Have you ever wanted to know the right way to use chopsticks? There’s a lot to learn because Western cultures have no experience with the uniquely Asian food utensils. Fortunately, there are a few simple rules that can make the mysterious world of chopstick etiquette as clear as a bell.
Most of the rules for using chopsticks have the same goal as etiquette for forks, knives, and spoons: never expose other people to a utensil that goes into your mouth. Westerners would never use a personal fork or knife to cut or stab food in a common-use dish. It’s just plain unsanitary.
One Basic Rule
The same principle applies to chopsticks and is behind the majority of rules for their use. On top of those basic guidelines, there are a few uniquely Japanese table manners that pertain to chopsticks. For those, you just have to memorize the rule and practice until it becomes second nature.
Note that one of the rules is about learning to use chopsticks properly. This takes a bit of practice, but even rank etiquette amateurs can master the technique within about an hour’s practice. So maybe the first rule should be “Learn to use chopsticks correctly.”
The comprehensive list below takes into account all the basic rules and will cover you in any eating situation while visiting Japan. At the end of the list are a few caveats and special situation guidelines. In all, you’ll be on the right course to chopstick mastery.
Never Stand the Sticks Up Vertically
The vertical chopstick is symbolic of death to the Japanese. At funerals, the utensils are sometimes left in that position in a single bowl of rice that is meant for the deceased person. It’s an ancient and solemn tradition, so when visitors do this, even playfully and not knowing what it means, Japanese people are a tad shocked and insulted. Just remember this as the number-one chopsticks’ taboo.
Gesturing with Chopsticks is a No-No
Even in Western culture, at least until the mid-1950s or so, it was considered terrible form to gesture or “talk with your hands” while holding a utensil of any kind. The same rule applies in Japan except it is still in effect and is widely regarded as impolite. If you want to speak during a meal, set the chopsticks on their holder first. If there is no holder, it’s okay to place the sticks across the plate without crossing them.
Avoid “Rinsing” Chopsticks in Soup or Tea
Gooey chopsticks that have been used for rice or meat sometimes have a built-up residue on them. It’s tempting to “stir” your soup to clean the chopsticks. Don’t do it. While not technically an unsanitary move, rinsing is considered rude and will draw stares from your dining companions.
Use the “Table” Chopsticks to Take Food from Shared Dishes
Traditional Japanese meals are served “family-style,” even in many restaurants. This is quite unlike the meal ritual in Western cultures. Each common dish, in the center of the table, includes a pair of chopsticks that are to be used for that dish only. You use those chopsticks, not your personal ones, to deliver food from the shared dishes to your own plate.
It’s much the same principle as a gravy spoon in the West. It’s assumed that diners use the common-use spoon to place gravy on their own plates. They’d never use a personal spoon (for sanitary reasons if nothing else) to dip sauce out of the bowl and add it to their plate.
Thou Shalt Not “Hover”
When several different foods are on the main table and being passed around, it’s impolite to “hover” that particular food’s common chopsticks over the bowl/dish as if you’re “shopping around” for a piece of a certain size or shape. The Japanese sum up this rule by telling children, “No lingering!”
The idea is that food is a precious, wonderful thing to have access to. Japanese history is one of cyclical drought, famines and crop failures. This respect for food is part of the cultural DNA in Japan, so any behavior that makes one appear to be a “picky” eater is frowned upon. Be like the Japanese by being grateful to have food on the table, prepared and ready to eat. Don’t hover the common chopsticks as if to hunt for the “best piece” from a specific serving bowl or tray.
Chopsticks are Not Forks or Knives: No “Stabbing”
Never (ever) use the point of a chopstick to snare foot items from your plate or from a common serving tray. It’s just never done, and children are told “No sticking!” by millions of parents who try to teach good table manners into their youngsters.
This is a sometimes tricky rule for Westerners because many chopsticks are pointed and would make good single-tine “forks” if the need arose. For visitors who don’t know how to use chopsticks to lift food, it’s tempting to just jab that point into a piece of meat, fish or fruit and bring it to the mouth for convenient and quick eating.
Be on your best behavior and avoid the temptation. Ask for a fork and knife or, if that fails, use your fingers to lift a food item you can’t catch with the chopsticks. Using fingers is considered much less rude than stabbing food with a lone chopstick.
