How to Use Chopsticks

How to Use Chopsticks

I’d been in Japan for almost a year before somebody finally gave me an honest answer.

Now going back in time, funny story, I started using chopsticks when I was just a kid.  I don’t know why.  It’s not like my parents are secret ninjas or something.  I guess I just like challenges, or maybe I’m retarded or whatever, but anyway I started using them at a super young age.

My recollection is mostly that I couldn’t pick up a darn thing and my hand hurt like crazy.  But—and you know this is so me—once I made up my mind, I wasn’t going to quit.  Kind of like how I decided I would never speak English once I moved to Japan.  And that’s worked out just . . . uh, what’s the opposite of “great”?  Well, whatever, that’s another story.  Anyway, pretty soon I was this kid who was eating Cheerios with chopsticks, and Shake ‘n Bake chicken, and meatloaf.  (Culinarily speaking, I had the whitest upbringing ever.)  Ever try having Thanksgiving dinner with chopsticks?  Can’t say I’d recommend it.  Cranberry sauce is really problematic.  Not to mention pumpkin pie.  But the amazing thing is that within about six months, using chopsticks became easier than a knife and fork.  When you start using eating Campbell’s soup with them, you know you’re making progress.  That or you’ve lost your mind, or possibly both.

All Those Pesky Rules

So I was in Yurakucho one late night grabbing a bite to eat with this Japanese friend of mine named Masato.  I just call him “To,” for some reason.  Maybe because it sounds cooler than “Masa,” which always reminds me of corn.  Anyway, me and this dude go way back, and I can always count on him to give me straight answers.  So we ordered a couple bowls of ramen noodles, along with every topping known to man.  It probably goes without saying that we’d had a few cocktails previously, so ordering everything on the menu seemed like a most excellent idea.

Now, you’ve probably read all the same things I have about using chopsticks.  Don’t use them to pass food.  Don’t leave them sticking out of your rice.  Reverse them when taking from a communal plate.  A lot of that’s pretty obvious if you think about it.  Like in the West, you don’t double dip chips or leave your fork sticking out of your mashed potatoes.  Those aren’t exactly “rules,” so much as common sense.  I mean, there’s no rule that says you shouldn’t put chopsticks in your ears and pretend you’re a space alien either.  Like, just think about things a bit, is what I’m saying.  And yet, at that time, having been in Japan for less than a year, I was often worried about violating some sacred protocol, so I made it a point to ask a Japanese person whenever I had a question about, well, pretty much anything.

The Thing About Japanese People

Here’s the thing about Japanese people:  they love to tell you how to do stuff.  When to put on your slippers, when to take them off, how to take a bath, the proper way to use toothpicks.  Since it’s their country, they automatically possess an expertise you don’t, and damned if they’re going to pass up the chance to display it.  (This condition isn’t unique to the Japanese, of course.  Like when I went to Texas and some guy delighted in explaining to me the proper way to eat chicken-fried steak with gravy.)  But Japanese people, hell, they’re the Energizer Bunnies of giving instructions.  Case in point was this Japanese girlfriend I once had who told me—and seriously this is true—that I was putting on my socks the wrong way.  Like maybe I was supposed to put on both at the same time?  I don’t know; I never could figure it out.  My next girlfriend told me I was applying conditioner to my hair all wrong and I clipped my fingernails too short.  Another lady insisted I hold my umbrella a different way.  Is it sexist to say that women in particular like to tell you how you’re supposed to do everything?  Okay, then I won’t say that.  Anyway, a few months of this and I’d grown accustomed to thinking that the Japanese had some special method for everything, which I was dependent upon them to learn.

Meanwhile Back at the Noodle Shop

So when our ramen arrived with mess of toppings—red ginger, bean sprouts, green spicy pickles, little rectangles of bamboo, and whole hard-boiled eggs—I did what I always did.  I turned to To and asked for the procedure.

“Dude, are we supposed to use the real chopsticks or the disposable ones?” I asked.  Then, as I noticed he’d already pulled apart the disposable ones, I followed suit.  I probably don’t need to say it, but for God’s sake, don’t rub your chopsticks together before using them.  I’ve read that it would “offend the owner because it means you think his chopsticks are cheap.”  I don’t know who invented that lie, but the dude knows they cost one yen apiece, and he doesn’t care.  However, rubbing them together creates more splinters than it removes, and looks exactly as dorky as rubbing your knife and fork together before eating.

