The Elegant World of Japanese Etiquette, Part 1: Chopstick Etiquette – Dining with Decorum
In the Ogasawara-ryu Reihou school of etiquette, the spirit of courtesy and consideration for others is valued above all else. This spirit has long been expressed through manners and gestures. Manners enable men and women to conduct themselves with dignity and refinement, whether in the workplace, out in public, or during ceremonial occasions. In this article, we look at the correct way to use chopsticks in Japan.
In this day and age, how important is dining etiquette, really?
No doubt some people would argue that they can eat perfectly well without knowing the correct dining etiquette but most people would certainly agree that they would feel more self-assured, especially when dining in company, if they were confident in their ability to use chopsticks correctly. Indeed, there are sound reasons for learning how to eat with chopsticks properly.
The proper use of chopsticks allows us to eat with greater decorum, which in Japan is a way of expressing gratitude for the food we are eating. In addition, unlike in other culinary traditions where spoons are used as well as chopsticks, Japanese cuisine is eaten only with chopsticks. This means that, in the absence of other utensils, we need to know how to hold our chopsticks properly in order to confidently use them to cut or tear food into bite-sized pieces so that we can convey appropriately-sized portions to our mouths. To do otherwise would be disrespectful to those around us and would create an unfavourable impression.
Knowing what constitutes an appropriate mouthful is key to dining with decorum. There is a tendency to think that manners do not matter when eating foods like noodles, but bringing too big a portion of noodles to one’s mouth (and having to bite off the excess and let it drop back into the bowl) is never considered elegant. Even in casual dining situations, it is important not to cast oneself in an unfavourable light simply because of the way one eats. After all, good table manners are just part and parcel of being an adult.
How to hold chopsticks
Grip the upper chopstick between the tips of the index and middle fingers and hold it in place with the thumb (much like holding a fine paintbrush).
The lower chopstick rests in the ‘crook’ of the thumb and is steadied in place by the third finger.
How to move the chopsticks
Only the upper chopstick moves. The lower chopstick stays in place without moving at all.
How to pick up the chopsticks
(Illustrations 1 – 5, below)
1．Place the right hand over the pair of chopsticks and grasp them in the centre.
2．Immediately bring the left hand under the chopsticks at the slender end to steady them.
3．Slide the right hand to the opposite end of the chopsticks, all the while maintaining contact.
4．5．Slide the right hand around and under the chopsticks and adjust your grip.
Handling a bowl and chopsticks
(Illustrations 6 – 10, below)
Picking up a bowl and the chopsticks at the same time is considered bad manners. Here are the guidelines for picking up each one in turn.
6．Pick up the bowl first, and hold it securely in your left hand by placing the bottom of the bowl on the flat of the fingers and steadying the bowl with your thumb against the rim.
7．8．Pick up the pair of chopsticks in your right hand. Place the tips of the chopsticks between the index and middle fingers of your left hand (while still holding the bowl).
9．Slide your right hand around and under the chopsticks without letting go (as in steps 3-5) and adjust your grip.
10．Release the chopsticks with the fingers of the left hand.
Some breaches of etiquette to be avoided are:
- Watashi-bashi– placing your chopsticks across the top of your bowl when not in use.
- Sashi-bashi– skewering a piece of food with chopsticks to pick it up.
- Yose-bashi– using chopsticks to pull your bowl towards you.
- Neburi-bashi– sucking or licking the tips of your chopsticks as you eat.
- Saguri-bashi– using chopsticks to rummage about in a plate of food to find something you like.
Chopsticks are used every day in Japan and with practice, the correct use of chopsticks becomes second nature. Knowing the correct etiquette helps to create a favourable impression.
Keishōsai Ogasawara is the 33rd hereditary head of the Ogasawara-ryu Reihou school of etiquette, having succeeded to the position following the death of the 32nd head of the school, Tadamune Ogasawara, who passed away in 1996. Born in Tokyo, after graduating from Sacred Heart Professional Training College, Ogasawara studied abroad in the United Kingdom. She was the deputy head of Ogasawara-ryu Reihou until becoming the head of the school in 1996. She writes and lectures widely on the subject of Japanese etiquette and provides guidance to a number of Japan’s leading corporations and important public figures.
Judy Evans is a high school teacher of English and Japanese, and a Japanese-English translator. She has a Bachelor of Arts in Japanese and Art History and has studied production horticulture and landscape design. Judy has a keen interest in the internet environment and has administered websites for a number of organisations. She lives on a small farm in rural New Zealand and is a frequent visitor to Japan.