When traveling to Japan, you will inevitably be confronted to chopsticks and if you were never tempted to try them on your country, you can have a little trouble using chopsticks for the first time. There are mainly two things to keep in mind regarding chopsticks: how to hold them to be able to eat in Japan and what you can or can’t do with chopsticks.
The key to use chopsticks easily is to immobilize the bottom chopstick between the index finger and the thumb and make it rest on the ring finger. The top chopstick must be held like a pencil, using the thumb, the index and the middle fingers, and must be able to move up and down to seize the food.
Ok, it’s easier to tell you the theory, but it’s better to show you exactly how you must put the theory into practice. In the next paragraphs, I’ll show you how to hold the chopsticks with some illustrative images so you can see for yourself and try it at home (practice makes perfect, right?). There are also some “rules” about chopsticks that you should be aware of before going to Japan, so we will see that too.
Let’s get started!
How to hold chopsticks in Japan? (with pictures)
Holding chopsticks for the first-time can be a little overwhelming. I remember that it didn’t feel comfortable at all, but the more you practice, the best you become at it, and it is kind of nice being able to eat with chopsticks (plus you can brag about it in front of your friends!).
To start practicing right away, you can buy a set of Japanese chopsticks from Amazon for instance. They have different models available like natural bamboo chopsticks with a slightly textured surface to grab the food more easily or really cool natural wood chopsticks that are lightweight and easy to hold. And if you have a hard time learning how to use chopsticks, you can even get a plastic chopstick helper to bind the chopsticks together and make it easy for you to use them. On Amazon, it is also possible to buy special chopsticks for kids with helpers too.
By the way, there are two words for chopsticks in Japanese that you might need to know. Chopsticks are generally called hashi (箸) or o-hashi (お箸) in the most polite form, but you might also see the phrase otemoto (おてもと) printed in the paper of disposable chopsticks.
Please notice that I show you my way of holding chopsticks which is the easiest for me. The only difference with the “correct way” is that I push the bottom chopstick with the top of my ring finger to keep the chopstick in place while in the “correct way” you should slightly bend your ring finger and lay the chopstick over the side of your ring finger (see picture below).
The first thing to keep in mind is that the bottom chopstick doesn’t move. It must be “stuck” all the time using these three fingers: the thumb, the index finger and the ring finger. See the picture below to get an idea of how it looks like.
The larger part of the chopstick must be held at the place where your index finger and your thumb get together. The middle of the chopstick will be supported by the extremity of your ring finger. This is very important to have the chopsticks in the right position.
Once you get the bottom chopstick in place, you can move to next step. This is where things become a little complicated. To make it simple, you must hold the top chopstick like you were holding a pencil. You will have to use three fingers again, but this time you will use the thumb, the index finger and the middle finger. Always keep your thumb straight because if you bend it, you will lose strength to keep the bottom chopstick in place. Take a look at the picture below to have a clearer idea.
If you manage to place the chopsticks correctly, you will be able to open and close your chopsticks without difficulty. At first, it might feel uncomfortable, but don’t worry, you will star to get used to the feeling with time. However, if the bottom chopstick moves and doesn’t stay in place, then something is not right and you have to place it again in your hand so that doesn’t happen.
To help you master a little more the use of chopsticks for your next trip to Japan, you can take a look at the picture below. I highlighted the points where you feel some pressure while holding the chopsticks. This should help you place them easier in your hand. Notice that almost every finger is used to hold the chopsticks. The only one that doesn’t play a huge role is the little finger.
In the beginning, it’s normal to make mistakes trying to hold chopsticks, after all, nobody was born knowing how to use them. Don’t put too much pressure on you if you don’t manage to get that right on your first try. After all, the Japanese are very kind people, and they certainly understand that tourists aren’t masters in holding chopsticks.
However, the technique is one thing, but the chopsticks’ etiquette is a different story.
What you can’t do with your chopsticks in Japan
While Japanese might be tolerant with your not-so-perfect technique, there are a few rules to respect regarding what you can or can’t do with chopsticks. Some rules are quite logical like you should never lick your chopsticks or never play with chopsticks, for instance, other rules are more subtle and are strictly related to the Japanese culture. Most tourists are not aware of these rules and usually get some weird looks from our Japanese friends. Let’s take a look at some of the most common rules that tourists usually break during a trip to Japan.
Don’t stick your chopsticks vertically into your bowl of rice.
Although very convenient, you should never stick your chopsticks vertically into your bowl of rice because this is related to death in the Japanese culture. When praying for their ancestors, the Japanese put incense sticks vertically into bowls and this looks exactly like chopsticks into your bowl of rice, so don’t do it. When you need to put down your chopsticks during your meal, just use the chopstick holder that’s provided in restaurants.
Don’t pass food from chopsticks to chopsticks.
Passing food from chopsticks to chopsticks is also related to death in the Japanese culture and death has no place in the dining table. During Japanese funeral rituals, the bones are transferred from the ashes into the urn using chopsticks. While performing the bone-picking ceremony, the relatives might have to pick the same bone with two pairs of chopsticks or pass the bone to another person. This is the only situation where you can pass something from chopsticks to chopsticks.
Don’t stab food with your chopsticks.
Chopsticks are not weapons, so they shouldn’t be used to stab anything and that includes your food. Even if you get a cool pair of lightsaber chopsticks from Amazon, that’s not a reason to stab food or play with chopsticks. 🙂
Don’t dig the plates or wave over them with your chopsticks.
Sometimes it can be hard to choose what to eat first in Japan. You might hesitate for a while and, in the meantime, you will be waving over the plates with your chopsticks. You should never do that because it’s not polite to do so. The same thing goes for digging the plates searching for a specific food type.
Don’t rub your chopsticks together.
The only reason to rub chopsticks together is to remove splinters, but that only happens if you have to hold really cheap chopsticks. If you don’t want to insult your host, don’t rub your chopsticks together if you don’t have a valid reason to do so.
Don’t use only one chopstick.
Chopsticks come in pairs and there’s a good reason for that: they are meant to be used together at all times. You should always use both chopsticks in the same hand at the same time. It is the only polite way to use them.
Don’t point with chopsticks.
In Japan, pointing with your chopsticks is considered very rude and you should never do that. I’m pretty sure that in your country you wouldn’t point at people with your fork, so that’s basically the same thing in Japan.
Don’t cross your chopsticks.
Crossing chopsticks is also related to death in the Japanese culture so, just like everything we saw previously, don’t do it while in Japan.