Then once I’d gotten the chopsticks apart, I figured I’d deal with the egg.  “Is it okay to stab an egg with chopsticks?” I continued.  Like, you’re not supposed to spear your food, but jeez, it’s pretty hard to pick up a whole egg floating in broth, you know.

“Mrmhmph,” he said.  “Sgrmrmph.”  I don’t believe it’s physically possible to have more noodles in one’s mouth than he did right then.

“I’ll take that as a yes,” I said.

It was awfully good ramen, actually, especially once one included every conceivable topping, plus a generous application of black pepper and sesame seeds.  Then a new question popped into my mind.

“What about noodles?  Is it okay to leave chopsticks sticking out of noodles?”

And here’s when I got the first honest answer I’d ever received in Japan.  Where every other Japanese person I’d ever met would have told me exactly what to do, accompanied by a mini lecture on Japanese customs, here’s what Masato said, and it blew my mind:

“Do whatever you want.  It’s a free country.”

That’s it.  Nothing about the importance of etiquette, or Japanese tradition, or how much of a foreigner I was.  Just what I would have said if somebody asked me which of the four forks to use at a fancy restaurant, or whether they should put ketchup on their hot dog.

Now, I don’t mean to imply that there isn’t a preferred way to do things.  Maybe there is, but more to the point, really, who cares?  What I mean is that there are two types of people in the world.  People who tell you with grave earnestness why it’s wrong to put your elbows on the table, and people who just freaking put their elbows on the table.  In Japan, just like everywhere else, it’s good to know which one of those people you’re dealing with.

Like the Sun Doesn’t Rise in Other Lands

At the heart of this is a subtle fiction about Japan, repeated endlessly in articles and books.  Japan is a nation apart, a sacred, mystical place with special rules and customs.  It’s not Japan the country, but “Japaaan,” the fantasy combination of every Kung Fu rerun and Karate Kid aphorism you’ve ever dreamed of.  Writers describe Japan as a nation where people aren’t absent-minded, they’re “zen-like.”  Articles on restaurants don’t depict workers slaving away at menial jobs to pay their rent, but paint a picture of “dedicated employees striving for culinary transcendence.”  Japanese people don’t take baths because they’re dirty.  They take baths to “purify their bodies.”  It’s like some crazy app where you put in a normal activity and your iPhone converts it to a phrase from an invented, ancient samurai culture.  You type in “bust ass,” and it comes out as “ganbatte.”   Well, I guess that does sound better, even if it means the same thing.

This idolization of Japan isn’t limited to foreigners, of course.  It’s readily espoused by Japanese people themselves.  “Japan is a nation that believes it’s own hype,” a Japanese guy who’d lived abroad once told me.  But maybe all places do, I don’t know.  Americans are convinced the U.S. is the greatest country on earth despite all evidence to the contrary.  And Japanese people promote the notion that their country is a special place with unique customs that must be taught to Westerners.  Now, I don’t necessarily disagree with that.  I just think sometimes they get a little carried away.  Is it really important that I wear my bathrobe the correct way?  Apparently so.  Seriously, try putting on a yukata the wrong way.  They’ll be on you like Godzilla on Tokyo.

Two Ancient Japanese Chopstick Secrets

Well, whatever.  The Japanese also have a saying that means “ignorance is bliss,” only the literal translation is “ignorance is Buddha.”  Jeez, even ignorance is more mystical in Japan.  Anyway, I guess it’s now my turn to play the Japanese guy and tell you the “right” way to use chopsticks.  Ironic on several levels, I know.

So even after a lifetime of using chopsticks, I still got schooled on a couple of points that I’ve never heard mentioned in any of the other “How to Use Chopsticks” articles I’ve read.  I’ll pass them on to you, to save you similar embarrassment.

Thing One:  Okay, this is minor, but you know those disposable chopsticks that come in a paper wrapper?  Well, Japanese people will always open that wrapper at the end that doesn’t go in your mouth.  They’ll feel the wrapper and determine which end of the chopsticks are thinner, then open the opposite end.  I don’t even think most people are consciously aware they’re doing this.  So now you have a fun experiment to try.  Give wrapped, disposable chopsticks to a Japanese person, and see what happens.  Let me know.  PS. Don’t hold disposable chopsticks vertically when you break them apart.  It’s not a rule or anything, but you look like a five year-old.

