How To Use Chopsticks

If you’ve never used chopsticks before coming to Japan, this may take a little bit of practice. I’ve been using them since I was a little kid (maybe around seven)*. If you take the “I’m just having fun” approach to using chopsticks, you’ll save yourself a ton of frustration. If you’ve never used them before, please keep this in mind: “You ARE going to drop them occasionally!” and “You ARE going to drop food from time to time!” I’ve been at for a while and I still drop food. I dropped food today as a matter of fact. Don’t worry about it. The more you try, the better you’ll get.

*Why have I been using chopsticks for so long? Because I was an army brat coming up, and some of my closest friends were Asian. Unfortunately I didn’t have the chance to meet very many Japanese people until actually coming to Japan.

If you need to learn the basics, I have the perfect device for you. These special chopsticks are a training method for young Japanese children to learn the basics of using chopsticks. The special grip helps you to get the feel of holding the active chopstick using your thumb, forefinger, and middle finger, while the supporting chopstick rests comfortably on your ring finger.


I found out quite recently that I don’t hold my chopsticks in the conventional fashion. When I tried to so, it felt extremely strange. I have become quite accustomed to the way I hold chopsticks, so I won’t be changing (trying . As long as I can pick up the food, it’s okay with me :)

This is how I hold chopsticks:

This is the conventional way to hold chopsticks:

There is one other grip that I have a hard time even imitating. With this grip, the chopstick-er’s sticks close in a fashion very similar to scissors. I’ve tried it time and time again, but can’t quite pull it off:

Regardless of your grip (except for the unorthodox scissors style), generally one chopstick will do the majority of the work, while the other supports in holding, pinching, and picking up things.

As long as you’re not stabbing your food with your chopsticks, I think you’ll be okay. Nobody’s going to look at you and say “You’re holding your chopsticks wrong!”

Training Method

You can use these training chopsticks in combination with three different sized items to hone your technique. For today’s example let’s use three different sized beans: 1) The large-size to learn basic technique 2) The medium-sized bean to further enhance this new motor skill, and 3) the small, adzuki bean to develop more advanced technique. Of course it doesn’t have to be these exact types of beans (I’ve never seen an adzuki bean in my hometown), just make sure you have three different-sized items (preferably food) that go from large items to finer items. Soon enough you’ll be a chopsticks master, able to retrieve even the tiniest grain of sand with the point of your chopsticks (that’s pushing things, but you will be able to eat at least :) ).

9 Chopstick Etiquette No-No’s

Knives and forks don’t have as many rules associated with them as chopsticks do, so you may find some of these slightly strange, but they are interesting nonetheless. These are nine things not to do with your chopsticks in Japan:

1. Neburibashi (ねぶりばし or 舐りばし)- Licking your chopsticks.
2. Tatakibashi (たたきばし or 叩き箸)- Clapping your chopsticks together or striking them against things. For example, as tempting as it is (I’ve been guilty of this one), don’t use your chopsticks like drumsticks. Or striking your chopsticks against a dish to ask for seconds.
3. Nigiribashi(にぎりばし or 握り箸)- Grasping your chopsticks with a “fist grip”, like you were holding a walking stick, when picking up other items.
4. Hojiribashi (ほじりばし or 穿りばし) or Saguribashi (さぎりばし or 探り箸)- Using your chopsticks to take the foods you want or like from underneath other foods. In other words, digging to get the goods.
5. Sukashibashi* (すかしはし)- I have to be honest, this is the most confusing of the no-no’s I heard; it refers to eating fish with your chopsticks. I have heard two conflicting theories on this. I heard from one person if you are eating fish, and you can’t get to the meat underneath the bone, use your chopsticks to remove the bone and then continue eating the meat. If you can’t get to the bone, then eat around it.

The other school of thought is that if you you can’t get to the meat because of the bone, flip the fish over and continue eating.

Which one is right? Hmm…I’m not exactly sure. If people start looking at you like you’re crazy while you’re eating, fish, then you know the other way is the correct one. I’m pretty sure these rules may vary from family to family and region to region.

6. Mayoibashi (まよいばし or 迷い箸)- Hovering or waving your chopsticks over dishes when trying to choose which plate to eat from.
7. Chiguribashi (ちぐりばし)- Stirring your soup with your chopsticks before eating or drinking it.
8. Kakibashi (かきばし)- Shoveling food into your mouth with your chopsticks (kaku, 掻く, can mean to shovel or paddle)
9. Sashibashi (さしばし or 刺し箸)- Spearing/skewering your food with your chopsticks in order to pick it up.

I would be pretty surprised if anybody (Japanese or otherwise) could adhere to all of these rules at all times, but I do think they’re interesting to know. Some of these are more common sense while others are not. I’ve seen Japanese people bend a lot of these rules, so it’s hard to get a gauge on just how important the “non-common sense” rules are (chigurihashi, sashihashi and sukashihashi). For example, while I was having a hotel breakfast in Hitachi last weekend, the man next to me, was performing kakihashi, without reserve. He was slurping* and shoveling his natto and rice into his mouth. The nature of the situation can be a key factor in chopstick etiquette.

