An Introduction to Japanese Chopstick Etiquette
How many times have you heard, “No elbows on the table!” or, “Chew with your mouth closed.”?
Growing up I heard these every single night, so by the time I left my family nest and decided to travel, I was pretty confident in my table manners. That is, until I found my friends staring wide-eyed in shock as I tried dissecting my meal with my chopsticks like a fork and knife.
Now that you’ve caught up on all the latest Japanese dramas, and know how to order food in Japanese, it’s time to impress your friends (or refrain from making a chopstick taboo) with your chopstick etiquette (お箸の作法).
There are a lot of “chopstick taboos” so we’ll start with the two things you should absolutely avoid when dinning at a ninja restaurant.
Top Two Chopstick Taboos in Japan
1. Standing Your Chopsticks Up Vertically (立て箸)
One of the biggest and most frequent taboos is placing your chopsticks vertically in your bowl. At Japanese funerals, a bowl of rice is left with two chopsticks standing vertically in the center. When you place chopsticks straight upright in a bowl, it’s said to bring bad luck. Bad luck aside, this chopstick no-no continues in many Asian countries so make use of those chopstick rests (箸置き) by your dish! You can also get crafty and rest disposable chopsticks on the bag they came in.
2. Passing Food from Chopstick to Chopstick (拾い箸)
Another “deadly” mistake is to share food by passing it with your chopsticks, and having another person take it with theirs. This taboo is also funeral-related. At funerals in Japan, the bone fragments of the deceased are passed from person to person with a pair of chopsticks. Rethink how you’re going to share that slice of toriniku next time (or just keep it for yourself)!
Other Actions to Avoid
With those out of the way, you won’t have to worry too much about any errors or mistakes you may make with your chopsticks. Friends and coworkers will be pretty forgiving and let a small slip-up slide. But to become a real chopstick master, try avoiding the next 箸でしてはいけないこと (things you shouldn’t do with your chopsticks).
Placing Chopsticks Across a Bowl (渡し箸)
Placing your chopsticks across your bowl during a meal tells the chef (and everyone around you) that you no longer want your dish. If you haven’t finished eating, then this can be rude. It’s also good manners to keep your chopsticks straight instead of having them cross while they’re resting. If you’re not given any chopstick rests, you can place your chopsticks on the wrapper they came in (and place them inside once you’re finished your meal) if they’re disposable. If your chopsticks aren’t disposable, then place the utensils along the left edge of your dish. Do make sure that they are placed together and don’t cross.
Talking with Your Hands… and Chopsticks (踊り箸)
If you’re a person who talks with their hands, make sure you put your chopsticks down before you start chatting. Waving your chopsticks in the air, and using them to point at someone or something are bad manners.
Stabbing Food (指し箸)
Your chopsticks are not weapons (at least let’s hope not), so you shouldn’t use them as one. Stabbing your food with one or both chopsticks to pick it up is rude. It’s also impolite and poor manners to use one chopstick to skew something, or as a knife. Pretend that the utensils are attached; they should always be used together.
Sucking on Your Chopsticks (ねぶり箸)
Chewing and sucking on your chopsticks, or letting them rest in your mouth while your hands are occupied is rude. It’s also bad to scratch your head (or any other part of your body) with chopsticks.
Hovering over Food (迷い箸)
Try not to let your hand or chopsticks hover from dish to dish while you decide what to eat. It’s best to take a little from each dish, rather than just taking your favorites each time. Usually, there’s plenty of food to go around, so go wild and select something at random if you can’t choose what to eat next.
Taking from Shared Dishes (逆さ箸)
Don’t let the title fool you — you’re welcome to take from shared dishes, but use the supplied utensils to do so. Some people turn their chopsticks around so the thick side (the side that hasn’t been touching your lips) is used to take from a shared plate. I find that when dining with friends and family, this rule is much more relaxed or nonexistent. Although this practice is well-known, it is not considered to be proper manners. This is because the other end is held by hands, which are not clean. Rather, it is expected to use extra chopsticks（取り箸） to transfer food from a communal plate. When in doubt, watch to see what others do.
Moving Your Bowl (寄せ箸 ・ 持ち箸)
Don’t move your dish closer to you by pulling it with your chopsticks (寄せ箸). You also shouldn’t lift a bowl with the hand that’s holding your chopsticks (持ち箸). If you’re having a hard time remembering so many rules, just remember to move dishes with your free hand. You should also reach for a bowl with both hands to bring it closer to you.
Washing Your Chopsticks in Soup (洗い箸)
Don’t use a bowl of soup (or any other liquid at the dining table) to wash off your chopsticks. It’s also bad manners to rub wooden disposable chopsticks together. This is done to remove splinters from cheap chopsticks, so doing this is indicating that you think your chopsticks are cheap. Even if you’re given disposable chopsticks, try not to do this unless they are splintery.
Chopsticks Tips for Beginners
Using chopsticks can be a bit nerve-wracking, especially if you haven’t had time to practice before putting your skills to the test.
Use a Light Pair of Chopsticks
If you’re a beginner, try using a light pair of chopsticks. Disposable chopsticks (called waribashi or “割り箸”) are usually lightest, followed by plastic chopsticks that you can get at convenience stores like 7-11. After you can use your light pair of chopsticks like a pro, try switching them for a wooden or metal pair.
Adjust Your Grip
A lot of instructions tell you to grip your chopsticks towards their top. Try moving your hand towards the middle of the utensils. This might help you grip food more comfortably. As you get used to using chopsticks, adjust your grip as you see fit.
Lift Your Bowl and Slurp Away
With spoons and forks, we often lift the utensils to our lips without leaning towards our plate. If you have a bowl of rice, feel free to lift the bowl towards you, so long as you don’t shovel any food into your mouth. This will make the rice’s trip from the bowl to your mouth a lot shorter, and if any grain happens to fall, it’s more likely to land in the bowl. Try not to cup your freehand under your chopsticks in case food falls. This is a bit unsightly and can be considered bad manners.
One strange, but helpful trick is to watch how other people eat their noodles. Is someone leaning toward their dish when they eat? How high are they raising their chopsticks? Do they have a spoon to accompany them?
Try dipping your utensils into the noodles, grip a small bunch of noodles between your chopsticks, and lift them a few inches (around 6 to 10). You can (quietly or enthusiastically) slurp the rest of the noodles into your mouth. If the noodles are really long, I usually tuck my chopsticks under them to keep them from falling while I eat.
Practice Makes Perfect
Don’t just practice how to eat pieces of meat or vegetables when you’re alone. When you’re with friends, there’s no telling what kind of dish you’ll be confronted with. The first two times I had to use chopsticks in public, I was served noodles and soft tofu. To keep things short, it was a nightmare! Forget the plastic fork that comes with your Japanese instant noodles and practice eating with chopsticks whenever you can!
There’s a lot to remember, but as long as you’re not sticking your chopsticks up your nose or using them to air drum your favorite J-Pop beat, then errors (or dropped noodles) will be forgiven. Take it as it goes, and if all else fails, a “chopstick helper” or “trainer chopsticks” may become your new best friend.