Thing Two:  This is actually kind of important, so you may want to take note of it.  See, before moving to Japan, I always just picked up my chopsticks with one hand and started using them, kind of like you’d do with a fork, but that’s not “correct.”  I mean, what you do at a picnic is one thing, but if you find yourself on a date in a nice restaurant, maybe you ought to know about this.  You’re supposed to use two hands, in a three-step procedure.

1. Pick up the chopsticks with an overhand grip in one hand.

2. Rest the chopsticks on your other hand.

3. Switch to an underhand grip.

At which point you can begin inserting food into your mouth.

And when you put them down, you do the same thing in reverse, using two hands.  So there you go.  Now you know some proper Japanese etiquette.  For sure, it’s good to know the right way to do things; just don’t get all crazy and mystical about it.  Japanese people break the “rules” all the time.  And now that you know them, you can too.  Happy eating.  Or as we say in Japan, Bon appetit.

 



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27 Comments

  1. An interesting story for something that kind of just blends into the background after you’ve lived here a while. I too have used them since I was young, but I eat with kids and teachers every day at school, and none have commented on my technique (unless when at a party or there’s a newbie visiting and they say…). Anyway, I’ve always found going to a little local place and finding an ojisan to sit next to will straighten you out… that or you might get a group of people discussing it.. like if you should put your left hand under the food in case it falls, or the exact placement of the upper hashi in your fingers… Great article

  2. What about dessert? I don’t think I’ve ever seen chopsticks used in that context.

    • Oh yeah, for sure. Desert can be eaten with chopsticks.

      Japanese meals don’t generally abide by the Western rule of salad first, desert last. In fact, it’s not uncommon to end a meal without any recognizable desert, or perhaps for a sweet item to come other than last. And if you did order a desert, it wouldn’t necessarily be weird to eat it with chopsticks. That being said . . .

      Desert sometimes comes with a teeny spoon or fork, and depending on the place, it might be proper to use that. Like, if you’re on a date in an upscale cafe and they bring your tiramisu with an infant-sized spoon, it’s probably a good idea to attempt to use it. Just gaze into your date’s eyes and say “oishii!” a lot. On the other hand, if you’re out at an izakaya and some old geezer orders cheesecake, it wouldn’t necessarily be weird to use your chopsticks to eat it. Like everything else in life, if you don’t want to be perceived as a space alien, it pays to look around and notice what other people are doing.

      Still, when I’m among friends, I always opt for chopsticks, since I find forks maddeningly difficult to use. My single exception is curry, which everyone eats with a spoon, so I do too, even though it’s harder.

  3. That wore me out just reading about it. Here in the states if you act as if there is a certain, special way to do everything that can’t be deviated from you would be call “anal retentive” or something.
    Good thing about American “culture”: there are no real rules or customs, just do what you want.

    Bad thing about American “culture”: there are no real rules or customs, just do what you want.

    • Great comment. That is the good, and bad, thing about the U.S., isn’t it?

      For sure, Japan could be called anal retentive. Unless you’re a travel writer, and then it becomes an “exquisite attention to detail.” Well, I guess there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. You read it here first.

  4. That was quite funny, Seeroi-san! Almost as funny as me teaching Hamlet to kids. That is another thing completely…anyway thanks. I learned something new about chopstick etiquette in Japan.

    • Hamlet for kids? How does that work out? Like, “Okay, Billy, how ’bout you be the Prince of Denmark.” And Billy’s all like, “But I want to be Spiderman!” And you’re like, “No Billy, the Prince of Denmark is cooler than Spiderman. Plus you get to be haunted by the ghost of your dead father.” Man, things sure have changed since I was a kid.

  5. Aha, he’s most definitely more the anti-hero, but if he were I think he’d be more like Batman than Spiderman. Personally, I’d say V. But, I don’t know what kids like either these days.

  6. I don’t think I know any cultures as precise and pay as much attention to details as to the Japanese. I admire it, or at least I used to before making Japan my home.

