Your guide to better chopstick etiquette (mostly Japanese)

Chopstick manners

The other day I was having lunch at one of the Asian-fusion restaurants in Zürich with a (non-Asian) friend. At one point, he speared a piece of chicken with one chopstick, brought it to his mouth and pried it off with his teeth. I must have a strange expression on my face, because he looked at me and asked me what was wrong.

Of course he did not know that in Japan, what he just did would be considered to be terribly rude, in the same way that someone who didn't grow up in Europe might not know about not putting your elbows on the table. I explained this to him, and he sort of snorted and said "well why don't you write a guide to chopstick manners on your site then!"

So, here it is: a guide to chopstick etiquette, Japanese style.

Chopstick etiquette level 1: The things you absolutely must not do

Breaking these rules is considered to be really bad.

Do not stick your chopsticks upright in your rice.

image: chopsticks stuck into a bowl of rice is a no-no

This is an absolute no-no because it's the way a bowl of rice is offered to the spirit of a dead person, at their deathbed or in front of their photograph on the household Buddhist altar.

Do not leave your chopsticks crossed on your plate or bowl, or the table.

This is for a similar reason to the above. I sometimes see chopsticks presented like this in food photos styled by non-Asians, and while I understand that it doesn't matter if your primary audience is not Asian, it still makes me cringe. If you must have chopsticks in your photo, keep them neatly together to stop your Asian viewers from wincing.

It's also not considered to be very good form to cross the working ends of your chopsticks while eating, but that can't be avoided sometimes depending on your level of chopstick dexterity.

(See below under Level 3 for how to put your chopsticks down.)

Do not use one chopstick at a time, especially not to spear food.

Chopsticks are always used together, as if they are attached to each other invisibly. Think of them as tweezers or tongs, not a pair of skewers.

Do not pass food from chopstick to chopstick.

image: passing food from chopstick to chopstick is considered rude in Japan.

This is verboten because, when a person dies and is cremated, their bones are passed from chopstick to chopstick as a part of the Buddhist funeral ritual. (I remember doing this when my grandfather died.) You should also not pick one one piece of food with two pairs of chopsticks (held by two people).

(See no. 26 on this page of photos taken 2 weeks after the March 11, 2011 earthquake.)

Do not use unmatched chopsticks.

This not only looks funny, it also is reminiscent of some funeral rites. (If you haven't gotten the message yet, basically anything connected to funerals or death is considered you know, unlucky.)

Do not leave your chopsticks in your mouth while you do something else with your hands, like pick up plates or bowls.

This is also rather dangerous, should you slip and land face-down.

Do not wash your chopsticks off in your soup or in your beverage.

Rinsing bits of food off your chopsticks in your soup, or worse yet your water or tea (!) is very icky and just not done.

Do not use your chopsticks as toys, or pretend they are drumsticks and pound the table with them, or stick them in your mouth and pretend you are a funny vampire, or stick them up your nose.

Well, just in case.

Do not use chopsticks as hair accessories

(As suggested by Yong) I know some chopsticks are very pretty. I know that you see photos of kimono-clad maiko-san in Kyoto with pretty chopstick-like sticks in their hair. The are not chopsticks. They are hair ornaments called kanzashi. Chopsticks are for food. You would look silly with a beautiful fork stuck in your hair, yes?

Chopstick etiquette level 2: The things that you shouldn't do

These rules may not get a gasp out of your fellow Japanese diners, but they may frown a bit.

Do not rub your waribashi together.

Waribashi (割り箸) are those wooden chopsticks that you need to break apart. Some people rub them together as a matter of course, but this is only even needed if the chopsticks are so cheap that they are splintery. Doing this with good quality waribashi indicates that you think they are cheap, and therefore is an insult. (You may already know this rule - it's the one that's cited the most. I see a lot of people still doing this though.)

Do not suck on your chopsticks.

Your chopsticks are supposed to delicately convey your food to your mouth. Sucking or nibbling on them is not very polite.

Do not spear your food, even with both chopsticks.

Spearing with one chopstick is really bad, but even with two together it's not considered very polite. Spearing food is bad, period.

Do not shovel food directly from your rice bowl into your mouth.

You are supposed to pick your rice bowl or your miso soup bowl up in one hand and eat with your chopsticks in the other hand. You can bring your soup bowl right up to your mouth and sip. However, you are not supposed to do the same with your rice bowl; you should pick up your rice in morsels (Japanese rice is sticky enough to allow this) and bring it up to your mouth, using the bowl judiciously to catch any drips.

As for other plates or bowls, those are never picked up. Pick the food up from them with your chopsticks, then if necessary put it in your rice bowl - but ideally you should put it on a supplied plate of your own (a 取り皿, torizara, meaning 'plate to take things onto) or directly in your mouth. (Of course there are exceptions to this rule, such as raw-egg rice.)

Do not take food from a communal plate with your own chopsticks.

If you are served family-style, don't use your own chopsticks if at all possible to pick up food directly from it. This is considered to be unsanitary. You should use the supplied serving utensils. If there are no serving utensils though, you should turn your chopsticks the other way and use the fat or unused ends to pick up the food. (Though I don't know about the sanitary-ness of touching the used business end of the chopsticks in your grubby hands...)

And since so many people asked, "What about shabushabu, sukiyaki, etc?: These are all informal meals which are meant to be shared with the family or group all dipping into the same pot. So of course, the rules are going to be more relaxed. Now if you are in a more formal meal situation, and there is for example a communal plate of sashimi or something, you should first watch what others are doing, but if in doubt, flip your chopsticks around.

(Let us put this into Western meal terms. Rules are different for a meal at TGIFriday's vs. a formal dinner. The rules in this and the last level are for more formal occasions. I hope that makes it clearer!)

If you are serving other people (not yourself) from a communal dish, the basic rule is to flip your chopsticks around unless you know that person very well.

Do not let your chopsticks wander around.

Hovering your chopsticks from food to food or dish to dish, while you ponder what you are going to pick up, is considered to be rather off-putting.

Don't point at people or things with your chopsticks.

This is considered to be somewhat ruder than pointing with ones fingers.

Chopstick etiquette level 3: True chopstick refinement

In reality, I see Japanese people doing these things all the time. But if you can manage to master these rules, you are a truly refined chopstick user.

If you are supplied with hashi-oki (chopstick rests), use them.

Hashi-oki (箸置き)or chopstick rests are little ceramic objects that you are supposed to rest the ends of your chopsticks on when you put them down. If your place setting is supplied with them, use them instead of a plate or bowl when you put down your chopsticks. If you have waribashi, you can make a little impromptu chopstick rest out of the bag.

But if there are no chopstick rests, it's ok to put your chopsticks down on your bowl. Just be sure to keep them together, not crossed (see above).

chopsticknono3.jpg

Don't let liquids drip from your chopsticks.

Unsightly, and you could soil the table (or your clothes, etc.)

Don't stir your food around with your chopsticks.

This is considered to be rather insulting to the cook, not to mention...unsightly! If you are ever invited to a formal multicourse Japanese feast, you might want to remember this. On the other hand, if you are eating natto gohan or something though it's different.

So there you have it. As I wrote at the top, in mind that these are Japanese etiquette rules; the rules may differ in other Asian countries.

If you grew up using chopsticks, how do they compared to the rules you were taught?

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