Chopsticks have been used in East Asia for over 2000 years and came to Japan around 500 A.D. from China. They are the most used eating utensils and you can find them virtually anywhere from convenient stores to high-class restaurants to the homes of almost everyone. Children learn how to eat with chopsticks from a young age. And because the Japanese diet consists of mainly fish, Japanese chopsticks are tapered at the tip allowing for easy picking.
Eating with chopsticks has many advantages such as picking up food or separating meat or fish and cleaning them is very easy. There are certain rules and proper etiquette to follow when eating with chopsticks in Japan. Below are the Dos and Don’ts of chopstick etiquette Japan.
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Hold Chopsticks Properly
It should come as no surprise that you obviously should know how to hold and use chopsticks. Take some time to practice holding the chopsticks in the correct way, not in the middle but leaving about 2/3 from the tip. This way you will have far more control over the food you pick up. First try picking up various bite-sized objects to practice, after that try to pick up round object and finally a grain of rice. For a real challenge try to pick up soft tofu without breaking it. Practice makes perfect so don’t be afraid when you drop something.
When you finish eating or when you want to put down your chopsticks, don’t just put them flat on the table as this is considered unhygienic. Many places provide chopstick holders (called hashi-oki in Japanese), a small oblong piece often made out of porcelain for you to rest your chopsticks on. Place the chopstick holder next to your bowl and rest the tip of the chopsticks on the holder facing it away from you. You can also fashion your own chopstick holder out of the paper wrapper that comes with disposable chopsticks. Or you can place them together on your bowl with the tip facing left.
Eating food together is a social event and while eating from a communal plate is meant for everybody, it is considered good manners to use the separate chopsticks provided with it. Not only is it considered good manners but also sanitary. Often you’ll find the provided communal chopstick slightly longer in size than your own chopsticks making it easier to pick up food from a communal plate that is further away from you. If communal chopsticks are not provided, use the other end of your chopsticks to pick up food from a communal plate.
Pick Up Your Rice
Japanese rice is rounder and stickier that rice found in other Asian countries allowing you to pick it up with your chopsticks. Pick up the bowl and hold the bowl in front of you and pick up the rice in morsels and bring it to your mouth while keeping the bowl under it in case you drop anything. While you might see people putting the bowl against their mouth and scooping the rice in with their chopsticks, it is often considered as bad table manners in Japan.
Drink Soup with Chopsticks
While it is considered bad table manners to scoop rice into your mouth directly from the bowl, it is perfectly fine to drink soup in this way. Bring the bowl of soup up to your mouth and sip from it. Use your chopsticks to stir for example any miso in your soup that has sunken to the bottom as you drink or move food to your mouth while sipping is perfectly fine. Don’t be ashamed even if you make a slurping sound as it is perfectly normal to do so while drinking soup.
Sticking Chopsticks Upright in Rice
There are a couple of rules when using chopsticks that are considered bad manners or plain offensive and understanding them is important so you don’t end up offending somebody else. A big no-no is sticking a pair of chopsticks upright in a bowl of rice.
This is considered highly offensive as this is done during funerals as an offering to the deceased. As a general rule, don’t stick your chopsticks in a bowl of rice or noodles even if it’s not vertical but rather use your chopstick holder to rest them on when not in use. Also do not leave your chopsticks placed like a cross on your bowl as this symbolizes death.
Passing Food From Chopstick to Chopstick
Another big taboo is passing food from chopstick to chopstick as this resembles a funeral ritual where bones of the deceased are passed from person to person into an urn with a pair of chopsticks. If somebody passes you food, simply have them place it on your bowl or a plate but never take it with your own chopsticks. Or use the communal chopsticks to pass food to someone else’s bowl or plate.
Chopsticks Are Not a Toy
As you would not play around with a fork and knife, the same goes for a pair of chopsticks. While you might think it would make a great pair of drumsticks or putting it up your nose just for the fun of it, it is frowned upon and considered bad manners. And while it might seem fashionable, chopsticks are also not meant to be used as hair accessories. The chopstick like hair accessories often used in combination with kimono’s are actually hair ornaments called ‘kanzashi’ and differ from chopsticks.
Do not stab or spear food with a chopstick. This is considered rude and poor table manners. Practice makes perfect as explained in The Dos Rule #1, don’t just stab food just because it’s easier, pick up your food with both chopsticks and move it to your bowl or into your mouth.
Pointing with Chopsticks
Do not point with your chopsticks. Just like pointing at someone with your finger is considered rude, holding a pair of chopsticks and pointing them at someone is considered equally rude.
Sucking on Chopsticks
While you might be keeping them in your mouth for a moment to free your hands, try not to lick or suck on your chopsticks as it is regarded as bad manners and unhygienic especially if you are sharing a plate of food and using your own chopsticks to pick up food from the same plate. Again, use the chopstick holder to keep your hands free.
Do not wash your chopsticks in a bowl of soup or water to clean it from bits stuck to your chopsticks.
Stir or Search for Food
Do not use chopsticks to either stir or search for food from a communal plate. Using your chopsticks stir and search for food or hovering around dishes is considered greedy. Also, don’t use your chopsticks to pull a bowl closer to you as this is also considered rude. Rather, just use your hands to move a bowl or plate closer to you.
Proper chopstick etiquette in Japan might seem like there are a lot of rules but actually many apply to a fork and knife as well. You also wouldn’t wash your knife in your soup, point with your spoon or stick a fork in your hair. Even though there are many rules, try to at least remember not to offend anybody by putting up a pair of chopsticks in a bowl of rice or passing food from chopstick to chopstick, the rest should come with practice and time.
Now that you know how to use chopsticks properly, find out what are the foods you can’t miss in Japan!