Ordered a sushi delivery lately? If so, odds are that from the moment you snapped apart the chopsticks and rubbed their splintery edges together to your last chomp of chirashi, you probably committed a half dozen faux pas that wouldn’t fly in Japan.
Even if you pride yourself on your at-home chopstick skills and never let an eel roll escape your grasp, dining in Japan requires observing a more serious set of chopsticks standards.
You needn’t be overly self-conscious, however. Chopsticks etiquette is much more about what you shouldn’t do than what you should. This is to say, you needn’t learn a new grip, much less master chopsticks with your nondominant hand. But there are several things Westerners wouldn’t think twice about doing with chopsticks that would certainly be akin to double-dipping in Japan.
Keep these few potential party fouls in mind, and every meal in Japan — from a lunch on the go to a formal dinner — will be as comfortable as your most recent sushi delivery at home.
- Don’t rub chopsticks together
Disposable wooden chopsticks (waribashi) are typically of decent quality in Japan, so they aren’t likely to splinter. Even if they do a bit, rubbing the chopsticks together signals to your dining companions that you perceive the chopsticks as cheap, which will be insulting. While you may rub splintery delivery chopsticks at home, don’t do it when you’re out and about in Japan.
- Use the hashi-oki
A hashi-oki is a chopsticks holder. Usually it’s simply a piece of ceramic or even a small stone that allows you to rest your chopsticks on the table between courses so that the ends of the chopsticks that go into your mouth are suspended above the table’s surface. Hashi-oki are mostly found in nicer restaurants — but wherever you’re provided one, use it. Just be sure your chopsticks are parallel to each other, never crossed.
- Don’t stir or stab food
It just isn’t done, even if you’re struggling with slippery foods. It’s the Western equivalent of spearing food with a knife and raising it to your mouth. While it may be awkward, you’re better off asking for a fork than spearing food with one or both chopsticks.
- Be mindful with communal dishes
Usually, communal dishes will come with a separate set of chopsticks for serving food. Use that set for serving and your own set for eating. If a serving set isn’t provided, just be sure not to eat directly from the communal dish. Use your chopsticks to pull a piece from the top or edge of the plate (don’t dig around!) and then place the food on your plate. Wait a beat, then you can pick it up with your chopsticks and eat it.
- Don’t pass food
If you are passing your dish to someone else, let the person use his or her chopsticks to pull food from your plate — don’t use your own chopsticks to pick up food from your plate and put it on someone else’s. Even worse is passing food directly from your chopsticks to someone else’s. Aside from being unsanitary, it’s a practice reserved for Buddhist funerals: After a relative is cremated, family and friends pass the deceased’s bone fragments to one another using chopsticks.
- Know when to forego the chopsticks!
When eating sushi, it’s good to know that not all sushi needs to be handled with chopsticks. It’s okay to pick up a piece of nigiri sushi (a slice of fish over a length of rice) and maki sushi (a sliced roll) with your hands. Always consume it all in a single bite (unless you are a kid).
The most important piece of chopsticks etiquette, however, is simply to use common sense. If you wouldn’t do something with Western utensils, don’t do it with chopsticks. You wouldn’t lick your fork or leave it standing up in a bowl of rice, would you? As you guessed, none of these things comprise polite chopsticks use in Japan.
Just as with Western culture, less is more when it comes to table manners. No one will bat an eyelash at something you don’t do, only at what you actually do. So if you’re ever uncertain, or something feels like a departure from what you’d normally do at home, just play it safe — and do nothing, or simply ask for a fork. You can go back to your usual habits back home, when no one’s looking.