I have lived in Tokyo, Japan, with my family for many years. Every day is an adventure worth writing about.
Chopsticks in Japan
In Japan, and in many other Asian countries, chopsticks are the primary utensil for eating and dining. Japanese chopsticks tend to be shorter, sharper, and pointier, and they usually have grooves at the eating end to help pick up the food more easily.
There are also many types of chopsticks in Japan used in different situations, so here is a quick introduction to four very commonly used chopsticks in Japan.
Traditional Chopsticks (お箸 ohashi)
The most common chopsticks. For the sake of simplicity, all chopsticks can be referred to as ohashi, but traditionally, Japanese chopsticks are normally made of wood and are lacquered. Japan is the only country where they decorate their chopsticks with natural lacquer, giving the chopsticks a beautiful look while also keeping their function.
Disposable Chopsticks (割り箸 waribashi)
Japan uses roughly 24 billion pairs of disposable chopsticks every year, more than any other country in the world. That is about 200 pairs per person annually. Convenience stores and restaurants like Matsuya, Yoshinoya, and Sukiya regularly give out waribashi.
Metal Chopsticks (In Korean; 수저 sujeo)
A great eating experience in Japan is yakiniku, Japanese/Korean barbecue. Since it is a combination of Japanese and Korean culture, traditionally, Japanese yakiniku restaurants use metal chopsticks, which are native to Korea.
Cooking Chopsticks (料理箸 ryouribashi)
Cooking chopsticks are significantly longer than normal chopsticks and are primarily used for cooking. Saibashi are similar in length and are used to serve the food once it is prepared. Ryouribashi and saibashi are not used for eating.
How to Hold Chopsticks
Japanese are pretty peculiar about how to hold chopsticks. Here are three steps to help understand how to grasp the situation.
- Position of the resting chopstick. This chopstick rests in the crook of the thumb and above the nail of the ring finger. This chopstick is on the bottom and is not supposed to move at all.
- Position of the moving chopstick. This chopstick is above the resting chopstick and should be held like a pen or pencil.
- Motion. Keeping the bottom chopstick still, use the index and middle finger gripping the upper chopstick to move it up and down. In action, it should look like a lever.
Holding your chopsticks is one thing, but learning the appropriate actions of the chopsticks is another challenge altogether. Here are five things you will need to practice with your chopsticks in order to become a master.
Especially when eating rice, learning how to bring all the rice together for easier lifting is essential. With rice being so small, it is faster and more efficient to pool them together than to pick up one rice grain at a time.
When eating meat, fish, or other larger foods, learning how to cut and tear is of utmost importance. Lifting the entire piece and taking a bite out of it is seen as poor manners. Sticking one chopstick into a fish and the other chopstick to the outside, pinch the chopsticks together to begin a tearing motion. You can also bring the chopsticks together and just apply pressure downward. Do not separate the chopsticks into the left and right hands. Always keep them together. It is not like a knife and fork combination.
- Lifting Noodles
When eating udon, soba, or ramen, for example, learning to lift the noodles takes a bit of practice. For colder noodles, this is easier, but when the noodles are hot, it is helpful to learn how to slurp well. Slurping is actually respectful and also serves in cooling the noodles as they enter your mouth. Do not bite the noodles. Use the chopsticks to guide the whole noodle(s) into your mouth before chewing.
- Pinching/Picking Up
When eating salad, vegetables, beans, and other small to medium-sized items, learning to pinch well and lift with confidence will make for a pleasant eating experience. Practice the lever motion to bring the two chopsticks together to grip the food strongly.
- Removing Bones
When eating fish, bones will come into play, and learning to remove the bones with chopsticks will be one of the most difficult challenges. This is one of the rare circumstances where it is acceptable to use your free hand to hold the fish down while using the chopsticks to pull the visible bones and cartilage out. Be careful not to pull on the bones too hard, as it can risk flinging pieces around.
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Things to Avoid
Since chopsticks are an essential tool in Japanese society, there is also a list of culturally inappropriate things to avoid.
Sticking Chopsticks Into the Food (立て箸 tatebashi)
Sticking chopsticks into a rice bowl is reminiscent of a tradition at Japanese funerals. At the funeral, a bowl of rice is left with a pair of chopsticks standing vertically. Sticking chopsticks into a bowl of rice is not only seen as extremely disrespectful, but it is also believed to bestow quite the amount of bad luck as well. This custom actually exists in many other Asian countries, too, so avoid this at all costs.
Passing Food With Chopsticks (箸渡し hashiwatashi)
Another funeral-related taboo, this is when one person passes food from their chopsticks to another person's chopsticks. This is eerily similar to a Japanese funeral tradition where bone fragments of the deceased are passed down from person to person with chopsticks. Like the previous one, these funeral-related no-nos are very bad, so pass your plate or bowl instead.
Holding the Chopsticks Together (握り箸 nigiribashi)
Children do this a lot, and it is simply seen as immature. Instead of holding the chopsticks traditionally, this action holds the chopsticks together like you are holding a knife. More than anything, it just looks bad.
Looking for Contents in Soup (探り箸 sagaribashi)
Japanese tend to just eat their food without thinking about it. When someone is picking out things they want to eat and neglecting things they do not want to eat, it is simply seen as childish.
Hovering Over Multiple Dishes Without Deciding (迷い箸 mayoibashi)
This is just a matter of indecisiveness. When one is hovering over the multiple shared dishes on the table, they are basically preventing others from retrieving food. Instead of hovering, consider what food to eat beforehand.
Stabbing Food With Chopsticks (刺し箸 sashibashi)
This poor habit is when people cannot pick up certain items, so they stab their chopsticks into the food for easy pick up. This basically turns the chopsticks into a fork, and it is seen as very disrespectful and inappropriate. If certain foods are difficult to lift, there is no shame in asking for a fork.
Licking the Tips of the Chopsticks (舐り箸 neburibashi)
Licking, sucking, or resting the chopsticks in your mouth is just bad table manners. When chewing or at a time of not eating, simply lie the chopsticks to the side of the bowl or plate. Do not play with the chopsticks at all.
Drawing a Dish With Chopsticks (寄せ箸 yosebashi)
This is a common mistake made by foreigners who are using both hands at the same time. Two things to remember, though. Try not to pull dishes with chopsticks, and try not to use the hand holding the chopsticks to lift any plates or bowls. Rule of thumb is to use only your free hand for drawing dishes closer to you.
Dripping Liquid From Chopsticks (涙箸 namidabashi)
This one is particularly common with eating sushi. Remember to be conservative with soy sauce and try not to drip from the chopsticks. If it seems like dripping will be inevitable, make sure to eat directly over the plate or bowl to prevent wild dripping.
Come and Enjoy Japan!
Japan is a wonderful country with such a unique culture and loads of customs, and it is amazing just how much discussion can be had on chopsticks alone.
Not even all Japanese people abide by all of these rules, and it is likely you may see younger people at bars and drinking parties breaking some of them. However, this is not the majority, so to maximize your time and help you to adjust to Japan well, let us continue to exercise politeness and cultural sensitivity while experiencing chopstick etiquette.
© 2019 Jason Reid Capp