Don’t Place Chopsticks across a Plate or Bowl
This rule has a couple of exceptions, primarily when there is not chopstick “stand” for each diner. Small stands are called “rests,” and usually are placed right next to each person’s main plate. You put the chopsticks together, without crossing them, handle ends on the table, “food ends” elevated on the stand. The stand looks like a little log or bar.
If there is no stand, place the chopsticks, horizontal, never crossed, across the side of your plate while speaking or taking a break from eating. Put them on the side of the plate because putting them at the top is considered a signal that you are finished with your meal.
Don’t ever put chopsticks on or in a soup bowl. If your main meal dish is a bowl, the rule still applies. Remember, the only exception is when there is no chopstick stand and no packet (that comes with disposable chopsticks). Only in those cases is it acceptable to use the side of your bowl or plate when you want to “rest” the chopsticks.
For more details about the chopstick rest, see the rule below, “When not in use, place chopsticks on the rest.”
Never Pull or Push a Bowl with the Sticks
In Western countries, people use knives, forks, and spoons to move food around on a plate or inside a bowl. The opposite is the case with Japanese chopsticks. Avoid pushing, pulling or otherwise moving food around on a plate with the chopsticks. Japanese view this as “playing” with food, and it’s considered rude. Food stays put until you lift it up with the chopsticks and eat it.
Never Take or Give Food with Your Chopsticks
This is such a common etiquette problem that even Japanese people are caught doing it on occasion. When passing food platters or bowls around a table, or when serving others from them while the bowls sit on the table, be sure to use the common-use chopsticks (the ones that are in or near the serving dish) to dole out food if you serve to others. Note: As a visitor, you’ll not be doing much serving, so visitors can rest easy.
But the rule is in place to prevent germs from being spread via personal chopsticks. This is one of the etiquette guidelines that have a clear and practical purpose. By understanding this rule, even visitors who never have to worry about it can gain a better understanding of Japanese table etiquette.
In most Asian cultures, greater attention is paid to cleanliness and hygiene than in Western culinary environments. Anthropologists pose many theories for this phenomenon, one being that some parts of Asia are more susceptible to food-transmitted contamination than Western cultures are; careful attention toward preventable germ-spreading makes sense.
No “Playing with Food” Allowed
Here, the rule is similar to the one for Western utensils: don’t play with food in any way. Respect the food and the person who prepared it by treating it with respect. Using chopsticks to toss food items around on a plate or otherwise play with it is one of the biggest mistakes a person can make at a Japanese table, even when the occasion is quite informal.
Food “Sorting” is Verboten
Some visitors to Japan come from places where it’s perfectly normal and accepted to sort through food on one’s plate. In the U.S., for example, no one is offended when guests at a dinner table use their forks, knives or spoons to move potatoes to one side of a plate and vegetables or meat to another side.
In Japan, this just isn’t done. You put the food where you want it (on your plate) when you pick it up from the common dish and transfer it to your own plate. It’s not moved after that until you pick it up with chopsticks and eat it. Food isn’t meant to be touched except when it travels from the common dish to your dish, and then into your mouth. That’s it! No organizing, sorting, or categorizing is allowed by the rules of chopsticks (and Japanese dining) etiquette.
Never Point with Chopsticks
This is closely related to the “No gesturing with chopsticks” rule. It’s always considered highly rude to point with chopsticks, even when not at a meal. The utensils are meant for eating and eating only, not for use as “pointers.”
No “Drums, Tapping or Playing” with Chopsticks
Here’s another etiquette guideline related to several others. Chopsticks should never be tapped, even lightly, on the table, dish, glass, your body, or anything. They shouldn’t be spun around or used for clever tricks, sleight of hand, or amusement.
This rule is one that Westerners tend to break quite often. Perhaps out of nervousness at not being able to use the chopsticks correctly or for some other reason, visitors to Japan tend to use chopsticks for “drum playing,” tapping, and all sorts of gyrations while waiting for a meal to be served or, even worse, in between bites of food.
Don’t be a rude visitor. When in Japan, do as the Japanese do and wait patiently for food to be served. Don’t play with the food or the chopsticks.
