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Can You Use Chopsticks?

Like the setting of the sun and the music of the universe some things are simply eternal. Take the question “Can you use chopsticks?” which is faced countless times by gaijin everywhere, regardless of whether they have spent a minute or a millennia in Japan.

Of course at some point every gaijin has responded to the chopstick question with a snide retort similar to “Your use of forks, knives and spoons is truly awe inspiring.”

Perhaps this is because on the face of it, chopsticks seem to point to a failure of the Darwinian Theory of Evolution, a kind of cul-de-sac of human development.  After all they still function pretty much as they always have — ever since man first decided it would be a lot less painful to use sticks rather than bare hands to pick something out of the fire.

But as far as Japanese culture is concerned, nothing could be more refined. The detailed conventions of using chopsticks descend from the ancient Japanese belief that hashi were thought to be a sacred tool for connecting humans and Gods. In today’s society, one’s level of knowledge of the proper use and etiquette relating to those wooden sticks is considered by many to be a defining attribute. The way you handle chopsticks reveals you to be either a highly refined and educated person of class and consequence, or rather a vulgar and hopelessly ignorant naïf that should suffer a thousand subtly delivered indignities (with a smile, of course.)

For most foreigners it all seems like a lot of hoopla about a little manual dexterity. It seems odd that a culture, which has simplified dining implements down to a pair of sticks, is stuck with a writing system that uses some 5,000 characters. Alas Japan is a much more complicated place than that. It is not unbelievable therefore that the level of complexity involving chopsticks seems to go unnoticed by large swaths of the gaijin population. They often remain ignorant for years that some of their chopstick using habits are impolite, if not abhorrent.

Often this is because the etiquette surrounding the use and abuse of chopsticks is so arcane. At other times it seems that such conventions are simply glossed over by family, friends and neighbors leaving unwitting foreigners in the dark. It may appear that the Japanese people in your life are so awestruck that you are even attempting to use chopsticks, that it seems a shame to let you know that you are violating basic ethical behavior by licking, spearing, passing or rubbing them. But do not be deceived, someone is always watching! What interesting behavior! “Sugoi! Hashi ga umai!”

Chopsticks are Complicated

Wherever you go in the world there is certain etiquette for how one should conduct themselves while dining. Table manners help make people look better when they eat and help make people at the same table more comfortable. Usually table manners make sense, but with chopsticks it is often more about the symbolism and significance behind the manners.

Before I delve into this mystic realm however I first must make a confession. Most of what I am about to tell you is likely to be hotly contested by your Japanese friends and acquaintances. Many people will claim to have never heard of things like Kaki-Bashi or Yose-bashi, but they are very real and very frightening phenomena.

The simple truth is that like tea ceremonies, hashi-using has layers of complexity. Most people know the basics, but many are woefully ignorant of their own culture.

How To Use Chopsticks – “The Triple Method” in Five Steps

The only difference between a pair of prongs and a pair of chopsticks is that there are two separate sticks. One stick is held in stationary position and the other is moved.

The formal name for the technique employed while using chopsticks is called “The Triple Measure.”  Oddly enough, it seems to require more than three movements. You can do it, too!

1. Take one stick first and hold it in your right hand in the way you would normally hold a pencil. If the stick has a thick and a thin end, hold it so that the thick end is on top.

2. Keeping the fingers in this position, turn your hand inward until the stick is horizontal to the table and Parallel to your body.

3. Relax your fingers slightly and slide the stick to the left until your thumb and forefinger are clamping the stick at about its mid-point. The thumb should not be bent nor rigidly straight. All your fingers should be curved slightly inwards with the middle finger in contact with the underside of the stick and the nail of the middle finger protruding towards your body. The third (ring) finger should be in line with the middle finger but its nail should protrude beyond the middle finger towards your body.

4. Now, take the other stick with your left hand and let the thick end rest on the protruding part of the ring finger of your right hand. Slide the stick towards the right, touching the tip of the middle finger and passing under the thumb until the thick end rests at the base joint of your forefinger. This is the stationary position of this stick, and it should be roughly parallel to the first stick.

5. Alternately bend and extend your forefinger and middle finger, letting the first stick pivot at the thumb. The thin tip of the moving stick will touch that of the stationary stick when you bend the two fingers. Don’t hold the sticks rigidly. Hardly any pressure or strength is needed to grasp things at the tip of the chopsticks.

How To Rest Chopsticks

Now that you have gone to all the effort of picking them up, ultimately you will be forced to relinquish your chopsticks… but be careful! Don’t fall into the slovenly habit of simply placing them on top of a dish or plate. Instead you should place them on a chopstick rest. If one is unavailable you can lean them against the right edge of your dining tray. Alternatively, you can make a substitute rest using the paper sheath that covered them when you received them. Do this by folding the sheath into a triangular shape, resting your chopsticks on the fulcrum.

After finishing your meal, unfold the paper sheaf and place your chopsticks back inside, leaving them on your dining tray or next to your plate. For an extra flourish of courtesy you might also take time out to fold the bottom of the sheaf at the corner to let others know that they have already been used, this avoids the nightmare scenario in which an unwitting diner attacks their succulent meal with a pair of soiled eating utensils.