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Rules for Proper Chopstick Use

Historically, knives were considered weapons in Japan and not utensils that belonged in front of guests at a meal. Instead of a knife and fork, the Japanese use a pair of smooth wooden sticks called chopsticks to eat their meals. If you have been to a sushi bar or traditional Japanese restaurant, you have almost certainly seen and perhaps even used them. Like many aspects of Japanese culture, the practice of using chopsticks has a proper procedure to it.

Holding the chopsticks

When you pick up your chopsticks, hold them near the wide ends, leaving plenty of room to grasp food with the smaller ends. Hold the upper stick between your index finger and thumb, in the same manner as you might hold a pencil. The lower stick should be positioned on your ring finger while resting on the concave space between the thumb and index finger. The lower stick does not move much when the sticks come together; instead, let it rest in place while you move the upper stick to pinch food.

Be polite when accepting your chopsticks

If you are using wooden chopsticks, especially the sort that come pre-packaged with your meal and break apart, do not scrape them against each other to remove rough edges. This tells your host that you think the chopsticks are cheap and poorly made -- even if they are, it is still considered tactless to rub them together.

Choosing dishes

When choosing dishes from a set of serving places, don't point at them with your chopsticks or hover your hand near them. Doing so tells guests that you are greedy and can't wait your turn to eat, which is poor form in Japanese society. Take food from the top of the dish, never digging through the food to get a certain part. As the food is served communally on a serving plate, it is to be transferred to your personal plate before you eat it, not eaten off the serving dish.

When you’re not using them

Never use your chopsticks for anything other than handling your food. If you are talking to other people, avoid holding or making gestures with your sticks. If you are provided with a chopstick holder, place the chopsticks there when you’re not using them, but if you are not given one, you can simply place them horizontally on your bowl.

Be sure that your chopsticks are parallel horizontally over your bowl and not crossed together. Especially never place them vertically into the rice in the bowl. Both acts remind the Japanese of funeral ceremonies, where mourners offer food to the spirits of the dead and chopsticks are placed crossed or vertically in the bowls.

Sharing food

If you want to share your food with other people at the table, do not do so by passing the food from person to person by chopstick. This act mimics a funeral practice where cremated bones are passed between people by chopsticks before they are placed in the burial urn. Instead of taking food from someone else's chopsticks, simply ask for the other person to hand their plate to you, then use a clean pair of chopsticks to move food to your plate.

Eating the food

Always use your chopsticks as a pair and never individually. As they are meant to pinch up bite-sized pieces of food, eat whatever you hold up in one bite. Don't raise a large piece of food and bite parts off of it, and don't pick up a wad of noodles or rice and let most of it fall away. Instead of biting to break up large pieces, cut your food with your chopsticks by applying strategic pressure to break it apart.

When having soup, drink from the bowl or with the large, ladle-like spoon given with many Japanese soups. If you are eating bits of solid food out of it with chopsticks, don't swirl your sticks in the broth to clean them.

When using chopsticks, always remember that they are not just simple eating utensils - they also have a cultural meaning for the Japanese. Consider this guide as an important tool not only to respect their culture, but also to enrich your dining experience.