Why Do The Japanese Use So Many Plates?

I love Japanese food! But there’s something that has been grinding my gears ever since I first came to Japan. Why do the Japanese use so many plates? In hotels and restaurants you get so many plates that you can’t even count them. In Switzerland it’s normal to put everything on the same plate but in Japan there are at least four or five different ones. Why do the Japanese use so many plates? That’s what I’m going to talk about in this weeks blog post.

Japanese Food Has To Look Good

Main menu at the Sakuraso tofu restaurant

Japanese food is always so beautiful. Every time I eat it I  have to take a picture. But it’s primarily the food itself that makes a Japanese meal look so good. The plates and the order they are placed in also play a huge rule.

The Japanese use so many different plates to make a meal look better. The plates come in various different forms, colours and styles. Especially at ryokans (traditional Japanese hotels) and good restaurants you’ll be presented with a wide variety of plates. But even the average Japanese houshold uses at least three plates per meal. Japanese people also put small plate-like cups into their bento lunchbox.

Many Plates Mean More Fun While Eating

Just like in the West, people in Japan see eating as an event, something fun and exciting. You can have a good time with your friends and family over a nice dinner. And a wide variety of dishes obviously makes the process of eating even better.

Restaurants want to make eating an experience. At a high-end restaurant in Europe you can sit up to two hours and wait for each course to come. In Japan that’s different. You’re often presented with almost everything from the start, so that you can choose what you want to eat first.

That makes eating almost feel like a little adventure, where you hop from one dish to another.

The Traditional Japanese Meal

As I said before, I always take pictures of my lunch, dinner, etc. And when I once looked at those photos I noticed something. Japanese food always looks the same. There’s always rice, some kind of fish, miso soup, pickles and other vegetables.

That’s what is called 一汁三菜 (ichijuusansai) and it means as much as one soup and three side dishes. It describes what a traditional Japanese meal consists of. A Japanese meal has for almost ever consisted of rice accompanied by one soup and three other dishes (read why rice isn’t boring). All the parts of a Japanese meal get their own plate. That makes it easy to create a nutritionally balanced meal.

A traditional Japanese meal consists of:

  • main dish: Typically consists of raw or cooked fish, but lately dishes containing meat are getting more and more popular.
  • side dish: stir fried or boiled vegetables
  • second side dish: chopped fish, vegetables dressed with sauce
  • staple food: Obviously rice, but there are also various kinds of noodles and weird kinds of bread in Japan.
  • soup: Traditionally it has been miso soup. But there are also many western style soups.

Smaller sized plates might actually also help you not eating to much. Japanese say that you should only eat until you are about 80% full. And I guess the smaller plates and balanced meals work. The Japanese have the highest life expectancy in the world. This might be due to their healthy diet.

The Way Of Serving These Many Plates

Japanese Food

The layout of a Japanese meal is strictly decided. I noticed that rather quickly. When I wanted to help my host mother setting the table, she suddenly said “Wait! Rice goes on the left!” At that time I didn’t know it, but Japanese food is serious business.

The right way:

  • upper right: main dish
  • upper left: side dish
  • middle: second side dish
  • bottom left: staple food
  • bottom right: soup

I learnt that here in school. But when I went home I noticed that either the teacher made a mistake or my hostmother doesn’t know how to prepare Japanese food. But it’s just Osaka being different.

In Osaka the layout is:

  • upper right: main dish -> side dish
  • upper left: side dish -> soup
  • middle: second side dish
  • bottom left: staple food
  • bottom right: soup -> main dish

But confusing people isn’t the only reason for why the Japanese use so many plates. There’s one more reason.

The Japanese Hold The Plates While Eating


When I came to Japane I coudn’t really use chopsticks. That said I’m still not good at using them. But especially in the first few weeks I often dropped fish or rice on my trousers and made them dirty. But I soon noticed that even if you’re bad at using chopsticks it’s not that big of a deal.

In Japan you hold the plates while eating. I guess chopsticks are also for Japanese people hard to use. I bet they too often drop food on their trousers. That’s why they started putting everything on small little plates that you could hold just in front of your mouth. By that there’s almost no risk of dropping something. And I guess that’s the main reason for why they use so many plates.

But I might be mistaking.

Why Do The Japanese Use So Many Plates?

The Japanese normally use 5 plates for a meal. Each plate has it’s fixed place. For example rice gets placed always on the bottom left side. They use so many plates so that every dish has it’s on plate and can easily be held in your hand. And a side effect of using so many plates is that Japanese food looks good and is fun to eat. It might also prevent you from eating too much since smaller plates can’t hold as much food as bigger one’s – obviously.

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