety of plates for dinner, that the quality of the time over the meal is the important value of the meal in addition to its flavor and taste, and that there are the expected roles and responsibilities related to the cultural values for both cook and diner.
We have compared the United States and Japan in terms of the meal settings, main purpose and appearance of individual freedom over the dining table. We saw that in the United States, people have more opportunities to talk about the food over the table, and that in Japan, people may talk less about the food, including about their likes and dislikes. Based on the aforementioned André Maurois’ formula, Japanese couples have a longer period of their life together than American couples on average. Strangely enough, that sounds like too often to be true given the following statistics stated in American Ways: “approximately one out of every two marriages now ends in divorce [in the United States].”