Using Chopsticks in Japan

  • March 4, 2016 / Queenie Kawabe / 1 Comment

Using Chopstick in Japan 3 Language Adventure

Chopsticks are used in many parts of the world and have become common utensils across the globe, especially in Asia. China, Japan, and Korea are the most popular nations in Asia to use chopsticks with their foods. In ancient times, chopsticks were made from trees and bamboo. They were originally from China. They began to spread to Japan and Korea by 500 A.D. One of the common questions was asked – Why do Japanese use chopsticks, not fork or spoon utensils, when they eat? This is because Japan takes chopsticks seriously.

When you are visiting Japan, you could easily find chopsticks in many places, such as restaurants, convenience stores, and food stalls. Eating with chopsticks is an art, and it takes a lot of energy and time to learn it. Many westerners are not aware of the golden rules of using chopsticks when they are dining with Japanese people. Of course, Japanese understand the fact that you are a foreigner and forgive you if you make mistakes. However, knowing a little about the art of chopsticks and the local manner really helps you in making friends, doing business with the locals, and being a good guest. If you do that, Japanese really show their appreciation to you.

I believe you have probably used chopsticks at some point in your life or thought about learning more about the art of chopsticks. So, today, I want to share some information with you, because I think  not many foreigners will use chopsticks correctly or understand the Japanese chopstick etiquette when they are dining with their Japanese friends.

Why use chopstick? 

In ancient times, chopsticks were only used in Japanese ceremonies. However, it is also believed that chopsticks were used as cooking utensils to flip or grab foods that were being cooked in the cooking pots or pans, as well as eating specific meals, such rice or noodles. Japanese chopsticks are generally shorter than Chinese or Korean chopsticks. They also come in many sizes, which are even shorter than standard sizes, to suit woman and children, and sometimes made of colourful patterns.

How to use chopsticks in Japan

How to use Chopstick correctly

I will show you the step-by-step guides to holding a chopstick correctly.

  1. Traditionally, you should use the right hand to hold the chopstick, even if you are left-handed.
  2. Take your right hand out as if you are going to shake someone’s hand.
  3. Rest one chopstick in between the thumb and the index finger. Remember to hold close to the dip of the chopstick.
  4. Grip it steadily and bend your ring finger and pinky to rest the middle part of the chopstick on it, then add the second chopstick.
  5. Hold the second chopstick like you are holding a pen and grip it steadily. Put your middle finger under the second chopstick.
  6. Keep the first chopstick on the thumb still, but move the second chopstick with your index and middle finger up and down to grip food.

How to pick the right chopstick that fits your hand

Chopsticks in Japan come in many sizes, and if you would like to buy a pair for yourself, use this chart to help you to find the right size. If you don’t have it, you could use your own ruler to measure it. Make a 90-degree angle, using your hand, by stretching your thumb and index finger. Place your thumb tip and index tip to the ruler, starting from zero. Measure the length between your thumb and index finger and times it by 1.5 with a ruler. The number you get is the correct chopstick length for you.

Ways of holding chopsticks

ways of holding the chopsticks

As a beginner or a starter, you might find the complexity of holding the chopstick correctly before you grip the foods with your chopsticks. Not only can foreigners not hold them correctly, but many Japanese people might have the same problem. So, you are not alone. In fact, there are many ways of holding the chopsticks, though there might only be one proper way to hold it. Don’t feel pressure if you don’t get it right the first time. It takes time to practice and discover the way you can grip the foods. There’s no wrong or right way when you are learning. In the picture below, you can see all the different ways of holding chopsticks in Japan.

Japanese Chopstick Etiquette 

Great! You have learnt how to hold the chopsticks, and it is always good to learn about Japanese chopstick etiquette. To be honest, not many Japanese follow these rules nowadays, but it is always good to know these golden rules to show your politeness.

  • Passing food from one pair of chopsticks to another

It is unacceptable to passing food from one pair of chopsticks to another in Japan. This taboo is related to a funeral. The bone fragments of the deceased are passed from one pair of chopsticks to another pair.

  • Using odd chopsticks as a single pair

It is another “deadly” unacceptable action in Japan when using odd chopsticks as a single pair. This taboo is considered to be related to a funeral. It is used to pick up the bone fragments of the deceased.

  • Leaving chopsticks sticking out from food

This is one of the common and biggest deadly mistakes westerners often make, placing the chopsticks vertically in the bowl of rice. This taboo is known as an offering at the pillow of the deceased.

These three habits must not be done, as it is considered bad luck in Japan.

  • Licking things off of chopsticks

It is impolite to lick or sucking on your chopsticks, as well as scratch your head with chopsticks.

  • Using chopsticks like a fork to jab at food

Stabbing your food with one or a pair of chopsticks to pick up the food is rude table manners. Chopsticks are neither a weapon nor a fork.

  • Using chopsticks to point at people

It shows poor manners if you use chopsticks to point at your friends or talk with your hand while using the chopsticks. This action seems like you are using your index finger to scold someone.

  • Using chopsticks to move plates or bowls around

If you see a favourite dish on the table, do not use your chopsticks to move it over to your side. Instead, put down your chopsticks to take the plate by hand or ask someone to pass it to you. This action is unacceptable.

  • Using chopsticks to sift through the contents of a dish in search of something

Do not use your chopsticks to hover over foods while you are searching for your favourites. This is considered greedy.

  • Letting drops of soup fall from the tip of chopstick

It is rude to letting drops of soup fall from the tip of the chopstick when you are finished with your meal. Instead, you should place your chopsticks on the chopstick holder or place them back in the wrapper if it is a disposable chopstick.

  • Chopsticks are not a toy

Children are not allowed to play with chopsticks when they are seated at the table. This shows poor manners from the parents not teaching their children to behave well.

  • Placing chopsticks across on the table or a bowl

It is rude if you place your chopsticks across, whether you are finished or resting. You should always place them straight and rest them on the chopstick holder or put it back in the wrapper if you are finished.

Generally, these are the golden rules you will come across if you visit Japan. I know there are a lot to remember on how to use chopsticks and Japanese Chopstick Etiquette, but as long as you remember several, it is better than not knowing anything. If you want to know where to practice or where to get a pair of chopsticks, go to your local Japanese or Chinese restaurant. They have tons of chopsticks there and practice while you are eating Sushi, Sashimi, or Dumpling.

Tell me – What is your experience with using a chopstick? 

  • Wow! Thanks for your blog. I am currently practicing to eat with chopstick. I am not Japanese so it’s really a nice advice.. 🙂

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