Matt at No-sword has an intriguing post about the Japanese expression itadakimasu; I’ll let him explain it, since he does it so entertainingly:

Everyone who’s anyone knows that the Japanese word itadakimasu is a set phrase said before eating—in unison by all parties present, ideally—and means “[I] [will?] receive [+humility] [+politeness]”. But today I got to wondering if it’s an actual speech act (i.e. “I hereby humbly receive this meal [in toto, and having received it I shall begin at once to eat it]”) or just a statement about the near future (i.e. “I will [over the course of the next X minutes] humbly eat this meal”).
I didn’t reach a conclusion that satisfied me, but I did open up another fruitless line of internal inquiry: where did itadakimasu, as a set phrase said before eating, even come from? I know that people like to identify it with ancient Shinto, traditional Japanese respect for life, mists of time, &c., but can anyone point to an actual example of it (or even an equivalent phrase) being used in this way in a text written before, say, 1900?…
This is pure speculation, but it wouldn’t surprise me at all if its genesis as a nationwide, prescribed, unchangeable thing was early this last century, when the government was using the schools to push three things which were necessary for their imperialist project: nationwide conformity of and obedience to behavioral norms, gratitude for whatever food was available, and shady revisionist Shinto.*
Having said all that, virtually this entire post could be shot down by an example or two of unambiguously non-conversational itadakimasu (or itadakisourou or whatever) from the 1800s or earlier. So does anyone have any?

Well? (And I always thought of it as a speech act, but that’s an interesting question too.)

Oh, and that asterisk? It goes to the following footnote, whose second sentence I should place prominently somewhere on the LH front page:
* Please do not interpret this as a cue to make barbed ironic comments about modern Japanese schools. This blog has a fifty-year minimum wait for political commentary.


  1. I don’t see how any sentence with “receive” in it can possibly be a speech act (in the relevant sense). I can say it all I like, but it utterly lacks illocutionary (or for that matter perlocutionary) force unless I actually do receive something. So if it is not a prediction, it is mere commentary.
    Of course there are deviations from this rule, mostly in the mode of parody, as in “I blow my nose at you, so-called Arthur-king”. This sentence can only be constative, but is said as if it were illocutionary.

  2. Thanks for the link, LH! I’m looking forward to a flood of counterexamples destroying my theory.
    John: I think the relevant part isn’t the “receive”, it’s the humility. If “itadakimasu” is considered THE way to express humility and gratitude to the world at large, and especially the plants and animals that went into your meal, then conversely, not saying it means that you aren’t showing humility. (You aren’t “humbly receiving”, you’re “rudely taking” or at best “arrogantly receiving”.) At least, that’s how I’d analyze it. (Also, it’s common nowadays to see the “receive” in “itadakimasu” as more about spiritual attitudes than gross custody of the food itself, and I think plenty of people would argue that the words are the means by which the spiritual “reception” takes place..)

  3. John Emerson says

    As a performative “receive” could formally acknowledge receipt, and would be contrastive to refusing (which in turn could be either a gracious refusal or a stiff refusal.)

  4. Yes, John Emerson analyzes it pretty much the way I do (or think I do — I’ve never actually sat down and thought about it).

  5. Interesting question. I consulted Patricia Wetzel’s Keigo in Modern Japan: Polite Language from Meiji to the Present (U. Hawai‘i Press, 2004), but couldn’t find much at all on preprandial itadakimasu. The phrase wasn’t in the book’s index and all that I could find in skimming through the text–apart from its use as the humble equivalent of other verbs–is its appearance in a list of set “greetings” (aisatsu) in Appendix 1, a translation of a monograph submitted to the Ministry of Education in 1952 by the Kokugo Shingikai (National Language Academy), where it follows oyasumi nasai ‘(respectfully) rest!’ and precedes gochisousama ‘[your food was a] (respectful) feast!’
    Are those also performatives? Is Japanese a language with either (a) more numerous performatives than most others, or (b) a more strongly adhered-to fixed set of formulaic expressions in social interactions than most others?
    I’ve been struck again and again (as I eat out more than usual while in Japan) by the almost entirely robotic language (in tone as well as content) of workers in busy Japanese restaurants. Not that it isn’t purposeful and even necessary. For instance, the compulsion to shout Irasshaimase! as each potential customer approaches seems to accomplish the same two functions performed by a soldier who both salutes and shouts “Atten-SHUN!” when an officer approaches. It establishes a relationship of humility and readiness to serve toward a superior and also warns one’s fellow humble beings of their need to do the same.

