Chopsticks… They are commonly used in several Asian countries. Of these “chopstick user” countries, Japan takes chopstick mannerisms very seriously. If you cannot use chopsticks properly, people will look at you and think, “Oh…he can’t even use chopsticks right…”
Yes, Japanese folks will judge you negatively if you cannot hold or move chopsticks properly! Japanese even has a phrase, “Osatoga Shireru”, which translates to: “(a frowned-upon behavior) reveals so much about a person’s upbringing.” The Japanese might cut you some slack if you don’t use chopsticks on a regular basis. However, it does not hurt, or it rather helps you enjoy Japanese food and culture even more if you master the art of chopsticks! Let’s look at some useful and fun information including, the origin, history, and dos & don’ts of chopsticks.
1.Mysterious Origin and History of Chopsticks
First and foremost, you need to keep this in mind: There is no concrete, proven theory on the origin and history of chopsticks. As you might guess, chopsticks have a VERY LONG history beyond our imagination! Because of this, it is nearly impossible for researchers to pinpoint how exactly chopsticks came to life and evolved. Below are some theories you should entertain.
There seem to be various theories on the origin of chopsticks. The most common one says: Chopsticks was born as a tool to grab something hot. It is generally believed that our human ancestors created the first “prototype” of chopsticks with some tree branches after they adapted to cooking with fire. However, how long ago this happened is still in question. Some say it goes back as far as 7000 years, while others claim it was only 3000 years ago. Either way, you could see that chopsticks are older than anything we know!
While there are some disagreements on the timeline of the origin, one widely accepted idea is that chopsticks were first found in China. However, it is again debated that the Chinese chopstick history goes back for only 3000 or as far as 5000 years. Additionally, the original purpose of modern-day chopsticks is also a mystery. Some believe that Chinese first used chopsticks just as a cooking tool, while others argue that they were using them as a sacred item only used for rituals. A possible explanation for this mystery is that most of “chopstick-ish” items found in ruins tend to be damaged significantly because they are made of some type of plants, which degenerate into the soil. This makes it harder for researchers to determine if the found item is indeed chopsticks or not. Though the mystery still remains, it is evident that chopsticks evolved over thousands of years and eventually became an essential item on a dinner table in many countries.
Another popular theoretical perspective is that chopsticks were deemed sacred at some point in their history. According to the common belief that chopsticks were first brought to Japan as a sacred tribute to God.
2.Chopstick Travelled and Evolved in Japan
It is now widely believed that chopsticks traveled from China to Japan somewhere between the 3rd to the 7th century. In Chinese literature published in the 3rd century (called Gishiwajinden), there is a mention of Japanese people eating with their hands. Fast forward to the early 8th century. Two Japanese books, Kojiki and Nihon-Shoki, suggest the existence of chopsticks in Japan. Since there is no proof from the in-between period, the current estimate of chopsticks’ arrival to Japan is said to be between the 3rd and the 7th century.
When chopsticks first caught the eyes of Japanese, they were made of one thinly sliced piece of bamboo, in a figure shaped like a pair of tweezers. Japanese then started to use this newly acquired item as a sacred tool for rituals for God or Emperor. Because Japanese people treated chopsticks as a sacred artifact, they were perceived as an expensive item as they spread across the country.
As for who brought chopsticks to Japan, the most popular theory suggests Onono Imoko, who was a member of the national delegation team to China in the 7th century. (Around this time, Japanese Emperor often sent a delegation to China to learn its advanced technology and ideology.) When Onono Imoko delivers the news back home about Chinese people eating with two-piece chopsticks, an influential politician named Shotoku Taishi was surprised and impressed. He then decided to introduce the same style of eating when he welcomed Chinese delegation vising Japan. Since this event, the use of chopsticks started to spread within the Japanese palace. By Nara era (circa the 8th century), using chopsticks for foods became common among Japanese aristocrats. This finalized the transition in eating style, from hand to chopsticks.
After chopsticks established their status in the higher layer of social hierarchy, they then passed down to the commoners. Once the ordinary people learned about chopsticks, eating with this two-piece apparatus became the norm across the country. Additionally, the creativity of Japanese commoners contributed significantly to the transformation of modern chopsticks. In Edo era (circa 17th-19th centuries), the simple bamboo pieces got covered in Urushi, Japanese lacquer, which creates an elegantly shining surface. This style is still the most prevalent to this day, but now it comes in a variety of colors, shapes, and designs. As explained, chopsticks have been developing since birth and have become an inseparable part of people’s lives, especially in Japan.
3.Dos & Don’ts of Chopstick Manners in Japan
Now that you have learned so much about the origin and history of the chopsticks, you should know how to use them properly! There are many dos and don’ts, which could be confusing and daunting to memorize. But don’t worry! Below is the list of some “Must-Know” stuff about Japanese chopstick mannerisms.
a). Hold Chopsticks Properly
First and foremost, you need to hold them right to use them, right!
It looks like this:
To get to this point is fairly easy. First, you pick up one chopstick and hold it with your index finger, middle finger, and thumb. Next, you put the second piece through a hole that the index finger and thumb creates and land a chopstick on the tip of the ring finger. And…voilà! You can now properly hold the chopsticks! A little tip: Make sure to hold the top half of the chopsticks.
b) Move Them Right!
Wouldn’t it be nice if you can move chopsticks without straining your finger muscles!? If you have tried using chopsticks before, you know what I am talking about. After five minutes or so of you trying to pick food up with chopsticks, you start to feel a small cramp coming to your fingers … Well, you can avoid all that pain with this tip: Once you hold the chopsticks, move ONLY the top half. The lower one stays put like a heavy anchor. Try to relax your ring finger and pinkie and have them gently curled.
There are many taboos when it comes to Japanese chopstick mannerisms, which are collectively called Kiraibashi. Here some main ones that you MUST know so that you can avoid the “look of disapproval” from the Japanese.
a) Tatehashi – Sticking Chopsticks into Rice
This is a HUGE no-no. Not only is it off-putting, but it also symbolizes death. Back in the day, people used to put rice in a bowl and stick chopsticks in that mound of rice, which was then put next to the recently deceased. This is still the tradition in some regions. Because of this, Japanese usually imagine “death” or “bad luck” when they see others do Tatehashi. Even if it is one chopstick, two pieces from a different angle, or sticking into some other food, it has the same bad impression.
b) Hashiwatashi – Picking Up One Food with Two People
This is another big taboo with chopsticks. Hashiwatashi refers to two persons trying to transfer food between them with their chopsticks. Though it is a brief second, two people will be holding one piece of food together, which is why this is a taboo. In Japan, it is standard to cremate the deceased, and then the guests at the funeral will pick up each piece of bone together in tandem. So, if you and your friend are holding the same food together at the same time, Japanese will see you two picking up a bone of a deceased! Like Tatehashi, this is associated with death, bad luck, and, thus, unpleasant feelings.
c) Saguribashi – Digging Through Food
This one gives a negative impression to everyone around you. You might like to eat an only certain food or in a specific order, but you cannot dig or stir your dish to get what you want. There are three reasons for this. One, you are ruining the aesthetic of the dish. Two, you are indirectly disrespecting the artisanship of the chef who thought of the best order in which the food should be eaten. Three, it is disgusting for others who share the same dish to see you rubbing your saliva all over the dish. Yes, this could be situational, but this is definitely not a pleasant sight for others, even if you are eating at home or your own meal.
I hope this article has helped you learn more about chopsticks and prepare you for enjoying Japanese foods!
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