The Word “Itadakimasu” and the Art of Receiving

The Japanese people say “Itadakimasu” before meals which means “I humbly receive.”  The essence of the Japanese culture and the mentality is in a simple word of “Itadakimasu.”  From the ancient time, having a meal was considered to be a “shinji” or  a sacred ceremony in Japan.  In the old days, people used to say the long version.

天地の恵み、箸を高く捧げて いただきます

The grace of the Heaven and the Earth
I raise my hashi (chopsticks) high
I humbly receive

The gesture of raising the chopsticks high means that you are reaching out to the Heaven. The word “hashi” in Japanese has been considered something that connects people with the divine since the ancient time in Japan. The word “hashi” (箸) means a pair of chopsticks and it is related to the word “hashira” (柱)or “pillar.”  You may realize the wooden sticks are the shape of wooden pillars and the pillars connect the earth and the sky.  The word “hashi”  (橋)also means “bridge.”  The concept of “connecting” is found in this word as well. And when you use chopsticks, you are using “hashi” (端) or the edges of the sticks.

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Most of the Japanese children grow up hearing the following saying: in each grain of rice, there is a god (divinity).  It encourages each children to respect each grain and to finish up to the last grain of rice during meals.

When you say “Itadakimasu,” you are acknowledging that you are receiving the gift of lives, the gift of people’s labor, and the gift from the nature.  Acknowledging that you are receiving from the divine gifts creates the connection that they are becoming a part of you.

Motoori Norinaga, the Japanese Classics Scholar, has written a waka (Japanese poem) about his gratitude for food.

たなつもの 百の木草も 天照す 日の大神の恵み ありてこそ

The food here and hundreds of trees and vegetables were only because we receive the grace of Amaterasu (heavenly shining)  divinity of the sun

Motoori Norinaga (AD1730-AD1801),  Japanese Classics Scholar

In the Japanese classics “Kojiki” and “Manyoshu,” the county of Japan is called “Osukuni.” “Osu” means “to eat,” “to treasure” or   “to love” as in “oshimu” (惜しむ) and “itooshimu” (愛おしむ).

The word “itadakimasu” represents the communion between the people and the divine which is in everything and everyone that went into making the food.

“Superiority” is measured by true modesty in Japan

There is a famous old saying in Japanese, “the boughs that bear most hang lowest.”  This means “the greater you become as a person,  the more modest you become.”  The origin of this phrase is not known.  However, this concept still holds true in Japan.  The current Japanese Emperor, Akihito, who is the highest in rank in Japan is considered the most humble person in Japan.  This video footage was taken when he visited the earthquake victims in Kumamoto in 2016.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was also kneeling down when he met with the earthquake victims. This kind of “modest attitude” is somewhat expected of a great leader in Japan.

In Bible, a very similar concept of a “great” person is stated.

42 So Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those regarded as rulers of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and their superiors exercise authority over them. 43 But it shall not be this way among you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant,  44 and whoever wants to be first must be the slave of all.…

New Testament, Mark 10:42-44

The famous Japanese company called MINOLTA also lives by this motto.  The corporation’s website explains the origin of the company name.  They took the first letters from “Machinery and instruments Optical by Tashima.”  It also comes from the Japanese word, “Minoru (crop bearing) ta (rice field).”  It is explained that they wanted to remember the founder’s mother’s word to always be modest as in “the boughs that bear most hang lowest.”  The concept of modesty is valued even in the business world in Japan.

There has been no known written religious dogma or rules to make people modest in Japan but this tradition has been cherished for millennia.

In the first Japanese formal history document edited by the government of that time called “Nihonshoki” which was completed in AD 720,  the Emperor Nintoku’s word is recorded.  It states the following:

The reason for the Heavenly Person (Emperor) to be standing is for the People.


Book of Emperor Nintoku, Nihonshoki

From the ancient time, it has been known in Japan that the leader (the Emperor) existed to serve the people.  This may be closely related to the fact that modesty is still highly valued in the Japanese society.

“Losers” have been equally respected as “Winners” in Japan


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The drawing of the first recorded Sumo wrestling match by Nomi no Sukune and Taima no Kehaya.

There are lots of uniquely Japanese customs and practices that surprise people from other cultures. One of them may be the fact that the Japanese people have loved and paid respect to those who publicly recognized as “losers” along with the “winners.”  From the ancient time, people were not just judged by the result.

An excellent example of this is the fact that the man who lost Japan’s first official recorded Sumo wrestling match is still loved and respected in Japan after 2000 years. His name was Taima no Kehaya (Taemak Ehaya) who excelled in kicking technique.

The first Sumo wrestling match in Japan was inspired by Emperor Nintoku who reigned BC97 to BC30.  Nomi no Sukune who was originally from Izumo region and Taima no Kehaya fought in front of the Emperor.  According to the ancient Japanese history publication “Kojiki,” Nomi no Sukune is the 14th descendant of Amenohohi who was the second son of Amaterasu (Amaterasu Omikami) .  Kehaya is said to have broken his back because of this match and lost.  Nomi no Sukune was given the land Kehaya owned as a result.  The land is still called Taima town in Nara.

Nomi no Sukune is still revered and respected at numerous shrines in Japan as the originator of Sumo wrestling.   However,  this part is uniquely Japanese phenomena.   Kehaya who lost the match has been even more loved and respected by the people of Japan.  Kehaya is revered and respected at the Sumo shrine along with Nomi no Sukune.  The winner and the loser have been respected at the same location.

The Sumo stadium in the town of Taima in Nara is has been called “Kehaya-za” after Taima no Kehaya.  “Kehaya-zuka,” the mound (tomb) of Kehaya is still preserved in Nara.  Even if he lost quite publicly, he was never disgraced and people continued to loved and respect him.

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Kehayazuka, the tomb of Taima no Kehaya in Nara, Japan

At the site of the ancient “Kehaya-zuka (Kehaya mound),”  it says the following;

The winners are not necessarily always superior.
One may become a loser by chance or the lack of fortune.

It’s good to give applause to the winners.
However, the losers also deserve a drop of our tears.

Words engraved in Kehaya-zuka, the tomb of Taima no Kehaya

敗者とな ることもある。


It has been said in the Western world, “History is written by the winners” as Winston Churchill has said “History is written by the victors” and Dan Brown also said “History is always written by the winners.”

True. But not in Japan.

It has been the tradition to honor both parties after conflicts or battles. People did not believe in just deleting the existence of the parties who have lost.  The fact that the Japanese people preserved the names, graves and shrines in honor of people who were “losers” show the Japanese mentality of “wa” or unity.  It is based on the Japanese philosophy that both the losers and the winners are 2 sides of coins.  Without remembering the other side of the story, you will never retain the whole story.