  6. Americans continue to be baffled by the fact that the rest of the globe practices good manners and polite language.

  7. Let me elaborate: every language I know other than English has a formula to be spoken before eating. Even the English seem to have one: don’t they say “let’s tuck in”? 🙂

  8. At the risk of feeding a troll, let me observe that Gawain seems not to have come into contact with very many languages spoken mostly by small populations in informal settings, as in New Guinea or the Amazon, where formal occasions would usually call for a more widely spoken language. Nor is he aware that a great many more Americans indulge in a formal verbal ritual before every meal, at least in family settings, than do most other members of the English-speaking world. And, finally, let me suggest that the proper way to reference trolls is in the third person, for they are *not* participants in a conversation.

  9. Joel, I can understand how you would think that, but Gawain is far from being a troll, he’s an intelligent guy who happens to be expressing himself a bit too concisely and flippantly.
    Gawain: Nobody’s saying Japan is unique in having “a formal verbal ritual before every meal”; the question is 1) whether this particular expression is a performative or not, and 2) how old it is in its current use. Your remarks do not seem to address either of these issues. Not that I insist on sticking to the topic at LH—far from it!—but if you’re planning on launching a missile at others you should take care it doesn’t make contact with your own foot.

  10. Americans continue to be baffled by the fact that the rest of the globe practices good manners and polite language.
    Funny, how I was just pondering the topic 20 min ago while riding the subway to Manhattan and observing brow-raising behaviour of the Chinese passengers. Without an exception, regardless of age, gender or physical condition, they seem not to grasp the concept of first letting people exit the carriage before forcing their way in. One such persistent person was blocking the doors for good 2 minutes while a woman with a stroller was attempting to get off on Canal Street.

  11. Ian Myles Slater says

    American “words before eating” are indeed part of several religious traditions, and usually rather obviously reflect them. Their public use (outside confessional settings) seems to have faded with both secularization and an increased sensivity to imposing one’s religious preferences on others.*
    I have no idea how how widespread it is on the private level, but I assume that it is fairly common.
    I do recall a slightly startling article on how much more widespread the traditional Blessing before the Meal was in even secularized American Jewish households than in non-Orthodox families in Israel — I’m not sure that real statistics would bear it out, but as an impression from visiting teenagers it was interesting.
    That situation is in any case far more elaborate than the Japanese practice under discussion, and potentially more complicated than the American Christian “Grace.” A traditional Jewish prayerbook may have several pages of benedictions for various types of food — meat, eggs, fruit, and so forth — although in practice the one for bread, if bread is present, is sufficient for the whole meal. And there may also be itemized blessings for things to drink, although that for wine is the most common.
    Blessings *after* eating are also included; with increasingly elaborate versions available in accordance with the size of the gathering.
    The Japanese situation seems, by comparison, to be stripped of overtly religious references, and to constitute a (distinctly minimal) ritual act onto itself.
    I wonder if it is an example of a regional, a class, or a sectarian, practice (mix and match categories as desired) which was simplified and promulgated as “typically Japanese” in relatively recent times. Or if it had a long pre-history, and was just too ordinary to bother mentioning.
    For that matter, would the example set by Christian missionaries have suggested to nationalists bent on modernizing a need to “discover” a corresponding but “authentically Japanese” practice? (Sorry to sound cynical, but after reading Weber’s “Peasants into Frenchmen” and the essays in Hobsbawm’s and Ranger’s “The Invention of Tradition,” this seems to have been a fairly common approach in many places in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.)
    *I once had a conversation with a Catholic who said he thought that people were oversensitive on the matter. I mentioned nineteenth-century stories about Protestants who were willing to feed hungry Catholics, but *only* if the Catholics would read aloud from a (Protestant) English Bible before eating. (Please, I’m not commenting on the truth of this, I just raised it with him for comparison.) He agreed that there might be something to be said for not even appearing to be forcing conformity.