*That’s another interesting cultural food etiquette difference…slurping foods like soba, udon, etc, is perfectly okay.

The Ultimate Chopsticks Test

If you can eat tofu with chopsticks you’re about as good as you’ll ever need to be. I generally eat tofu (especially the soumen tofu) with a fork, because it’s so soft. But I wanted to see if I could eat tofu with chopsticks. I struggled with it at first, but I am happy to say that I can do it now. Very few foods will be as soft or slippery as tofu. If you can eat it with chopsticks, I have to give you a much deserved, virtual pat on the back.

Happy Chopstickin’!!

Donald Ash

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  • Jon

    Even though I used chopsticks a lot (having lived in China and parents who love Chinese food), I still find my hand cramping from eating too much. T_T I had this crazy theory that one of the many reasons why there aren’t a lot of obese Asians (by Asians I mean chopstick-using people like Chinese, Japanese, and Korean people) is because eating a big meal using chopsticks is tiring. LOL

  • Nanami

    These were some neat videos. I’ve been using chopsticks for a long while too. I honestly prefer them over forks/spoons/knives as I find them easier to eat with. I was “adopted” by a Chinese family in Toronto so.. ^ ^; lol it’s interesting when I go visit. I am next week and I look forward to it. It’s funny because when my friend and I go to a new restaurant that doesn’t know me, they of course give me “western” utensils and him chopsticks. So… while the waitress is gone we switch our flatware. It never, ever fails to confuse them. And, while I don’t speak much Cantonese (ie: none), I DID learn how to order a few of my favorite dishes, but it’s strange even when the correct pronunciation comes out of my mouth they just look at me like I’m speaking Greek. It’s all in good fun though! Sad to say though >>;.. some of those etiquette rules definitely get broken even at formal dinners. I wonder if they are specific to Japan? I can tell you one Chinese one! It’s rude to leave even one grain of rice in your bowl (which definitely leads to かきばし). And if I remember correctly they eat the fish around the bone which more often than not leads to getting bones in your mouth – -; ugh. I’m in favor of just deboning the fish to begin with! And removing the head daggon it!

    It’s funny the vast differences in food and table manners here in America and Asian countries! I remember at my first dinner out with this particular family and their extended family.. we had a meal with chicken. And the head was there (what is it with the heads???) and they told me that it was a great honor to be given the head to eat. I sat there and continuously tried to deflect said honor for about half an hour til everyone burst out laughing and told me it was “big brother’s” idea to see how I’d react. >> Never did forgive him that.

    Have you had any experiences like that? Where you got teased? Or where you did in fact have to eat something that you were squeamish about?

    Also, for anyone who has trouble with their chopsticks but doesn’t have the ability to buy training chopsticks you can make some! They don’t have the grips but they have the spring action XD and are very easy to make.

  • Alva

    My new co-worker uses chopsticks like my sister; they have two fingers over the top stick and uses them like scissors…
    when I absent mindedly mentioned that, she simply told me that her younger sister and brother (about 9 and 6?) can use them correctly. I asked her why and she said,
    “They hadn’t sold training chopsticks when I was small!”
    I must say, she has a point! My sister would have liked them too!

  • Alva

    BTW, the chopsticks in China and Japan and Korea is slightly different in shape and material…If I remember correctly.
    Japanese like to use chopsticks that gets narrower at the end(picking side) and the material is usually wooden or plastic.
    Chinese ones are round sticks… top and bottom the same size and eigther wooden or metallic(rich people like the idea of silver–historically used to prevent being poinsoned).
    Koreans use metallic(silver is really popular… though not that available here too) flattened round ones… they look oval shaped at the tip. Like the Chinese, the top and the bottom size is about the same. They have designs that help recognise which end is the top/bottom, I think?

    Which reminds me of my Chinese friend who told me this: There are three feet on the floor if Chinese, Japanese, and Indonesian are sitting at the table to eat: Chinese sit with one leg down, Japanese sit on their feet–no feet on the floor, and Indonesian sit with both legs down…

    Does that sound rude? I’m not sure….I think it is outdated joke…

    • Jon

      I haven’t used “Japanese chopsticks” but I have used Chinese and Korean ones. And yes, Chinese chopsticks are roundish and the top and bottom parts are similar (the bottom part is distinctly thinner though for obvious reasons), while Korean chopsticks are thinner and flatter.

  • Kayla

    I managed to eat tofu using chopsticks. That’s one of my favorite things to order at a Japanese restaurant – I love deep-fried tofu. So I’ve gotten plenty of practice but I agree it’s very hard!

  • Good post! I hold chopsticks just like you, and I was taught many years ago by a Japanese-American woman who was a post-WWII occupation “war bride.” Also, having lived in China awhile, I learned to NEVER flip the fish! Doing so is symbolic of flipping the boat that you are in with your friends at the table.

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