Is Japan’s custom of slurping noodles irritating, and why do people do it?

2 weeks ago 12



Between the lifting of pandemic travel restrictions and the weakness of the yen against foreign currencies, Japan is seeing a huge influx of visitors from overseas these days. It’s great to see people from all over the world getting the opportunity to experience Japanese culture first-hand, but a recent TV interview showed that not every traveler enjoys every aspect of it.

Late last month, an episode of TV Asahi news program Super J Chanel included an interview with a French man who’d eaten at a soba (buckwheat noodle) restaurant in Japan, whose impressions of the dining experience included: “The sound of people slurping their noodles next to me was irritating.”

This had our Japanese-language staff here at SoraNews24 rethinking their eating habits. While none of them pledged to stop slurping their noodles, they wondered just how widespread this “slurping your noodles is gross” sentiment was in the international community, and whether it might be hampering foreign visitors’ ability to enjoy their time in Japan. So to get a clearer picture, we put the question to you, our readers, in a survey. We’ll get to the result later on in this article, but first, let’s look into the cultural background of Japanese noodle slurping.

For those who weren’t already aware, it’s the custom in Japan to audibly slurp soba. The same goes for udon and ramen, Japan’s other two domestic noodle varieties which also use much longer noodles than Western-style pasta dishes. Slurping is the standard eating method only for Japanese-style noodles, by the way. If you order a plate of spaghetti in a restaurant in Japan and start slurping that up, it’s considered poor table manners.

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Slurping might seem out of place for Japan, a country for which “quietly polite” is so often the gold standard for public conduct. There are at least three reasons why Japanese-style noodles get slurped, though. The one most commonly cited in cultural guidebooks is that slurping shows that the diner is enjoying the meal. Really, though, that’s more of a side effect than a deliberate attempt to convey your compliments to the chef. If anything, forcefully amplifying the sounds you make when eating is far more likely to have the restaurant staff asking “Are you OK?” than thinking “You’re welcome!”

The main reason people slurp their noodles is because it’s the easiest, safest, and arguably most delicious way to eat them. In Japan, Japanese-style noodles are always eaten with chopsticks. Unlike forks, chopsticks don’t have prongs, so you can’t easily twirl the noodles up into a circle for a denser, more compact bite. Trying to do so would bring the food up higher onto the sticks and require you to suck them off, but sucking or licking your chopsticks is a faux pas in Japanese etiquette.

Add in the fact that soba, ramen, and udon are most commonly served in a piping hot broth, and you’ve got another reason to slurp: mixing in some air with each mouthful helps cool the noodles down a bit and helps prevent you from scalding the inside of your mouth and searing your taste buds to the point where you can’t taste the delicious food. Speaking of taste, high-level Japanese noodle aficionados assert that when you slurp your noodles, some of the air you’re inhaling passes to your olfactory receptors, and since aroma can affect your sense of taste too, slurping enhances the flavor of the noodles and unlocks their full flavor potential.

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Put it all together, and slurping is so ubiquitous at noodle joints in Japan that most Japanese people think nothing of it, and even those who do usually see it in a positive light because it feels like something that should be part of the atmosphere, like the bubbling sound of a hot pot or the sizzle of a grill at a diner.

And yet, we can’t ignore the fact that for those from cultures where all food slurping is considered rude, there might feel irritated as their ears are assaulted with such sounds in a Japanese noodle restaurant. So we put the question to you, our good readers, in a survey on the SoraNews24 Facebook page, where we asked “Does the Japanese custom of audibly slurping soba and other noodles when eating them bother you?”, and you responded with 965 votes, and a pretty clear stance on the matter.

Does the Japanese custom of audibly slurping soba and other noodles when eating them bother you?

● Yes, it does: 11 percent of votes

● No, it doesn’t: 89 percent of votes

Now, we should point out that, as a survey of SoraNews24 readers, this doesn’t necessarily represent the international community as a whole. By nature of coming to a site that’s focused on Japanese culture and society, it’s safe to assume our survey’s participant pool is more attuned to Japanese behavioral norms, and probably more adventurous and culturally curious than average (we assume you all smell very nice too, but that’s unlikely to have had much effect on the survey results). Still, it’s put our Japanese-born coworkers hearts at ease to know that so many of you are so informed on and understanding of this aspect of Japanese culinary culture.

And just to clarify, we’re not trying to dunk on the French man in the TV interview for being bothered by the sounds of slurping, and to his credit, he wasn’t necessarily saying he thought people should stop, just that he didn’t like it. It’s good to know, though, that should the SoraNews24 staff find ourselves seated next to our readers while on a noodle run, we’ll probably be slurping side by side.

Photos ©SoraNews24

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