    I think American talk about rules and tradition like it was a past TV show and fuzzes them with their own creative ideas. The example I am thinking of is the 100 variations of what is considered a proper a wedding. The Chinese, well, let’s just say the Cultural Revolution wiped a lot of it off, along with some redundant etiquette perhaps. But for the Japanese, I’ve been to festivals where they have done it the same for centuries. Somethings, actually, a lot of things never change in Japan.

    So my question is, what makes Japan follow their rules and etiquette to the tee? And why after all these years, they still follow as if it were still back in the samurai days (and they talk about it like they are super proud of it)?

    • One of the great unsolved mysteries of Japan is why the people here are so concerned with small details, far more so than anywhere else I’ve ever seen. There’s no sweeping the sembei crumbs under the rug here.

      To answer from a historical perspective, one could point to the strict military and quasi-religious leadership that enabled the ruling class to establish firm codes of conduct and attention to hierarchy that everyone had to follow. The fact that the nation remained isolated for so long insulated it from having to reconcile other ways of doing (and looking at) things. The culture was able to develop relatively untouched for centuries. I don’t think that’s the whole answer, though.

      Another piece of the answer may lie in the fact that Japan is a relatively small nation with rather severe topography and rough weather in the Northern regions, which leads to people living close together near bays and inlets. The closer you are to other people, the more you have to establish ways of getting along.

      I believe the language also has an influence. You don’t simply learn 26 letters and you can go outside and play ball. It takes years of dedicated study to learn how to read and write Japanese. You can’t accidentally leave out a couple of strokes on your 14-stroke kanji. Although complex writing systems aren’t found only in Japan (China’s is arguably worse), having a language that demands attention to detail certainly doesn’t make things any more laid back.

      Finally, the influence of a national school system, where everyone receives the same education, can’t be overlooked. That, and the role of the government, constantly reminding people to obey the rules, such as the posters and announcements in the trains and stations.

      Still, after all that, it’s still hard to grasp how the way in which you hand money to the clerk at McDonald’s could be important, or why anyone would care which way their shoes are facing after they take them off. But there it is, Japan. As you say, concern for tradition and detail is one of the things Japanese people are proudest of. Yet ironically, it’s also one of the things they complain the most about.

      • Digging this site as much as I can.

        I spent 4 months in Kansai in 2010 and your writing does ring a bell. Love reading your stories and opinions. Thanks for all the articles.

        Hope you don’t mind I bring back a 2012-old topic :

        “As you say, concern for tradition and detail is one of the things Japanese people are proudest of. Yet ironically, it’s also one of the things they complain the most about.”

        Those who complain and those who are the proud, are they the same people?

        During my short stay, I felt I met, as a gross generalization, two types of Japanese :
        – those who thought Japan was great by itself and viewed foreignness as a danger for Japanese society bringing all kind of unwanted changes,
        – and those who were proud of their country but still felt tradition was sometimes a burden and that new ideas should be freed even when they came from abroad.

        Of course everyone ends up in the middle or beyond both statements but I feel Japanese Society is kind of split on this. I wonder what is everyone’s take on this?

        • “Those who complain and those who are the proud, are they the same people?”

          Quite often, yeah. Japanese folks are quite conflicted. But then Americans are too.

          Both groups think, for no particular reason other than they were born there, that their country is the best in the world.

          But then they see all the problems around them, and it throws them into this massive cognitive dissonance. For example, Japanese people are rightfully proud of their efficient train system, but everybody hates riding the packed trains. They love the look of traditional Japanese homes, but nobody wants to live in one. They’re freezing cold in winter and the tatami’s crawling with bedbugs. So they end up in tightly-sealed florescent-lit apartments.

          So absolutely, they’re conflicted. They want Japan to change, modernize, and Westernize. But they also want to preserve the idealized, traditional “Japan.” That’s not going to happen.

  7. Oh, that is true. You have a point in noting the Japanese vigilance to detail.

  8. This line: “Japan is a nation that believes it’s own hype,” is what struck me the most from your post. I think it rings so true. I’ve been living here for about 5 years now, and when I really looked at this country, about 90% of things I’ve encountered seem blown out of proportion. It’s like, “this is the most famous melon in Japan!”… and it tastes like every other melon you get in the supermarket, but triple the price. Also, in many cases this attention to detail really serves no point, unless perhaps because it’s protocol. It’s like being Japanese is one big placebo effect, it must be delicious if it comes from X. Does this frustrate you as well? Maybe it’s just me… sorry to troll your blog.

