There are more than fifty different types of Japanese chopsticks (hashi or ohashi). In contrast to Chinese chopsticks, they are pointed at the end which holds the food. Some are made from bamboo or soft, pale wood, others from elegant ebony, and still others from different metals. Many can be reused in the home, but the vast majority are disposable. Approximately 130 million disposable chopsticks are used every day in Japan, most made from imported wood. A substantial proportion of this wood is grown solely for this end-use, and the manufacture of chopsticks consumes a significant share of the world’s wood resources. The most frequently used varieties are bamboo, willow, and cypress, while cedar is preferred for the high quality sets.
In classical times in Japan it was normal practice to have one’s personal chopsticks in a little holder which could be brought along on journeys. In the same way as rice, chopsticks were a symbol of prosperity in the olden days.
If you want to observe Japanese customs, you absolutely cannot do as you please with your chopsticks. The rules which follow fall into two categories: some are simple and practical, while others are more ritualistic and strongly culturally influenced.
You must not do
1. Lick or suck on the chopsticks.
2. Stand the chopsticks in a bowl filled with rice. This is a ritual that belongs on a home altar.
3. Move bowls or dishes around on the table with the chopsticks.
4. Rub the chopsticks repeatedly against each other (this signifies that they are cheap and of poor quality).
5. Take from a common plate without using the special chopsticks for that use. If there are none, turn your own chopsticks around and use the other end for serving food. This rule is Shinto inspired. According to a Shinto way of thinking, an evil spirit can move from one person to another via the food.
6. Hold the chopsticks in mid-air in front of you or over the food while you are deciding what to pick up.
7. Drop food or soy sauce from the chopsticks.
8. Let the chopsticks rest on bowls during the meal. They are placed together on the chopstick holder (hashi-oki) or on a little base which you can fold together from the paper sleeve that covered them.
9. Spear the food with a chopstick or eat with one only.
10. Transfer a piece of food from one set of chopsticks to another. This is because, in Japan, after a person is cremated the bone remnants of the deceased are transferred from one set of chopsticks to another before the ashes are placed in the urn.