The History and Etiquette of Japanese Chopsticks

The History and Etiquette of Japanese Chopsticks

Chopsticks originated in ancient China during the Shang Dynasty (1766 – 1122 B.C.E.). But it was during the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644 C.E.) that they came into everyday use for eating and serving. Chopsticks later spread to Vietnam, Korea, and then Japan. (Japanese chopsticks tend to be shorter and more pointed at the eating-end than their Chinese counterparts).

The oldest written record of chopsticks in Japan is found in the Kojiki (a collection of myths pertaining to the origins of the four home-islands of Japan, compiled by Ō noYasumaro at the request of Empress Genmei), written in 712 C.E.; but chopsticks are believed to have arrived in Japan around 500 C.E., when Chinese culture first began infiltrating Japan via Korea.

Japanese chopsticks were originally made from one piece of bamboo, joined at the top like wooden tweezers. Around the 10th century, however, chopsticks were crafted as two separate sticks. By the 17th century, Japanese chopsticks were commonly being made of lacquered wood. And the very wealthy used chopsticks made of precious materials such as jade, gold, ivory, and silver (Silver was a popular choice as it was believed that the metal would immediately tarnish if exposed to poisonous foods). The concept of the disposable chopstick originated in Japan in 1878. But today, because of the millions of trees used annually to produce disposable chopsticks, the concept is being revisited.

-All cultures that use chopsticks have etiquette specifying their proper usage. Below are some of the chopstick rules of Japan:

a) Chopsticks should be held towards their non-eating ends—not towards their middle sections or towards the ends that are used to pick up food.

b) Chopsticks not in active use during a meal should be placed onto the chopstick-rest. If no chopstick- rest has been provided, chopsticks should be placed together vertically towards the right side of the plate or bowl, the points facing away from their respective diner (and, to the extent possible, not directly towards any other diner). Otherwise, they may be placed together, diagonally across the bowl or plate. (The horizontal placement across the plate or bowl signals that the diner has concluded his meal).

c) Food should never, ever, be passed from one person’s set of chopstick’s to another person’s set of chopsticks. To do so is regarded as bad luck and inviting of death since the only time items are correctly passed from one set of chopsticks to another is in the context of a cremation when family members pass the cremated bones, via oversized chopsticks, from one person to another prior to placing the bones into the funeral urn. If food must be passed from one person to another, the passer should use his chopsticks to place the food onto the recipient’s plate, then the recipient should use his own chopsticks to retrieve the passed item from the plate. Similarly, chopsticks should never be left standing upright in food—especially rice—as that placement is consistent with the upright placement of chopsticks into bowls of rice offerings to the dead at grave sites and funeral altars.

d) Chopsticks should not be used to spear food.

e) A food item too large to be eaten in one bite (such as a strip of chicken, or zucchini prepared tempura-style, or slices of wagyu beef) may be picked up whole with chopsticks; a portion of the oversized item bitten off; and the remaining portion placed back onto the plate. (No more than one bite should be taken from an oversized item that has been lifted from the plate). To divide an oversized food item on the plate requires practice: The chopstick on the left holds the item in place, while the chopstick on the right is skillfully used to divide the item.

f) Chopsticks should not be used for pointing or held in the hand while gesturing.

g) Chopsticks should never be used to move bowls or plates.

h) If dishes are served communal-style (on serving platters or in serving bowls placed in the center of the table) and no serving utensils have been provided, guests should use the opposite ends of their chopsticks (if they have already been used for eating) to move items from the communal dishes onto individual plates. (Any food residue on the opposite ends of chopsticks should be discretely wiped off in one’s napkin. At no time should food residue be licked or sucked off chopsticks).

i) Special care should be taken to ensure that one’s chopstick’s are not pointing directly at another person. Pointing chopsticks at a person is interpreted as wishing ill for that person.

j) At the end of a meal, chopsticks are placed together onto the chopstick-rest or together horizontally, midway across the “northern half” of the plate or bowl. Disposable chopsticks are placed back into their paper slip-envelope, the end of the envelope sealed with a fold.

k) Chopsticks are not toys—not even for children. Using chopsticks for twirling, drumming, or clicking is unacceptable.

(While knives and forks will not be used at the traditional Japanese dining table, Chinese-style ceramic spoons are used to eat soups, and regular spoons are used to eat Japanese dishes such as “donburi” or “curry rice”).

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