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!”
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 🙂 ).
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.
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.