Our Japanese-language writer used to give himself a pass, until he encountered a woman who changed his mind.
If you’ve watched many Japanese TV drama or anime series, you’ve no doubt come across a scene where someone sits down for a meal and says “Itadakimasu” before beginning to eat, often accompanied by an awkwardly phrased subtitle like “I will eat” or “Thanks for the food.”
But itadakimasu, which means “I will receive,” doesn’t exist just to make translators’ jobs more difficult. In Japanese society, it functions like a secular way of saying grace, and expresses gratitude not only to the people involved in preparing the meal, but also the plants and animals that gave their life for your nourishment.
However, while it’s both customary and polite to say “Itadakimasu” when dining with others, it’s hardly ever said by solo diners. After all, if no one is listening to you anyway, no one is going to be bothered by the lack of expressed thanks, right? At least, that was what our Japanese-language correspondent P.K. thought, until a chance encounter changed his whole attitude.
Let’s turn it over to P.K. to describe his revelation.
Just the other day, I went to a curry restaurant as part of an article I was writing. All of the restaurant’s seats are along a counter, with no individual tables. Because of that, a lot of the other customers had come by themselves and were eating quietly, with the music from the restaurant’s radio and the sound of cars driving by outside the only things to be heard.
About the only words being spoken were the staff greeting and thanking customers, and the diners placing their orders. But again, that’s pretty standard for a casual all-counter seating restaurant, so I sat in silence and played with my smartphone while I waited for my food.
No one was sitting next to me, but two seats to me right there was a businesswoman dining by herself. She was doing the same thing I was, looking at her smartphone while she waited for her curry, and after about five minutes the server placed her plate in front of her.
And then I heard her say “Itadakimasu,” with her words ringing out in the otherwise wordless atmosphere.
Just how beautiful is that? It’s not like she was eating with anyone who was going to care either way, and even though it would have been the most natural thing in the world for her to say nothing at all before digging in, she still said that word of appreciation before taking a bite.
When they’re eating alone, many people simply think “Itadakimasu” without saying it out loud, but I believe we should rethink this. Eventually, internalizing the expression can get to the point where you stop really feeling the sentiment in that moment, and it loses its meaning. That’s something that I’m guilty of myself sometimes.
Whether you’re eating with others or by yourself, the gratitude you feel for all the sacrifices that went into your meal doesn’t change. If we say “Itadakimasu” when we’re in a group, we should also say it when we’re alone, and I’d like to thank the woman in the curry restaurant for showing me that.
[ Read in Japanese ]