Itadakimasu; A Thank You Note to the Universe

Culture, language, and food are so heavily intertwined that we don’t even notice how much these worlds combine. The way a nation cooks its unique dishes and expresses thankfulness for this is special to every nation. This can be seen in something as simple as etiquette. Etiquette is also highly tied to culture, which is by default, linked to cooking and eating, which is the main source of physical nourishment of our bodies.

Just because it's considered respectful and well-mannered in one country does not mean the same for other countries. Even something as simple as wearing clothing that doesn’t fit the usual standards of dressing in that area can be a sign of disrespect – so it’s vital when in another country, to know their distinctive forms of etiquette and proper manners particular to that nook of the world.

What Is "Itadakimasu"?

The very base meaning of itadakimasu (stemming from the word “itadaku”) is to humbly take, receive, accept, or get something. So, although it’s used as an expression of gratefulness for the food one is about to eat, it was also used as a term for accepting other items as well.

Nowadays, saying itadakimasu is almost like saying Bon Appetit, but with a hint of humility. One can even go as far as saying it’s a form of outward verbal respect for the life that was given up, becoming a meal on your plate. If you are in Japan and are eating amongst other Japanese, it would only be the respectful thing for you to say before digging in.

The History of the Word Itadakimasu

Itadakimasu is not exclusively used for food, in fact, this saying-before-meals practice is much newer than the term itself. Itadakimasu’s history goes back to ancient Japan, - particularly the Asuka period when Buddhism was prevalent. See, Buddhism, compared to western spirituality, is supposed to be very inclusive when it comes to honor and respect for living things. While Judaism and Christianity has a hierarchy (Importance first goes to God, followed by people, then animals, then plants, then any non-animated object), Eastern spirituality – particularly Buddhism – honors all living creatures as though they were on the same level.

This means that when one says “itadakimasu”, he or she has in mind, in general, all the energy recycled, as well as the effort that went into preparing the meal. That reaches out to thanking everything as far as the cabbage that was on your plate, the farmer who picked it, the life of the fish that became your meal, and the fisherman who caught it, the sales lady in the store you bought it from, and the person who fixed the whole meal. It’s a thankfulness and acknowledgment of the circle of life.

Hiragana: The Japanese Alphabet Used to Write and Pronounce Itadakimasu

The word “itadakimasu” is the romaji version of the hiragana spelling of the word. Hiragana is a collection of phonetic syllables, represented by symbols, that form a word. Itadakimasu in Hiragana is いただきます. Hiragana is used to spell out itadakimasu because it’s a native word. Itadakimasu can also be expressed in kanji.

Itadakimasu the Manga

Yes, itadakimasu is indeed something said before meals, and it is also the name of a manga. Manga is any Japanese illustrated a graphic novel. “Itadakimasu” the manga is given a high rating of 7.5 by 1,689 users on an anime forum online – a high enough rating to warrant public interest on it. The whole story revolves around a woman who works in a bridal salon. Because her husband cheated on her, she divorced him. The catch is, the salon is right underneath where her ex-husband works.

Tension erupts when she meets a man named Ouji. Her ex-husband just wants her forgiveness, but she seems to be finding Ouji more appealing than usual. Will they end up together? You’ll have to read the manga to find out. It’s a very light read, so it’s best for those who want some entertainment without having to think too much or get too philosophical.

The Japanese Character for Itadakimasu

The Japanese have three ways to write their words because there are three different writing systems in the Japanese language; these are Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji. Hiragana is used to phonetically spell out traditional words, katakana is used to phonetically spell out borrowed words, and kanji are logograms that, when combined, create ideas and words.

Now, “Itadaku” originally meant for someone to wear something on his or her head. Perhaps, therefore, the symbol for itadaku when it comes to kanji originated from (it’s a mountaintop - 頂) as the mountain resonates with high altitudes, which can reflect in this metaphor. In Buddhism, whenever someone would receive something (especially if it’s offered by someone respected, or taken from a solemn situation such as an offering originally intended for deities), they would raise it up as a signal of gratitude and humility to the gods.

The Development of The Word Itadakimasu

Itadaku slowly evolved from the idea of a mountaintop to being raised up to head-level, to a humble acceptance of what they have. This phenomenon is recent, with the latest documentation of using itadakimasu during mealtime coming out only in 1812, despite having hundreds of years of back history on the word. The book where it was found was an etiquette rule book, called “Koukou Michibiki Gusa”.

In this book, there is a quote which, in summary, says that before you start eating, take a moment to appreciate what you have; nature, animals, your parents – and even the Emperor. Once the book was available to the public, the Jodo-Shinshu sect of Buddhism encouraged this Thanksgiving habit every before a meal, and it slowly became a custom – most especially for those during the Showa era.

The Habit of Being Thankful

This sudden widespread use of itadakimasu during the Showa period occurred because during of the formalization of their educational system. The newly unified government mandated it and decided to add the habit of outspoken humble gratitude to the universe (basically nature; parents, the Emperor), concluding it with “itadakimasu” in the students’ day to day life. “Shokuji-kun” is what is this custom is called; which directly translates in English to “meal doctrine”.  

Not everyone in Japan is into participating in this shokuji-kun because there are people who were alive before this custom became mainstream. Perhaps this practice is to stay for the next hundred years – or perhaps it will turn into something else as time goes by.

The Difference Between Tabemasho and Itadakimasu

You may have heard the word “tabemasho” called out before meals, instead (or before) itadakimasu. Both words mean “let’s eat”. So, what is the difference? Tabemasho means “let’s go eat” in the sense of beckoning to go to the area of eating. It isn’t said as Grace before meals, or in any sense of thanksgiving. Itadakimasu, on the other hand, has a rich history of gratefulness, dating all the way back to Buddhism.

How to Properly Use Itadakimasu

When using itadakimasu, you must take note of how it is pronounced, and the body language that accompanies it. There are many clips available online (you may check out YouTube) that can help you perfect the proper way to say itadakimasu. Once you’ve gotten that straight, you should also observe how other people say it. You’ll notice that sometimes, everyone says it at the same time. Other times, it’s fine to say it by yourself.

The steps in performing itadakimasu are as follows – first, put your hands together as though you were about to pray. Next. utter “itadakimasu” while lightly bowing. After, you may begin to eat your meal. There are different ways of saying itadakimasu, as there are different moods to every meal. Every now and then, you may not even have to use your hands.

Business meals sometimes have a more formal and serious way of saying it, while meeting up with a friend for a quick bite at the food court calls for a more animated itadakimasu. Feel your way around cues and other people’s behavior to gauge how to properly say it.

Not Just for Food

As previously noted, Itadakimasu is not just used for food, as it is an expression of humbly receiving or accepting something. Although this is what it implies, it still needs to be clarified that it is an expression of this, and cannot always be used to accept everything. As an approximate principle, use it only when receiving physical gifts. When someone gives you, say, a box of chocolates, and you reply with “itadakimasu” as a way of saying “I humbly receive this”.

When writing in Japanese, there are various conjugations you can use to show respect and social etiquette. Depending on who you’re talking to (or receiving the gift from), you’ll want to show the ample amount of deference. So, there are formal versions to take note of and should be used at the right time.

It isn’t advised to use itadakimasu when given something that isn’t an actual physical item. A favor, for example, or hug, which you are thankful for, is best thanked using other terms. While you can’t use it to thank the person with itadakimasu for a non-physical item, you may use itadakimasu to ask for that non-physical item; such as that favor. But really, best keep saying itadakimasu out of asking or receiving hugs in general – it just gets lost in translation to the Japanese.

Itadakimasu Can Get Complicated

Feeling a little perplexed about how and when one should say itadakimasu? It’s simple – if you’re still beginning to learn Japanese, just keep the word for before meals. It can be used in so many ways in the Japanese language, such as using it when accepting opportunities or asking for certain things. It is understandable that one would easily get confused.

Itadakimasu: Just One Among Many Words You Should Know When Visiting Japan

The minute you step foot into Japan – no matter what month of the year it is; chilly November, October, or sunny August, you should have enough words in your vocabulary so you’ll know what to say in case the need arises. “Konnichiwa,” for example, is hello, “Suki desu” means “I like it”, while “kuda sai” means please – in the request form. Itadakimasu should be a phrase (among others) that you must arm yourself with. The Japanese are very accommodating of foreigners and the ignorance that they bring when coming to Japan, that a simple acknowledgment of their language (and effort to speak it) would mean so much to them.

The Essence of Itadakimasu

In the end, the values upheld by a country are reflected not only by the big things but the small idiosyncrasies. The use of itadakimasu is one of those idiosyncrasies, highlighting a very thoughtful and introspective nation that cares about the environment, its preservation, and respecting the world around us through an expression of love: gratitude.

Saying itadakimasu before a meal, reminds one, in a nutshell, that there are no shortcuts to life. For that meal to get to your table, it had to be born, live, and then die at the hands of a butcher or gardener. It sacrificed its life – most of the time, unwilling – to lend you a part of itself and its energy. As opposed to taking it for granted and thanking an external almighty source, the humble itadakimasu thanks every single entity involved in its existence.

Beyond Food

This is the wonder that comes with learning others’ cultures; you get to have a different perspective on things and shift your own beliefs a little – perhaps for the good. Itadakimasu is not strictly for those who are Japanese; you don’t have to be a citizen of Japan to borrow the habit to say itadakimasu before meals. It’s a humbling practice.

Practicing gratefulness in such a simple, day-to-day action such as eating makes you appreciate other things as well. A stranger sharing an umbrella with you, the cashier letting go of a couple of cents on your bill, a lover opening your car door; sometimes these giving acts go unnoticed. Itadakimasu reminds everyone to stop – take a moment – notice these kind acts, and reflect on the presence; how wonderful these moments are.