Back when I was working at Nova, it was relatively common for my husband and I to dine out with co-workers. Often, this involved going to western-style restaurants in the Ikebukuro area but also to our favorite yakitori place and the branch it had in Nakano. Recently, there were a few incidents and situations which I read about on-line that reminded me of some particular points related to these experiences.
The first was a discussion of how payment is handled in a group situation on a food discussion bulletin board. The people taking part in the discussion were talking about how the bill was handled in certain situations. In the west, when a somewhat large group of people have a meal together, the most common approach is to evenly split the bill amongst all the participants. The main reason this is done is for simplicity but it's also not uncommon for people to divide up the bill according to what they actually ate. The former situation can sometimes cause hard feelings and financial hardship. There are people who can barely afford the expense of a meal out and who will be very conservative about what they order to keep within the confines of their budgets. Sometimes the poor or money-conscious eschew dessert and appetizers, skip ordering a beverage, and buy a reasonably priced entree only to find that those who have lavishly stuffed themselves with buffalo wings (or mini quiches for the fancier set) and lubricated themselves with beer (or cognac) have boisterously announced that the bill will be split equally among all attendees.
When this issue comes up, people say the reason for this is that it's too complicated to tally up individual expenses and too cumbersome for the wait staff to make separate checks. The interesting thing is that, in Japan, these don't tend to be problems for two reasons. First of all, despite the fact that waiters and waitresses don't get tips for service above and beyond, they are very amiable about writing up separate checks if you ask for them to do so when you place your order. Second, in large group situations, you tend to have to pre-arrange seating with establishments and they offer a "set" menu and charge per head.
The second situation is something non-drinkers tend to hate because, frankly, these set meals tend to be light on the food (and sometimes low quality) and heavier on the drinks though there are only so many drinks allowed in total in this deal then you have to start paying more or be cut off. Usually, you have to pay about ¥3,000 ($26) and this will get you a crack at the contents of a good many serving platters full of various appetizers and entree-type foods. You can sample various things in small portions sufficient to make a full meal if you are assertive and not off "powdering your nose" when the platters are initially brought in. However, it's rare that you get your money's worth on food alone and non-drinkers or those who drink little are pretty much losing out on the deal though this does neatly avoid any concern about the ending balance. Everyone knows the cost and pre-pays their portion before the night begins.
On the plus side in the Japanese situation, greed and gluttony are kept in check by the knowledge that there are limits on the total amount of food. In the American situation, the main problem is that people often go a little too far ordering drinks or lavish dishes because the responsibility for paying them is shared. Some people even knowingly order a great quantity or more expensive items knowing that their counterparts are picking up an unfair share of the tab.
The other point about dining out that has been on my mind is food sharing and sampling. If you've ever been with a friend or friends who want a taste of the dish you ordered or want just a few "tiny bites" of your dessert because they don't want to eat an entire one alone, you know what this is all about. With desserts in particular, this is often an exercise in denial and I don't mean the kind associated with keeping to a diet. Most people who want a taste of your chocolate cake end up eating half of it. In this case, it's rarely that they don't want to pay but more likely that they think the calories aren't counting if they didn't order it for themselves.
My husband and I had an unpleasant experience with this type of sampling at a German-style place in Ikebukuro with a friend of mine. We had all ordered our main dishes and my husband had ordered a side dish of "German potato". (I should note that, in our group, we always ordered separately and paid separately.) This particular side dish was a small portion and rather pricey (about ¥400 or $3.50) for its size. My friend asked to try the potatoes since she'd never had them and my husband willingly let her taste them. They were very much to her liking and she started essentially eating the entire dish herself. After she'd reached over for about the 4th or 5th "sampling", my husband politely asked her to stop eating them. My friend was very much taken aback and said she felt as though someone had just slapped her hand away. The rest of the meal felt awkward and uncomfortable because she remarked more than once on how she felt rebuffed.
The thing about this situation is that the person who starts helping himself or herself to your food is actually showing the poor manners but when you call them on it, they act as though you are the one who has behaved rudely. My friend, after her taste, should have ordered a helping for herself rather than keep eating my husband's food. In retrospect, I'm not quite sure why she didn't do this aside from the the time it would have taken to prepare and serve (it wouldn't arrive until after the rest of the meal was finished) because I know she wasn't cheap.
When Japanese groups eat together, I'm guessing this sort of issue is rarely a problem for several reasons. One is that I believe most food is ordered and served as community property in such group meals. Another is that Japanese people probably wouldn't show overt "selfishness" either by eating too much of something or by asking someone not to eat something. If such an occasion did occur, it's very likely that the person whose food was being gobbled down by another party would simply offer the dish to the interested party and say he was not hungry enough to finish it anyway.
As is so often the case, the Japanese situation seems to be set up to smooth over socially awkward situations as there are relatively clear cut ways of handling group dining whereas the western situation places responsibility for working out the social rules on each particular group and individual. It's a classic example of how one way sublimates the individual's needs or desires but makes the group experience better and the other meets the needs of the individual at the risk of the harmony of group.