Japan: The rules for not causing offense at the dinner table

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For two simple pieces of wood each about 25 centimeters long, Japan’s “hashi” — or chopsticks — can cause a lot of misunderstandings and even offense.

Chopsticks are believed to have first been used in China during the Xia dynasty, the 470-year period to 1600 B.C., before gradually spreading throughout East Asia.

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According to scholars, the world has subsequently been divided into the three “cultural spheres” of eating with fingers, with knives and forks or with chopsticks.

As chopsticks increased in popularity among the people of Japan, craftsmen elevated the simple twin sticks of wood or bamboo to an art form, with elegant designs in lacquer decorated with mother-of-pearl or inlaid with metal.

Simultaneously, very specific rules emerged as to how chopsticks should be held, what they should be used for and — most importantly — what they should never be used for at the dinner table.

And in Japanese society, mealtimes are extremely important.

Historic respect for food

“Japan was historically an agrarian society, so most people subsisted by cultivating rice and vegetables,” says Marc Matsumoto, host of the “Bento Expo” cooking program on national broadcaster NHK and joint author of the “Ultimate Bento” book.

“As producers of food, this gave early Japanese people a respect for food,” he said. “Japanese family structures are also heavily influenced by Confucian ideals, so there is a strong sense of filial piety. It is not uncommon — even today — for families to live in a multigenerational household. People within the household will go about their lives separately, but meal times are when the family comes together.”

Matsumoto says the idea that a knife, fork and spoon are “better” implements for eating “is a very Western way of thinking.”

“If you want to argue utility, there is no easier way to eat than to use your hands, and people in many cultures worldwide still eat this way,” he points out. “Utensils came around as an extension of our hands and fingers, so we didn’t have to get them dirty.

“As an extension of our fingers, I can’t think of an easier implement to use than chopsticks,” he told DW. “Of course, like any utensil, chopsticks have their weaknesses — like soup — but for the types of foods consumed in Japan, I don’t see forks or spoons ever replacing chopsticks.

“In fact, I see chefs using chopsticks in the kitchen more and more as an alternative to tongs or tweezers because they are more precise.”

Chopstick manners

And just as it would be rude to smack one’s lips at the table in the West, Matsumoto says manners are required when eating with chopsticks. They are, however, extensive and potentially overwhelming to the uninitiated.

“Agebashi,” or raising one’s chopsticks above the height of one’s mouth, is considered poor form. As are “ukebashi,” or holding out a bowl for a second serving while still holding chopsticks, “otoshibashi,” meaning to drop the chopsticks, and “oshikomibashi,” which translates as using the utensils to push food deep into one’s mouth.

Other faux pas on the extensive list include “kakibashi,” or placing one’s mouth against the side of a dish and shoveling the food in with chopsticks and “kamibashi,” which means biting the chopsticks, while the habit of “kosuribashi” — or rubbing disposable chopsticks together to remove any splinters — is considered mean because it suggests the host has provided poor-quality utensils.

There are at least 40 chopstick maneuvers that should be avoided, but there are two that will cause particular offense.

“Tatebashi” is the error of standing chopsticks upright in a bowl of rice, the way that the dish is presented as an offering at a Buddhist funeral. Equally taboo is “awasebashi,” meaning to pass food from one pair of chopsticks to those being used by another person, a custom that is part of the traditional cremation ceremony in which family members pick up the bones and pass them to each other as a mark of respect.

“It is very important to eat in a way that does not offend other people,” said Maki Ogawa, a chef who collaborates with Matsumoto on both the television cooking program and the Bento book, and is also the author of the cuteobento.blog.

Nature’s blessings

“My parents taught me chopstick manners when I was a child and I just passed them on to my own children,” she said.

“The Japanese people respect nature and have been grateful for its blessings a long time ago,” she noted, adding that saying “itadakimasu” — which literally means “I humbly receive” at the start of a meal — and “gochisousama,” or “thank you for the meal it was a feast” at the end, express gratitude for the food, nature and the person who prepared it.

“Eating together strengthens family ties,” Ogawa said. “Talking about the day’s events is a good opportunity for children to learn eating manners, such as how to hold their chopsticks and dishes.”

And while mastering the basics of chopstick etiquette would be welcomed by Japanese hosts, Ogawa says there are always solutions close at hand.

“I don’t think that Japanese people really mind that foreigners cannot use chopsticks well,” she said. “We Japanese may not be very good at using knives and forks either. And if anyone can’t use chopsticks very well, they can always ask for a fork.”

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