“Itadakimasu” is one of the first words you’ll hear after coming to Japan. It’s sort of the Japanese equivalent to “saying grace” before eating a meal.
I was originally planning to write this article about the origins and meaning of itadakimasu by myself, but then I soon realized that this is the type of content that’s probably best left to a native speaker, so I’m going to leave it to guest writers Naoko & Matthew.
Good luck with your Japanese studies, everyone!
When To Say Itadakimasu
Welcome to Japan!
You’ve just been invited by your friends to eat lunch together at their house with their host family, and you aren’t sure what to do, what to say. They tell you everything is alright, and you can just bring a small gift as is traditional in many other countries. You end up bringing a bottle of sake, greeting everyone, and sitting down to a nice meal.
Before thinking you already grabbed your chopsticks and started shoving food into your mouth.
Everyone sitting at the table stares blankly at you and makes you feel nervous. Your friend leans over and whispers into your ear that you should always start with the phrase いただきます (Itadakimasu) before you begin eating. Why? What’s the point to using this phrase before eating?
American culture is quite different in the fact that they have no actual phrase or words used before eating. Saying grace comes from religious background, so those that are from atheist homes may not have ever said something before eating. You certainly won’t hear American children in public schools saying something as a group before eating.
The phrase “itadakimasu,” however, is universal in Japan, and it is very important for culture and serves multiple purposes.
How To Use “Itadakimasu”
It is acceptable to say “itadakimasu” either in unison with the rest of your group or simply by yourself.
When you say “itadakimasu,” you should clasp your hands together and bow your head slightly, like this:
The Meaning of “Itadakimasu”
いただく (Itadaku) is a phrase that is very polite with the meaning “to take.”
Traditionally itadakimasu is used when taking something from someone with higher authority or position than oneself.
In this sense, the head is bowed with the hands held, palms up, higher than the head to receive an item. It is also used when receiving things from gods (perhaps their blessings, or some luck? I hope it isn’t a curse ?). It is currently used when eating because you are taking a very precious gift of another organism’s life.
Itadaku comes from one of the three types of 敬語 (keigo, “polite language”). Specifically, this is 謙譲語 (kenjougo), “the humble form,” which is used to figuratively lower oneself.
The origins of this are based on Buddhism and the belief that everything has a spirit that guides it. By taking spirits from their origins and using them to replenish yourself, you are giving honor and gratitude to the organisms that originally housed those spirits.
It is very disrespectful to eat someone else’s meal without properly giving thanks to them for making such food. Even if you made the meal yourself, you are still giving respect to the lives used in its creation.
Pronunciation of Itadakimasu
For those of you that don’t know hiragana yet, “itadakimasu” is pronounced like “ee-tah-dah-kee-mah-su.”
Written instructions aren’t very helpful, though, so here are some samples from native speakers:
Possible Origins of “Itadakimasu”
The higher levels of a mountain are also called いただき (Itadaki). The phrase Itadakimasu comes from that.
When looking at the pile of food before yourself, you can imagine you are about to make your journey down from Mt. Fuji, and must give thanks to the mountain spirits guiding you down (just kidding, but doesn’t a plate of food in anime traditionally look like Mt. Fuji ??).
Also looking at it from another perspective, when you bow down and extend your hands upward, your body looks quite similar to a mountain with its peak stretched forth, waiting for something to reach the top.
Modern Usage & Meanings of “Itadakimasu”
The use of “itadakimasu” became popular around World War II because of mass media frequently using it on television shows. You could even say that it became a wildly popular trend in modern Japanese culture.
There were always families that said it before eating, but the phrase became much more acceptable and common amongst the nation, especially after the devastation caused by the war, which lead to the scarcity of food in the mid-1940s.
Currently there are 2 different meanings for the word:
One is used for workers (for example: fishermen, farmers, chefs, waiters, etc.) involved in the preparation of the food. This shows respect for the person(s) who took time to make the feast sitting before you.
The other meaning is to show gratitude toward the meal itself, the life that was given to make such a feast possible (If you don’t give thanks to the spirits giving you this food, they may take away all that nice smell and flavor that’s sitting right in front of you ＼(◎o◎)／！).
Not All Japanese People Say “Itadakimasu” Before Eating
Recently some children have stopped using this phrase because some parents feel there is too much religious influence behind the word. These parents will not teach this phrase to their children at home, and tell them to ignore when others when they hear the phrase being spoken in public.
There is also a phrase used by the Japanese people called モンスターペアレント (monsutaa pearento) “Monster Parent(s)”, or just “Monster__________” (You fill in the blank with whatever legal guardian word you can think of).
This phrase is used to describe people who have lost this feeling of gratitude, and their view of the world is quite different. These are the parents who speak directly with the principles at school and demand that their children be treated differently; their child doesn’t need to say “Itadakimasu” before eating because they are paying for everything. They believe that the school should be respecting them much more because they are helping eliminate a waste of ingredients should no one else take this role.
They view themselves as a type of savior to businesses since their money helps keep shops open while it also helps keep the staff employed.
These types of parents or guardians are still rare cases, and I would advise against following their example.
Should Foreigners Say “Itadakimasu” Before Eating?
Yes, of course!
The best thing you can do as a foreigner is to participate in activities and culture the same way the Japanese people do; immerse yourself in your new surroundings and enjoy the time you have while you are in Japan.
If you aren’t in Japan already and you do plan to travel there at any time in the future, this is one of the most commonly used phrases you should have readily available since you’ll be using it just as much as you would use a greeting. So the next time you sit down to eat a meal with your friends or family, remember to have a great time and share your new wisdom with them by starting things off with “Itadakimasu”; you’ll be glad you did!
If you want to learn more awesome Japanese, you should start with this free, 100% awesome study guide:
Further Resources & Info About the Meaning of “Itadakimasu”
Here are some articles and YouTube videos further exploring itadakimasu:
- What Does Itadakimasu Mean? – Tofugu
- いただきます＆ごちそうさま(= Itadakimasu & Gochisousama ) (Japanese manners) – Maggie Sensei
- Itadakimasu: Thank You Nature For This Meal – Alien Times
- Thanks for the Food: Itadakimasu – PuniPuni
- Itadakimasu: Respect for Food in Japan – Japan Talk
- The Meaning of Itadakimasu – Cheeserland.com
- Why Japanese say Itadakimasu together before they eat? – Iromegane
- Etiquette in Japan – Wikipedia
If your Japanese is particularly good, you can also check out these articles in Japanese talking about itadakimasu:
There are also some lessons about the phrase “itadakimasu” on JapanesePod101.
Finally, here are some pages talking about “Monster Parents” in Japan: