The Etiquette Of Japanese Sake - Kanpai!

A few months ago I shared some tips about the etiquette of sake with The Matador Network and so I’ve decided to share a few more of the important customs of sake drinking here on my insights page.

Traditions play an important role in many aspects of Japanese culture and there are some very precise rituals concerning giving and receiving, and it’s no different for giving and receiving the traditional Japanese drink, sake (“sah-keh”).

Sake is made from fermented rice comes in a wide range of flavours from very sweet to very dry. The sweetness of sake is often given a numerical value on a menu, the scale starting at -15 for very sweet to +15 for very dry. It may be served warm, hot or chilled. Just as there are many types of wines there are several variations of sake including Junmai, Honjozo, Ginjo and Daiginjo but for more information about these variations, I would recommend contacting the experts such as Sake Service Institute (SSI) in Tokyo or London.

Traditionally sake is considered to have been a gift from the gods and serving it is seen as an act of social bonding and of bringing people (and gods) together. During Shinto wedding ceremonies, the bride and groom serve it to each other as a symbol of their vows and it’s often served at shrine festivals.

The Etiquette of Sake: the basics

1. You should never serve yourself sake. Even during informal situations, your sake should be poured by your companion and you should likewise return the act of hospitality and pour for them. Pouring for yourself is known as tejaku and considered rude.

2. The more formal the occasion, the more formal the etiquette. A host pours sake for the guest of honour and the remaining guests usually pour sake for each other.

3. Both hands are used when pouring and drinking. Sake is poured from a tokkuri (carafe) held with two hands, one to hold and pour, the other hand supporting the bottom. To receive and sip sake, it is poured into a small ceramic cup called an ochoko which is held with two hands, one hand around the side and one hand supporting the bottom. The cup should be lifted off the table when someone is pouring it for you.

4. Drinking only starts once everyone has a full cup. The host will raise his cup for a toast and say Kanpai “gahn-pie” (cheers), then everyone follows his lead and raises their cup.

5. Sake should be sipped slowly. Just because it looks like a shot doesn’t mean it is. A word of caution, if you’ve had enough, leave some sake in your cup, otherwise your companion will continue to fill it!

6. Don’t ask for “sake” in Japan. In Japanese, “sake” refers to all alcoholic drinks. Sake in Japanese is actually nihonshu.

When in doubt, follow the lead of your host so you don’t offend anyone by ignoring any of these important traditions. Keep in mind that these rules of etiquette will change if you visit an actual Sake Bar!


Julia Esteve

The Etiquette Consultant