T.A. Barnhart

carpe bucko

いただきます

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As an atheist, I won’t be thanking any god or gods for anything today. But I will say this:

いただきます

That’s a Japanese phrase: itakakimasu (EE-tada-kee-mas) that means, more or less, “Thanks for what I’ve received”. It’s generally said prior to a meal with the hands brought together in the traditional praying manner and the head bowed.

But it’s not a prayer; it’s not the equivalent of grace. It’s far better than that.

Perhaps you’ve seen this before, the world’’s greatest Thanksgiving meme and one of the best, period:

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The brilliance of this meme is to remind us that while gratitude to one’s favored diety is fine and dandy, not a single god, goddess or spiritual being is involved in the production, manufacture, or distribution of our holiday feasts. Actual human beings do all the damn work, from the farm to the trucks to the factories and stores and then the kitchen. (Not to mention trash pickup, as an ungodly amount of this food goes to waste in the United States.)

いただきます has its roots in Japanese Buddhism, but the modern Japanese are not a very religious people. They have a saying: “Born Shinto, die Buddhist” (and some insert “Marry Christian” in the middle as Christian-style weddings are popular). Shinto rituals at birth, Buddhist at death, and, in between, well – it’s complicated.

But this isn’t a guide to Japanese religion and culture; it’s why I’m happy to say いただきます but why I won’t thank “God”.

Most Japanese people, when they sit down to eat, say いただきます; some bow their heads, some do not; some hold their hands together, some do not. There is no strict criteria on any of this (except, as to be expected in Japan, in situations that demand politeness or formality; those situations have a lot of prescribed behaviors). I’m fairly certain most people, being human beings, say the words by rote.

I do not.

Of course, it’s a bit pretentious for me to say いただきます at all. I wasn’t raised in Japan; I’ve never lived in Japan. Drinking tea English-style throughout the day makes more sense; I lived there for five years and learned to love that kind of tea. However, I’m one of those Westerners fascinated with Japanese culture and language; I’d really love to live over there one day. So I’ve been (very) (slowly) learning Japanese. I read about Japan and life over there (also, of coures, lots of YouTubes on it). 

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I’ve taught myself how to cook a lot of Japanese dishes; not just that, but the techniques and cooking methods, flavors, etc.

Yes, I watch a lot of anime but I know that teaches you as much about the real Japan as South Park does about the real USA.

And I’ve learned to appreciate, and say, いただきます.

When I say this prior to eating, I spend a few moments to register gratitude with myself. Not for myself; I just think about how glad I am to have a good meal and that there are a lot of people out there making this possibly for me.

Thanks, Jesus, and all those who work with you. De nada.

I know this is cultural appropriation, but it’s deliberate and it’s mindful: I know what I’m saying, I know what it means, I know where the words came from, and I know what my intentions are. 

I’m not showing off when I do it; there’s no one to observe me. I say it for myself, to help be more mindful as I eat, especially since I’m usually watching something as I do. To stop for a moment and understand what it means to have a meal: this is a wonderful phrase to have at hand.

For a great explanation of いただきます, Tofugo has a great article. (ie, all the stuff I left out because there’s a lot more to this then what I offer)

T.A. Barnhart