Chopsticks — An Essential Part of Japanese Food Culture


   Many countries all over the world use chopsticks, but in Japan, an entirely unique culture around them has developed. Chopsticks are a mainstay of Japanese food culture, and many different varieties have been created over the years due to changes in the times and what they're used for. We're going to take a look at the profound relationship between Japanese people and chopsticks — or hashi, as they're known in Japan.

Some Japanese People Use Their Own Personal Reusable Chopsticks

   Most countries around the world with their own chopsticks culture use both chopsticks and spoons side by side, but in Japan, traditional meals are usually eaten using chopsticks alone. One of the reasons for this is that the staple of the Japanese diet is uruchimai rice — a type of rice that sticks together, making it easy to pick up with chopsticks. On top of this, since ancient times the custom in Japan has been to eat while holding the bowl in one hand.

Eating while holding the bowl in one hand is a uniquely Japanese custom.

   In the past, Japanese people didn't use dining tables, rather they sat on the floor and each ate at small, individual serving tables with legs, known as a zen table. Since food had a long way to travel from the zen table to a person's mouth, it became customary to eat with the bowl in one hand, closer to the face. With this being the case, it also became common to drink soup straight from the bowl without using a spoon, and from then on it seems eating with solely chopsticks came to be more widespread.

Left:In the past, people in Japan used to sit on the floor and eat at a portable zen table — a small serving table. (Image recreated using dolls) (Image courtesy of Uchiko History & Folklore Museum/Museum of Commercial & Domestic Life.)
Right:Dinner in a farmhouse in the past, with each person eating at a hakozen — a box-shaped individual serving table. (Image courtesy of Natural History Museum & Institute, Chiba.)

   Since then, as lifestyles changed and zen tables were replaced with western-style tables, chopstick rests (hashi-oki) became widely used in order to prevent chopsticks from rolling around and to stop the tips of chopsticks from touching the table during meals.

   At home, it is common for people to use their own individual rice bowls and chopsticks. People are especially particular about not wanting anyone else to use their chopsticks, so each family member tends to have their own individual reusable chopsticks, called My-bashi (meaning "my chopsticks").

Hashi-oki chopstick rests are used now that people eat at a table rather than at individual zen tables.

Different Chopsticks Are Used for Different Purposes

   Japanese chopsticks have a narrower tip than those of other countries. This makes it easier to adjust the amount of force used, providing the versatility to use them for picking up, cutting, breaking up, scooping, pinching, carrying, rolling, and grasping small items using just one hand.

A variety of tasks can be performed with just chopsticks, including mixing eggs, breaking up fish meat, grasping noodles, and much more.

   Various types of chopsticks have been created for different uses. Nuribashi lacquered chopsticks for everyday meals are made from coating wooden chopsticks with layers of strong and water-resistant lacquer, allowing them to be washed and reused over and over again. Many lacquered chopsticks feature designs painted on the grips, or adorned with sparkly seashells to give them extra esthetic appeal.

Lacquered chopsticks with a beautiful glossy finish. Lacquered chopsticks made by highly skilled artisans can sometimes fetch a high price. (Photo in cooperation with HASHITOU HONTEN.)

   Chopsticks are not just used for eating — they're used for cooking, too. In Japan, people have been using different types of long chopsticks when preparing and cooking meals for a long time. Manabashi chopsticks are used when cooking fish and chicken, and saibashi are used when cooking vegetables. Manabashi, also known as moribashi (serving chopsticks), feature thin, pointed tips made of metal, making them ideal for performing the fine movements required to serve and arrange food beautifully.

Manabashi are an important chef's tool in Japanese cuisine. (Photo to the left in cooperation with HASHITOU HONTEN.)

   Saibashi are used for cooking and are found in most people's kitchens at home. They are thicker than the chopsticks people use for eating and are over 30 cm in length, meaning the handles don't get hot when cooking over a flame.

In addition to being made from bamboo or wood, some saibashi are also made from heat-resistant silicone or metal. (Photo to the left in cooperation with HASHITOU HONTEN.)

   Another special type of cooking chopsticks is the konabashi (flour chopsticks) used in specialty tempura restaurants. When making tempura batter, the wheat flour is roughly mixed using konabashi, which are about as thick as drumsticks, to make the flour less sticky, helping it fry up nice and crispy.

The secret to getting crispy tempura batter is to use konabashi to avoid over-mixing the flour. (Photo to the left in cooperation with HASHITOU HONTEN.)

Unique Chopsticks to Make Meals Fun

   In Japan, there are chopsticks ateliers and specialty stores where you can have chopsticks custom-made to your liking. You can choose from a wide variety of materials, sizes and designs, and even have your name on them.

You can choose from thousands of different chopsticks at specialty stores. (Photo in cooperation with HASHITOU HONTEN.)

   There are also other unique types of chopsticks designed for comfort and functionality. For example, a type of assistive chopsticks has been developed so that people who have difficulty with hand movements due to illness or injury can still eat with chopsticks. They are lightweight, easy to grip, and made in such a way that the force from weaker hands is conveyed effectively right through to the tips.

Assistive chopsticks developed for people with hand disabilities. Can be used with just two fingers. (Photo in cooperation with HASHITOU HONTEN.)

   There are endless different kinds of chopsticks ingeniously designed to help with eating certain kinds of food — including chopsticks for ramen, with a built-in anti-slip surface to help grip the slippery noodles; training chopsticks to help children who are still learning how to hold them; chopsticks designed for stirring natto (fermented soy beans) to add more air and make them fluffier; and boxed chopsticks for taking with you for packed lunches or when you're on the move. There are also some designed to add a pinch of fun to your meal, such as chopsticks shaped like Japanese swords and weapons. If you ever visit Japan, definitely look into getting a set of My-bashi.

Left:Chopsticks for ramen noodles, with anti-slip grooves to help grip the noodles. (Photos in cooperation with HASHITOU HONTEN.)
Right:Training chopsticks for children to help them get used to holding chopsticks. (Images courtesy of KJC Communications.)

Natto chopsticks have notches around the ends to help introduce air to make natto fluffy when stirring. (Images courtesy of Yamachiku.)

Left:Box up your My-bashi so you can use them while you're on the move. (Photos in cooperation with HASHITOU HONTEN.)
Right:Use chopsticks modeled on Japanese weapons to give you that extra edge on the day of the big game! (Image courtesy of Kotobukiya Co., Ltd.)