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I have seen on many etiquette questions about Japan that this is a no no, but I can't seem to find what the reason for this is. I know that in countries like Taiwan or China it doesn't seem to be an issue at all, so I would like to know why there is such a difference.

Also, does this also apply to any public places, or just while moving around?

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Does there need to be a reason for visitors to respect local etiquette? Second, what relevance do Taiwan or China have to Japan? They are about as similar as Germany and France. –  choster Mar 25 '13 at 3:46
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Well, the reason it because I want to understand whether this etiquette comes from a practical or a cultural angle, because I notice that foreigners are treated quite differently to locals, so that even if you do break some etiquette rules it is not as seen as offensive if committed by a foreigner. As for your second point, if I was an Asian person in Taiwan or China it is a normal thing to do, but we might be seen as 'locals' due to similarity of appearance so it might have different implications. –  Michael Lai Mar 25 '13 at 4:30
    
Idk when I can get to add comments, but this is a comment for @ShivShambo post. I have heard, Asians/Indians in the old times (like a decade or so ago), would take off their footwear even when they ate on the street side vendors stall! Most of them indeed would eat without wearing footwear even at home. Such is a deep respect for food y'all got. –  happybuddha Mar 25 '13 at 18:55
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@choster Are they really? I would expect Germany and France to be much more similar to each other than China and Japan, that I would rather expect to be akin to UK and Russia or so. –  gerrit Mar 25 '13 at 21:57
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I'm a great one for eating while I'm walking and I've travelled in Brunei, China, India, Japan, Laos, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand, and Vietnam. I've probably walked and eaten in most of these countries and usually feel at least a bit conspicuous because the locals don't seem to do it. My feeling is that people in Asian countries don't eat while walking generally but it's listed as something not to do in Japan specifically. Maybe the Japanese dislike it more, or maybe there's a lot of copy & pasting betweens lists of etiquette for specific countries. –  hippietrail Nov 4 '13 at 4:42
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5 Answers 5

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Since the issue is not only with food that you can spill but also with drinking coke (even if you buy it from a vending machine, you are not supposed to drink it while you walk), which is pretty much impossible to spill, this is not a hygiene issue.

The topic is much more about the respect for food at large. When Japanese people start eating, they put the hands together in a praying gesture and say "Itadakimasu", wich means "I humbly receive". People are also supposed to finish their food, even down to the last rice corn. There is another phrase to thank the cook once you are finished. Several other cultural details exist that underline this deep respect for food.

When you are eating while walking, you are taking food too casually, and forget to pay respect to the people who grew/made it and the souls of the organisms who perished in the process. You are supposed to cherish your food, which is taken to comical extremes in the "Ramen Scene" of the movie "Tampopo", which is a comedy only about food in Japan.

There are a lot of restaurants that serve food on the street, but you are supposed to eat it right there, on the spot, often under a canopy or umbrella, instead of walking away with it. Probably the only exception is ice cream. It is very possible that it is exempt because of western influence.

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I'm from the UK and I would always prefer not to eat whilst walking. I've done it out of necessity (e.g. too busy to stop) in the past, but it makes me feel wrong. I would be quite happy for this custom to influence us. Thanks for your answer, I think I will be making a conscious effort to respect my food more from now on. –  LordScree Mar 25 '13 at 13:44
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How is bottle soda/water considered? Can you drink part of your soda and save it for later? Can you bring water with you for when you work out and stop for drinks as needed? –  user606723 Mar 25 '13 at 18:30
    
Carrying a half-finished water bottle is definitely OK. I guess the question is if you stop somewhere and look into a shopping window while you drink it or literally drink while walking. –  uncovery Mar 26 '13 at 8:08
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Moving while ingesting is a no-no in general. Stand, stop, consume, resume. This is spreading to smoking as well for reasons beyond my understanding with signs everywhere protesting 歩きたばこ (smoking while walking). And while it likely came from a "respect for food" in the past, the real reason people don't do it is because people don't do it. Much like many other of the unspoken rules of Japan that nobody can justify when asked as an objective outsider. –  jmac Mar 26 '13 at 8:41
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@jmac the 歩きたばこ is trying to prevent that smokers cloud people walking behind them in 2nd hand smoke. This is why there are more and more districts prohibit smoking on the street. I do not think this is related to the eating while walking. –  uncovery Mar 26 '13 at 12:59
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It's all about education. Kids are taught the following table manners from the age of around 2:

  • You eat at the table
  • When you are done, say "Gochisousamadesu"
  • When you say you're done, you're done

This is reinforced at kindergarten/elementary school lunches (no snacks, school-supplied lunch that's the same for every student).

Those manners stick.

And anyway, have you ever tried to walk while eating with a pair of chopsticks? You'll put your eye out!

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I assume it came from the zen buddhist philosophy. In spiritual life, You give utmost importance to every activity. You are supposed to do everything consiously including eating. Even in India where buddhism originated, it is generally not taken positively to eat while walking.

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In Japan you will notice that outdoors or at other public places it is very clean, even in places with very few garbage cans. Traditionally Japanese are very clean and respectful of others. If you are eating while walking it is sometimes difficult not to make a mess or drop something.

Also there are so many restaurants that it is unnecessary to eat while walking about. It's little problem to get a good meal that you can eat quickly, near your work or wherever you are.

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I think more of it has to do with appearance than any sort of profundity everyone seems so fond of blaming. Japan is a HIGHLY image-conscious society, for better or worse, and stuffing your face while on the move isn't a good look, anywhere.

In regard to Japan having this religious respect for food, I don't think anyone who's been to a proper nomikai at an izakaya can say "japan doesn't waste food" with a straight face. I've seen heaps of great stuff NOT taken home in doggy bags because that would be "kakkowarui." And if it weren't the case, leaving the last bite of food for sake of looking like a greedy jerk wouldn't be so commonplace. People would be a lot more "mottainai."

Also, this stuff about japan being this "ultra-clean" society where they don't spill food on the street is rose-tinted idealism. A walk through central Shibuya on a early Sunday morning would not only reveal tons of wasted food discarded by local establishments, but also heaps of litter. Not to mention countless pools of vomit EVERYWHERE, planted for you by salaryman who couldn't hold their liquor the night before.

This isn't to say Japan isn't a deeply beautiful place with profound respect for all things, but I think a lot more boils down to trivialities than anything zen.

Don't limit your perception of japan to what you see in movies, TV, and your favorite new age bookstore. Sometimes a rice ball is just a rice ball. After all, "konbinis" don't exist because everyone believes in the sanctity of corn chips and "American dogs."

Of course, all this aside, despite the taboo against walk-munching, DRINKING (alcohol) in public (on trains, street, etc.) is fairly casual, particularly for men over 40. What about that, then?

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