Verb, honorific. “I humbly receive.”
You hear it everywhere food is served. At the family table, shouted in unison by schoolchildren at lunchtime, quietly muttered by the tired salaryman next to you at the counter of an all-night beef bowl joint.
In the West, too, we have rituals for beginning a meal. But itadakimasu is more profound than a bon appetit, less solemnly religious than a grace. It is a word of receipt: so when we eat a meal that someone has prepared, we direct our “itadakimasu” to the cook; it is said by the receiver rather than the giver. But it wouldn’t be unusual if the person who cooked the meal then, after sitting down and rolling up their sleeves, paused quietly before lifting their chopsticks and murmured: itadakimasu. In a sense, we are all the receiver at one time or another.
So many traditions in Japan are steeped in millennia of ritual. And for a custom this deeply entrenched (one recent survey found over 90 per cent of Japanese say itadakimasu before every meal) there is of course an origin story that tidily satisfies our desire for a historical explanation. The written character for itadakimasu can mean “the highest point” or “to raise over one’s head”, and it’s said that during feudal times the lower classes, when receiving food from the nobility, would prostrate themselves low and raise the dish over their heads in gratitude, saying “Itadakimasu”. I humbly receive.
Maybe there’s some truth in that story. But the practice of saying itadakimasu in the context of food is actually not believed to have been widespread until the 20th century, perhaps even around or after the war, when the rise of public schooling (and with it, school lunches) led to the standardisation of many things, including table manners.
Regardless of the history of the phrase, the roots of the gratitude are likely older than the custom itself:
Itadakimasu in humble gratitude to the person who cooked your meal, the person who set the table, the person who expended their sweat to grow the vegetables, to catch the fish, who disfigured their back bending over to plant the rice in calf-deep paddy water, decade after decade. Itadakimasu to the person who worked through the night to pack up that bounty, and to the person who drove a truck over the smooth black of pre-dawn highway, so that in spite of the homogeneity of hyper-commercialised modern life you can buy local produce at your neighbourhood convenience store at four in the morning.
Itadakimasu in reverence and thanks to the food itself: the implication being that the food which sustains us can only do so because it too was once alive: not only the cows or the chickens or the fish but the seeds and grains full of promise, the earnest, gleaming sprouts of spring, the trees whose boughs hang heavy with ripe peaches and apples and plums in the summer and autumn:
I humbly receive your life as my own, arigato, itadakimasu.