Chopsticks are a key part of the Japanese dining experience. Almost all traditional dishes are eaten using these utensils, from delicate bites of sushi to steaming bowls of ramen. Japanese chopsticks come in all sorts of different styles, from mass-produced disposable pairs to colorful souvenirs and high quality chopsticks hand-crafted by expert artisans.
The thought of tucking into a meal using two straight sticks can be intimidating to the uninitiated, so this post is here to help! We’re going to go over everything you need to know about Japanese chopsticks, from how to eat with chopsticks to chopstick etiquette in Japan.
An introduction to Japanese chopsticks
Chopsticks originated in China, then spread to Japan around the sixth century AD. These early versions of the utensils were bamboo chopsticks joined together at the top (either with a chain or like tweezers), which gradually developed into the forms we use today.
Getting linguistic for a moment, let’s turn to the question of what are Japanese chopsticks called? The word ‘chopsticks’ is believed to derive from Chinese Pidgin English, but in Japan they're known as ‘hashi’ – written using the kanji 箸 – or ‘ohashi’ if you want to be extra polite. They are sometimes also called ‘otemoto’, although this term is not as frequently used.
In terms of the materials they’re made of, wooden and bamboo chopsticks are the most common styles in Japan. They’re often lacquered to make them more durable and aesthetically pleasing, and you can buy Japanese chopsticks adorned with all sorts of beautiful designs. In addition, you can get metal chopsticks, chopsticks made from plastic, and even extravagant pairs crafted from high-end materials like jade. You can watch the chopstick-making process in the video below.
Different types of chopsticks
The material they’re made from is not the only factor that differentiates pairs of chopsticks. There are actually many varieties of Japanese chopsticks, each intended for a slightly different purpose. For example, if you’ve ever dined at a Japanese restaurant or izakaya, you might have come across plain, disposable wooden chopsticks that you need to split in two at the top before using. These are known as waribashi (割り箸) – combining the words for ‘split’ and ‘chopsticks’ – and were originally created using scrap wood left over from making sake barrels. The lack of varnish or lacquer gives them a rougher texture, meaning they’re a bit easier to use.
In recent times, the amount of waste generated by waribashi has led to an increase in the popularity of collapsible travel chopsticks. Referred to as pokebashi, a portmanteau of the words for pocket and chopsticks, these portable pairs come in handy compact cases and are also convenient options for picnics.
So that covers eating out, but what kind of chopsticks do the Japanese use at home? Generally speaking, people will have their own pair of chopsticks (or more than one!), rather than sharing them communally. Wooden and bamboo chopsticks are the most prevalent, which are usually between 21-24 centimeters long and coated with varnish or lacquer so that they last longer and look more stylish. Children normally use shorter chopsticks than adults, or special training pairs connected at the top.
Chopsticks are also given as presents in Japan. If you’ve been to the country you’ve probably seen them for sale in souvenir shops, but chopsticks are gifted on special occasions too. For instance, beautifully decorated meotobashi – or matching couples’ chopsticks – are a popular choice to give to newlyweds.
Japanese chopsticks are not just used for eating either. There are special cooking chopsticks known as saibashi (菜箸), which are exclusively used for preparing food. These are thicker and longer than regular hashi, at 30 centimeters long or more. Using saibashi enables chefs to handle hot food easily, without their hands getting near open flames. You can also get serving chopsticks called manabashi, which fall between saibashi and regular hashi in length (usually 18-30 centimeters), and are used to lay out food such as sashimi on plates ready to be served.
The difference between Japanese, Chinese, and Korean chopsticks
Japan is of course not the only country to use chopsticks, and there are some interesting variations in the styles used in different cultures. For example, have you ever wondered "what is the difference between Chinese chopsticks and Japanese chopsticks"? Well, Chinese chopsticks tend to be longer and thicker than Japanese chopsticks, with wide and blunt ends. The longer length is more convenient for Chinese-style dining, where people tend to share communal dishes that are placed in the middle of the table.
So then what is the difference between Korean Chinese and Japanese chopsticks? Generally speaking, Korean chopsticks fall between Chinese and Japanese ones in terms of length. Although wooden chopsticks are the most common in Japan and China, in Korea you’re more likely to use metal chopsticks. In addition, Korean chopsticks are often flat, whereas both Chinese and Japanese chopsticks tend be round.
Japanese chopsticks are usually shorter than both Chinese and Korean chopsticks, and have more pointed ends (which sometimes have grooves to prevent food from slipping). This length perfectly suits the dining custom of picking up your bowl of rice or other small dishes and bringing them closer to your mouth as you eat.
How to hold chopsticks
If you’ve never eaten with chopsticks before, the prospect of doing so might seem a bit daunting. Don’t worry though, because while it may feel tricky at first, with a little practice you’re sure to pick up the skill! Here’s a quick guide to help you get started.
Let’s first look at how to hold chopsticks. Aim to hold them about one-third of the way down, not in the middle or close to the ends that pick up the food. Grip the top chopstick between your thumb, index finger and middle finger, in the same way you would hold a pencil. The bottom chopstick rests at the base of your thumb and index finger, and is supported by your ring finger. Only the tips of the two chopsticks will touch.
Once you’re comfortable with that, it’s time to move on to how to eat with chopsticks. The key point is that the bottom chopstick should remain still, while the top one moves up and down to pick up your food. Most of the movement will come from your index and middle fingers.
Getting the hang of using chopsticks might take a while, so start by trying to pick up big items (like a piece of sushi) and move on to smaller ones (like a single bean). Remember, if you’re really struggling at a restaurant, there’s no shame in asking for a fork!
In addition to knowing how to eat with chopsticks, there are some key Japanese dining etiquette points to follow when using them if you want to avoid making a cultural faux pas! The main things to remember are:
- Don’t stick your chopsticks vertically upright in your food (especially bowls of rice) because this is a practice associated with funerals
- Similarly, never pass food directly from your chopsticks to someone else’s, because this how the bones of a deceased person are transferred into an urn after cremation during funeral ceremonies
- Don’t point at people with your chopsticks, wave them around, move bowls with them, or lick the ends of them
- When taking food from a communal plate, use the other end of your chopsticks
- Don’t spear food with your chopsticks, or pick something up from a communal plate and then put it back
- To cut food with chopsticks, exert controlled pressure on them while slowly moving them apart. Alternatively, it’s fine to pick up a larger piece of food, take a bite and then return it to your plate
- When not using your chopsticks, place the tips on the chopstick rest (known as a hashioki). If there isn’t one, you can rest the chopsticks on your bowl instead, or lay them horizontally with the tips to the left
- When using disposable waribashi, don’t rub the two chopsticks together – this implies that they have splinters and are of bad quality
Being able to use chopsticks when eating in Japan, at a Japanese restaurant where you live, or at home is sure to make your dining experience more enjoyable. Brush up on your practical skills and etiquette knowledge, and you’ll soon be a chopstick master!