Japan's Must-Read Magazine

Chopstick Crimes

To begin with never stick chopsticks into food, especially not into rice. This evokes their use at funeral ceremonies and therefore can lead to a certain lull in mealtime conversation. Another maneuver certain to raise the hair on the back of a Japanese is handing him or her food from your chopstick to theirs. The last time they saw anything like this was probably at granddad’s cremation when they passed around his dentures and other remains amongst the relatives. If you want to bring a dinner party to a standstill however, this would do the trick.

The major felonies being committed with chopsticks by gaijin lie in the realm of “dexterity” issues, namely the inability to eat foods of varying texture and consistency with a pair of sticks. Such treacherous terrain ultimately leads the hapless chopstick criminal to commit negligent acts that an otherwise sane individual might have refrained from under different circumstances. In the end it is a very basic human need that drives these otherwise law-abiding gaijin to such deplorable acts. I am speaking here about hunger. When one is hungry, one will resort to all manner of unconventional methods of food conveyance — especially in dimly lit situations.

The number one chopstick casualty is obviously the lowly and otherwise innocuous tofu, a simple food that usually minds it’s own business, yet seems to have “victim” written all over it. Many violent acts are committed against tofu, everything from scooping to slurping and… yes, spearing. With tofu you really only get one shot. Using slight pressure, gently lift from beneath and slowly rise it to your mouth. If you go for the middle of a block of tofu (especially with too much force) you might end up slicing it in half — and then you are done for.

Spearing is especially a no no. This is the prime offense being committed in izakaya across the land. Undercover cameras have revealed that gaijin regularly spear large pieces of slippery stuff that they can’t quite cut and can’t quite pick up. Don’t do it, instead try to pry whatever it is into smaller and more manageable pieces by pressing both chopsticks onto the object of your affection and wiggle them about. With especially large pieces of food that you can lift but you can’t cut, biting off a piece and placing the remaining portion back on the plate is also acceptable.

One trap that gaijin frequently fall into is believing that rubbing a pair of waribashi (disposable) chopsticks together to smooth-off the rough bits is somehow polite behavior. Nothing could be further from the truth. Whilst it may seem to be a practical act of caution against splinters finding their way into unwanted places, no self respecting Japanese would be caught dead doing this.

As any eikaiwa sex worker worth their weight in 4,000 an hour yen will know, pointing is another hallmark of the uncouth heathen from abroad. Pointing at someone is an act aggression in Japan. But using your chopsticks to do so is tantamount to declaring war. Pointing your chopsticks at someone should be avoided at all costs even if your mouth is so full of food that you haven’t time to speak.

Additionally waving them about too much in the air is a sign that you have either gone off the edge or are lacking mental agility. Great if you want to cloak yourself with the label “nutcase,” bad if you are negotiating trade deals and hourly rates with a private student.

Those interested in delving further into the arcane rules governing chopstick usage will no doubt be fascinated by an Ogasawara family document that states “it is improper to wet chopsticks to a height of more than three centimeters.” Food stains of a length between one and a half and three centimeters are judged acceptable. The document goes on for another two paragraphs in this vein, but I think you get the drift. Basically don’t use your chopsticks as a dipstick and don’t dunk them in liquid (your glass of water, beer etc.) as a means of wetting them before eating. I have seen this practiced by a number of bar-code salarimen in coffee shops across the nation, so even they seem unaware that the practice is frowned upon.

As you can see by now, the list of chopstick taboos is endless. But here are the highlights, otherwise known as “The Bashi’s”:

This is basically the “dump-truck” method. This is raking or shoveling food into your mouth while it is attached to a plate or bowl with chopsticks.

Yose means “drawing near.” This technique is used by lazy, drunk or slovenly people who drag dishes towards them with their chopsticks. Don’t be one of them!

Sashi means, “to pierce” It is bad manners to poke food with the points of the chopsticks as if they were a fork. Commonly this is seen in those touch and go situations where people are trying to pick up food that is difficult to hold by stabbing it in a spear-like fashion.

To drip the sauce from the food or from chopsticks in order to convey it to another dish lacking in the sauce. Not only is this seemingly impossible feat offensive, it is quite time consuming as well.

To fill up one’s mouth by stuffing in more food with chopsticks. This is commonly seen at sparsely laid parties and all-you-can-eat buffets where hungry patrons are desperate to get as much food as they can before it is all gone. Also seen with bento boxes on railway platforms and in eating contests.

To lick or suck the tips of chopsticks is not only considered to be frighteningly bad taste it also resembles the underfed in developing countries and is frowned upon.

Do not hold two sticks by grasping them in your fist. This resembles the stance of an attacker or an unruly obasan awaiting the arrival of a subway car armed with a pair of knitting needles.

Widely ignored by Japanese and foreigners alike, placing chopsticks on top of bowl is a technical foul. Better to use a chopstick rest or make one out of something.

Unlike the west where tapping a utensil against a glass to call people to listen is acceptable, beating a glass, plate or a bowl with chopsticks to call on somebody is very low class.

Mayoi means “dithering.” It is bad manners to wave your chopsticks around aimlessly over the food, trying to decide what to take next. Be decisive.