  12. Sorry, didn’t mean to be offensive.
    It just so happened that I came across several places in the last week where anglo-saxons were expressing puzzlement with polite speech.
    Heartfelt appologies to all around.

  13. Correction: before my (honestly meant) apology is taken amiss, i hasten to correct: not “polite speech” — since most anglosaxons i know are pretty polite, but with lingustic “polite formulas”. which is surprsing, because English possesses them as well (“have a nice day”).
    (i’d say itadikimasu is as much a performative as “have a nice day” is).
    i suspect this “puzzlement” has something to do not with the features of the English language but with the idea i hear repeated almost every day that there is something odd, unnatural and constraining about manners.
    i apologize if this is also not a propos.
    best regards to all

  14. Well, I’m not sure you’re sufficiently considering the ritual and obligatory nature of itadakimasu. Sure, saying grace is common, but it’s certainly not universal (plenty of people in NYC have probably never experienced it) and everyone says it in their own way. In general, Japanese is full of ritual and obligatory expressions, and I don’t think “politeness” quite covers it.

  15. (i’d say itadikimasu is as much a performative as “have a nice day” is).

    Um, are you sure you mean the same thing by “performative” as the rest of us? “Have a nice day” can’t possibly be a performative as I understand the term.
    (I can easily see itadakimasu being performative in the sense mentioned by John Emerson above. In the general terms addressed my John Cowan, to receive something doesn’t necessarily involve any physical moving-around of goods – it could refer purely to acceptance of an abstract transfer of ownership, even if the thing received is sitting in a warehouse. That kind of receiving might be accomplished by signing a receipt, and this is not so different from a performative speech act.)

  16. I am under the strong impression (possibly wrong) that “Itadakimasu” before eating is no more ritual than saying “mahlzeit” (as they do in Kiel) before everyone tucks in, “smacznego” in Polish, or “bon apetit” in French. that’s at least how it feels when you sit at the dinner table with wife and in-laws. 🙂 literally: no one puts his hand to the food until the formula is spoken, east or west.
    itadakimasu, btw, is a very interesting word for another reason: it is used in a special honorific formation which goes like this (allow me, i just can’t resist this stuff):
    watakushi V-te sashite itadakimasu
    (“i wholeheartedly embrace your command to V”)
    as in:
    “shitsurei sashite itadakimasu”
    which is
    “with your kind command, I hereby commit the unspeakable impropriety (i.e. knock off before every one else, ie, go home)”
    or, as we say in Firenze, “Ciao, Bambini”
    best regards

  17. Gawain,
    Perhaps you hang out with too many ill-socialized Anglo-Saxons. Like me, for instance, who have(?) been known to substitute kuu zou for the obligatory itadakimasu (but only in appropriate company).
    The only two phrases of Japanese that a villager in New Guinea (near Lae) that I interviewed could remember from his experience carrying for the Japanese during the war were: kaerou ‘let’s go home’, and imo kuu ka? something like ‘fresst du Kartoffel?’ No Japanese person I’ve told that to can believe any Japanese would address another human being that way. (Draw your own conclusions.)
    Itadakimasu is such an obligatory ritual in Japanese that every single person filmed eating something on the countless Japanese cooking or tabearuki (‘travelling around eating’) TV shows feels obliged to utter it on camera before plopping any strange morsel into their mouths, even salamander shishkabob or tiny live snakelets (both of which I’ve witnessed on Japanese TV).

  18. bathrobe says

    I agree with the comment that ‘Japanese is full of ritual and obligatory expressions, and I don’t think “politeness” quite covers it’. As Joel said, it’s possible to say ‘itadakimasu’, but it’s also possible to say ‘kuu zo’.
    A similar (but less extreme) situation exists for the performative ‘o-negai-itashimasu’, which can be reduced to a simple ‘tanomu’. Both make (or reiterate) a request, one politely, one informally.

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