    • “It’s like being Japanese is one big placebo effect.”

      That’s a priceless quote. That’s awesome. Yeah, pretty much everything here is viewed as being exceptional. Like today someone said to me, “It’s cold, huh? Bet it doesn’t get this cold in America, right?” Like somehow even winter is more, uh, wintery in Japan.

      I guess my overriding emotion isn’t one of frustration but amazement. As in it’s amazing to me that Japanese people think drinking potato shochu is a capacity only they possess. (I received applause for ordering some this week. Thanks very much. Wait till you see my next act, when I order a beer.)

      A Japanese roommate once explained to me that the entire nation suffers from a massive inferiority complex, something I’ve often heard repeated. According to him, they are proud, and protective, of anything perceived as “Japanese,” including the language. “Speaking Japanese is one of the few things I can do better than you,” he said, “and now you want to take that from me too.”

  9. Isn’t Asian culture interesting? It is my experience that Japanese are more concerned about you doing things “the right way” as compared to the Chinese who are relatively more tolerant. As you point out, the locals in both countries “break the rules” all the time, just as many Americans don’t know how to make a proper table setting with forks and knives. Great post. For anyone who wants to get some chopsticks or brush up on their chopstick culture, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter @Snappychopstick

    Cheers!
    Ben

    http://www.thechopstickstore.com
    The Chopstick Store

  10. So in Korea, the right way to hold chopsticks is the one that gets food into your mouth, just like the right way to sit is the one that is most comfortable, etc. I think this shooting-from-the-hip Korean attitude is probably part of the Japanese/Korean social friction I’ve seen. For instance, when asking about Japanese chopstick rituals, Koreans have told me that Japanese are uptight weirdos. Japanese have looked visibly grossed out when I tell them I live in Korea, the way they would if I said I lived in a sewer runoff near Mexico City.

    Come to think of it, you could make a great sitcom about a couple of Japanese and Korean roommates. Like, they’d be in medical school, and the Japanese guy just wants to maintain total order in his life and keep things socially superficial, and the Korean guy wants to party and become best buds, and they have all sorts of wacky adventures, except during the 15 minutes of each episode in which they’re both studying in silence because they are east asian and get erect at the thought of screwing up the grade curve for the lesser ethnic butterballs who deserve to melt in the academic heat of the rising sun.

    • I think you’re right on the money there. No one’s ever accused the Japanese people of being too laid back. They live in a weird quantum state where they simultaneously think they’re inferior to other nations, while also believing their culture is the most refined in the world. And they seem to view Koreans roughly the way Americans regard Mexicans. We love your spicy food and rich cultural history, but secretly you scare us.

    • Hey!! What about YOUR missconceptions on what Mexico City is? Mexico City is in many ways more similar to Tokyo than most US cities.
      There, i’ve said that. Just to let you know i’ve enjoyed reading this blos while traveling in Japan.

  11. Please post a view on youtube about how to use the chopstick properly because I don’t understand your directions about picking it up

  12. Ah I remember being a teen and infuriating my parents by eating my Nutri-Grain (an Australian cereal, not sure if they have it in the US but it’s absolutely amazing and tastes like heaven) one piece at a time with chopsticks. Those were the days.
    Thanks for the info, I know they’re more what you’d call guidelines than actual rules (see what I did there) but I am intent on immersing myself in Japanese culture when I move so I daresay these tips will come in handy ^_^

    • You know, I’ve realized that actually most Westerners don’t use chopsticks all that well. There’s something unnatural about the way they hold them or approach the food. It’s only after years of use that I believe it becomes truly natural. So yeah, it’s probably a good idea to keep eating your cereal that way.

  13. Thanks for the schooling. I actually did not know about either things. Hazukashii ne.

    I remember my first trip to Japan, we–k–Iiii was so into chopsticks I would even smoke with them.

    Ate popcorn with them too.

    Ridiculous.

    And best done in the privacy of your own home/closet.

  14. At every Asian restaurant in Seattle, chopsticks are the default. I’ve never seen anyone ask for a fork in one. That’s how it is when you spend years away from your homeland – it’s a different place when you come back. Donald Trump is now POTUS, and I don’t know anyone who thinks its a great country anymore.

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