Remember: “Hands Only”
This rule, among the Japanese anyway, is in place, particularly for children. The Japanese say “Hands-only,” to youngsters to remind them not to hold the chopsticks in their mouths, dangling in the air. Most adults, even visitors who don’t know chopstick etiquette, would never do this but it bears mentioning.
Don’t Place Your Chopsticks on the Table
This rule means, “Don’t put chopsticks directly onto a table’s surface.” In restaurants there will usually be either a little stand you can rest the sticks on, or there will be a packet that the chopsticks came in.
When you need to set the chopsticks down, place them on the stand, or put them on top of the packet. When the meal is over, you should put them in the packet when there is one available. If there’s no packet, it’s okay to leave them on the stand. If there’s no stand or packet, then leave the sticks, uncrossed, across the front of your plate.
Never put chopsticks onto a bare table or a tablecloth. It’s just not done. This is one of the rules that visitors tend to break on a regular basis.
Noise is Not Good
Never make any kind of noise with your chopsticks. This includes clicking them together, tapping them against anything, including your hands or arms. The way the Japanese teach this rule to their children is “No noise.”
Warning: No “Digging” Allowed
It’s never okay to dig through mounds of food, even when there is a large pile of rice, beans or another type of food. When offered a common serving dish, use that dish’s chopsticks to pick food up from the top of the pile. Never dig around, mix or stir the contents of a common dish with chopsticks.
Learn How to Hold and Use Chopsticks Correctly
There are hundreds of tutorials online for people who want to learn to use chopsticks properly. An excellent one is here.
It helps to get help from someone in person because the correct positioning of the sticks in one’s hand takes time and varies from person to person depending on the size, shape, and agility of the hand.
When Not in Use, Place Chopsticks on the Rest
When you eat in informal settings that use disposable chopsticks, remove them from their little package, roll the package up and use it as a stand for resting the sticks during the meal (between bites and when talking). At the end of the meal, place the disposable sticks back into the package after you’ve unrolled it. Then, leave the package where you found it.
If you choose not to roll up the package and use it as a stand, then just leave it next to your plate and place the chopsticks on it when you’re not using them. At the end of the meal, return them to the packet.
With non-disposable chopsticks, there will usually be a stand for them. If there isn’t, it’s okay to place them lengthwise on the side of the plate when you speak or are taking a break from eating. At the end of the meal, put them on the stand if there is one, or lengthwise across the top of the plate if there is no stand.
Licking? Don’t Even Think about It
It seems hard to believe, but some visitors to Japan lick food or liquids off their chopsticks. This is, of course, highly rude and should never be done. Along with not placing the chopsticks vertically in a food dish, this is one of the “never ever do it” etiquette rules for dining in Japan.
Putting it All Together
It’s almost enough just to read and understand the logic behind the rules. After that, everything is a matter of practicing with the chopsticks. It can’t be emphasized enough: learn to use chopsticks by spending time on your own (or with a helper). The one-handed manipulation of two very narrow, long sticks is not something Western hands are used to.
Remember the overriding goal of not letting your personal chopsticks mix with anything on the common table. If you’re just a visitor, Japanese people will be very forgiving of your awkwardness with the sticks and most restaurants will offer you Western utensils if you appear ill at ease.
When you make etiquette mistakes with the chopsticks, your hosts will understand and sometimes point out to you the proper way to handle the situation. Never be afraid to ask, “Is this the proper way to do such-and-such” when dealing with chopsticks.
But why not make your trip more “authentic” by learning to use chopsticks before you travel to Japan? It takes just a bit of time, will impress the Japanese people you dine with and is a fun way of getting into the mood for a trip to Asia.
Some Exceptions and Special Situations
One: Note that special, highly formal occasions like weddings, funerals and religious functions might have their own chopsticks’ etiquette. Never be afraid to ask a Japanese person when you find yourself in such situations. They’re glad to help and will be flattered that you care enough to learn about their social customs.
Two: If you travel elsewhere in Asia, keep in mind that etiquette for chopsticks is far from uniform. What is rude in Japan might be perfectly okay in Korea and China. And what is typical in Tokyo could be a significant social error in Vietnam. Be sure to look up specific chopstick etiquette for any countries you plan to visit outside Japan.