How good are you at using chopsticks? If you are a Japan resident of some years, “pretty good!” you might say. However, the real question goes: how familiar are you with chopstick manners and taboos?
Even the native Japanese do not seem to know about them so well, though using chopsticks is an everyday ritual. Well, not too surprisingly, the relationship between the Japanese and chopsticks dates back to the Yayoi era (300 BCE-300 CE), when they were brought in from China. We can say that Japanese chopstick-using food culture is an artefact of the Chinese food culture. However, at that time, chopsticks were somewhat primitive. Just one stick of bamboo was bent like tweezers. Then, in the eighth century, a style similar to contemporary sets of chopsticks, consisting of a pair of bamboo sticks, arrived in Japan. After the techniques of lacquerware had become more advanced, those barren, rather impersonal chopsticks started to dress up in beautiful colours (see the picture left).
Even with such a long history of chopsticks, violation of taboos and breaching of manners are recurrent events in the Japanese dining scene. Does this strike a chord with you?
1. How to hold chopsticks correctly
Chopsticks have to be picked up with both hands. First, lift up the chopsticks with the right hand. Put the left hand under the chopsticks and lift them with the right hand, and move the right hand under the chopsticks to support them from below. The upper stick should be placed between the middle finger and the index finger, fastened by two fingers. The upper stick is the only one to move. When you put down the chopsticks, just follow the procedure in reverse. First, support the chopsticks with the left hand, and place them down with the right hand.
2. How to handle chopsticks and dishes
You should not hold your chopsticks and dishes together in the same hand. If you want to eat dishes placed on your left side, you will naturally pick them with your left hand. In this case, it is perfectly alright for you to hold your chopsticks on your right hand already. However, when you want to eat dishes placed on your right hand, you will reach them with your right hand. In this case, you first pass the dish you picked to your left hand to empty your right one, then, hold your chopsticks with your right hand. So, in this sense, you should not already hold your chopsticks on your right hand.
This is just a quick digression. When people start digging into food, traditionally rice is a starter in Japan. Nowadays, however, people start with soup to avoid grains of rice from sticking to the tip of chopsticks. Well, this usually is alright. There are occasions where you have to be a bit more careful because in Japan rice is a starter at festivities and soup at funerals. If you start with soup at ceremonies like a wedding, you might bring bad luck to a newly-wed couple.
3. Where to place your chopsticks during and after the meal
In the middle of a meal, where do you place your chopsticks? If there is a chopstick rest, you can place them right there. If there is no such thing, you can use the paper wrapper that came with the chopsticks and folds it into a shape like an accordion. If the chopsticks did not come with any paper wrapper, you have no choice but leaning the tip of them against some of the plates or place them straight over some empty plates. When you finish eating, put the chopsticks and toothpicks back into the paper folder they came with. Those are good manners.
4. How about disposable chopsticks?
When hosting guests, it is more polite to serve disposable chopsticks made of willow, or plain wood, etc. than laying out reusable ones. Therefore, it is very likely that you as a guest encounter disposable chopsticks called waribashi (割箸). When splitting them open, waribashi should be brought down close to your knees, so as not to hit any of the plates on the table. Use both hands to break them into two horizontally by pulling the stick that is closer to you. Using the image of opening a fan might help break disposable chopsticks more neatly (see picture left). Using your mouth to break them might look cool, but contravenes table manners!
- Age-bashi あげ箸 Lifting chopsticks above the mouth, which makes it easy to drop food. Chigiri-bashi ちぎり箸 Tearing food apart by holding one chopstick with each hand. - Furi-bashi 振り箸 Shaking off liquid at the tip of chopsticks. - Furiage-bashi 振上げ箸 Swinging the hand that is holding chopsticks. Kaki-bashi かき箸 Shoveling food into the mouth by chopsticks, with the mouth at the edge of a rice bowl. Komi-bashi 込み箸 Stuffing the mouth with a lot of food by chopsticks. Kosuri-bashi こすり箸 Rubbing off a fine split of disposable wooden chopsticks, waribashi. Mayoi-bashi 迷い箸 Roaming chopsticks around plates wondering what to eat next. Mochi-bashi 持ち箸 Holding chopsticks with a hand already holding a dish. Mogi-bashi もぎ箸 Picking a grain of rice at the tip of chopsticks by month. Namida-bashi 涙箸 Conveying food to the mouth while dripping liquid from soup or soy sauce. Neburi-bashi ねぶり箸 Licking the tip of chopsticks. Nigiri-bashi 握り箸 Gripping chopsticks tightly with one hand. Saguri-bashi 探り箸 Fumbling the dishes such as soup to see what's inside using chopsticks. Sakasa-bashi 逆さ箸 Using chopsticks upside down. Sashi-bashi (tsuki-bashi) 刺し箸 （突き箸） Sticking the dish with chopsticks. When dish is slippery, it will slip out of plates. - Sora-bashi そら箸 Not grabbing any food even though you brought chopsticks near the dish. - Sukashi-bashi すかし箸 When eating fish, scrape out fish meat between back bones of fish. - Takegi-bashi 竹木箸 Eating food with unmatched pair of chopsticks. Tataki-bashi たたき箸 Tapping plates with chopsticks. Tate-bashi 立て箸 Sticking chopsticks on rice in a rice bowl. - Utsuri-bashi 移り箸 Moving chopsticks from one dish to another, which leaves the taste of previous dish in the mouth. Utsushi-bashi (hiroi-bashi) 移し箸 （拾い箸） Passing food from one person to the other by chopsticks, which is especially abhorred as it is done at crematory picking up bones of the deceased. Watashi-bashi 渡し箸 Laying chopsticks over a plate of dish. - Yoji-bashi (seseri-bashi) 楊枝箸 （せせり箸） Using chopsticks as substitute for toothpicks to pick between teeth. Yose-bashi 寄せ箸 Pull dish to yourself by using chopsticks.