“Self Service” in Japanese Restaurants


In consumer society, we are expected to do some things for ourselves, and other things we expect service people to perform on our behalf. But of course this varies cross-culturally. One simple example is gas stations. Gas stations in Japan, or Mexico for instance, are largely serviced, with employees filling your gas tank for you. In America however, only a very small handful of gas stations are serviced, perhaps in order to keep gas prices down, and encourage more driving.

The “self-service” culture of Japan is worth noting because for me, there was one fundamentally unique aspect of the “self service” concept in Japan: restaurants.

a typical Japanese restaurant with grills built into the table

There is no tipping custom in Japan. Only perhaps in very uncommon circumstances in very uncommon settings (high-class hotels) would an employee even consider accepting a tip. For the most part, just forget about tipping altogether, and you can attribute the slightly higher minimum wage and restaurant prices to this if you want. Regardless, service in Japan is excellent anywhere in just about any establishment you go to: the customer is top priority, no question.
Despite this, there are many restaurants that require you to essentially cook your own food. You will occasionally find a burner in the middle of your table that is either heating up an iron sheet, boiling a pot of soup, or heating coals for a grill.

There are a few representative “genres” of food that are associated with cooking it yourself at the restaurant. That is not to say that every time you eat this type of food it will be self-service, but more often than not, the self-service appeal can be the reason people go out to eat that particular food in the first place.


Japanese yakiniku, grilled meat, done yourself at most restaurants


Yakinuku basically means grilled meat. Also a very popular food concept in South Korea, yakiniku involves ordering from a various menu of meats that are brought to your table raw, cut, and ready to grill. It is then grilled by you, at your table, at your leisure. Simple cuts of beef or pork shoulder, to more adventurous cuts of tongue or other organs can all be ordered at your own pace while you enjoy drinks and snack on some appetizers: vegetables like bean pods, cabbage, and cucumbers make for good fillers between rounds of meat. Japan “cuts” out the middle man between you and your meat. No [tri]”tip” required!


shabu shabu at a Japanese restaurant, also done by yourself
This one has two flavors of soup!


Shabu-shabu is a long-time favorite of Japan and actually much less intimidating than yakiniku for a few reasons, the biggest one being that there are no open flames. Shabu-shabu restaurant have many tables with a hot-plate type contraption in the center. You choose your flavor of soup (just water is also ok) and the pot is placed on the hot-plate. Once the water is near boiling, you can begin to add in various meats and vegetables. The characteristic of shabu-shabu meat is that it’s very thin and can be eaten seconds after placing it in the soup; in this sense, a “swishing” motion to submerge the meat in the soup, and then retrieving it quickly is recommended.


Okonomiyaki being made by customers at a Japanese restaurant
Flipping it is the hardest part!


Okonomi-yaki (literally “grilled stuff-you-like”) is a round concoction of batter, vegetables and meat that, when grilled, comes out to be almost like a quiche, or casserole. Okonomiyaki is on the heavier side, generally involving a heavy batter, and cooked with pork, eggs, cometimes cheese, and then topped with mayonnaise and sauces. It is traditionally a food of western Japan, but these days enjoyed across the nation as a representative of wild Japanese cuisine. The actual cooking of this okonomiyaki at a restaurant is a bit “high-level” if you will. It is difficult to cook it on your own, and even Japanese people have trouble with it, so often times, the waiters will help you with your first one, and you can hopefully grill it yourself after that. The okonomiyaki comes in a bowl with batter, cabbage, and other toppings, so it’s up to you to organize it on the grill and cook it thoroughly.

All in all, the self-service aspect of some Japanese restaurants has two merits in my opinion. It eliminates excessive customer service, thus reducing the overall costs of the restaurant, and it allows you to cook at you own pace with your friends over a long period of time; keep in mind that this is the way people “hang out” in urban Japan. There is no after party at one of your friend’s houses after the meal. The meal is the party! This in a sense could be the core of the appeal for self-service restaurants such as these: it almost feels as though you’re having a cookout in your house, and you don’t even have to clean up!