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.