japanese chopsticks held by hand used in majime life blog

The ins and outs of Japanese chopsticks, the essential dining tool of Japan

Chopsticks are a utensil/cutlery used not only in Japan but in many other East Asian countries like Korea, China and Vietnam. In Japan, you’d be hard pressed to find a restaurant that doesn’t offer chopsticks. In this blog, we’ll talk about the history and culture that chopsticks have in Japan.

If you’re at a sushi or ramen restaurant in Japan, chances are you'll find chopsticks at your table. At a ramen shop, you will also have a 'renge' which is a bowled spoon. Chopsticks began to be used for meals in Japan from around the 7th to 8th century. From ancient times to the present day, chopsticks have been an integral part of Japanese culinary culture.

Globally, dining cultures can broadly be divided into three categories: using hands, using cutlery of knives, spoons and forks, and using chopsticks. Chopstick-using cultures make up about 28% of the world’s cultures. Let's take a look at the culture of chopsticks in Japan. 

using chopsticks for breakfast
Using chopsticks for a delicious Japanese style breakfast.

Some facts of chopsticks in Japan

Eighty percent of Japanese chopsticks have origins in Obama City, Fukui Prefecture, a coastal area in the Western part of Japan. That means the majority of chopsticks you see sold in department stores, gift and souvenir shops are crafted, or at least have roots in this region.

fukui prefecture

 Fukui prefecture is one of 47 'states' in Japan. 

This excludes cheap and disposable chopsticks, called ‘waribashi’ which are imported from countries like China. In fact, only 2% of disposable chopsticks in Japan are made domestically, of which 70% are produced in Nara Prefecture. Currently, Japan uses a whopping 20 billion pairs of waribashi each year. Due to Japan's low self-sufficiency rate in timber and the high cost of domestically sourced wood, materials for cheaper chopstick products often come from overseas like China.

The rich history of Japanese chopsticks has close ties with Japanese lacquerware. ‘Shikki’, or lacquerware, are objects whereby layers of lacquer, a type of tree sap, is applied as a coating, resulting in a wide range of fine and decorative items. The basic appearance gives a glossy black or vermilion finish. Lacquer is essentially a natural plastic, and endows properties like resistance to water, acid and to some extent, heat. Japanese lacquer, or ‘urushi’, has wide applications in the arts like ‘maki-e’ or ‘urushi-e’ prints, to coating items like bento boxes, plates, bowls and of course chopsticks. Obama City is renowned for its lacquerware, and it's a place where techniques have been passed down from ancient times.

japanese lacquerware
Japanese lacquerware often have a vermillion or deep red colour tone due to the urushi lacquer.

The origins of chopsticks

The first examples of chopsticks have been dated back to around 1200 B.C. in China. They are believed to have developed around the time when humans started using fire for cooking. It appears that branches of wood similar to modern chopsticks were used.

But why are chopsticks, called ‘chopsticks’, in English? It is believed that the term is derived from the direct translation and meaning of chopsticks in Chinese. In the Chinese language, the term chopsticks also mean ‘to be quick’. So back in the olden days, westerners would associate this to the term ‘chop chop’, which means ‘be quick’. And since they are pretty much short sticks, the term ‘chopsticks’ is thought to have been created.

In Japan, chopsticks didn't initially come in the form of a set of two parts - they looked more like tweezers. Records indicate they were made by bending bamboo. At that time, they were not primarily used for dining but for ceremonial purposes like offering food to gods, as touching offerings to Gods with bare hands was considered taboo. In fact, chopsticks are called ‘hashi’ in Japanese, which also means bridge. And so, they were tools that acted as bridges between humans and the Gods.

In the 7th century, the culture of "eating with chopsticks" was introduced from China and gradually spread among the nobility as a dining cutlery. Over time, chopsticks became popular among commoners who had previously eaten with their hands.

Disposable chopsticks

In the late Edo period (between 1603 to 1868), the restaurant industry flourished, and disposable wooden chopsticks began to be used. Edo (present-day Tokyo) was said to be the cleanest city in the world at the time, with records indicating well-maintained infrastructure such as sewage systems and clean streets without litter or human waste. It's believed that disposable chopsticks were born from the Japanese sense of hygiene.

Disposable chopsticks are still widely used today, and the scale of use is the focus of criticism due to the waste of natural resources. While disposable chopsticks are made from various varieties of wood, bamboo (which is technically a grass) chopsticks have become popular. It is quite the norm in Japan for disposable chopsticks to be provided for free when buying meals at convenience stores or supermarkets. They are also often used in Japanese fast-food restaurants.

disposable chopsticks

Disposable wooden chopsticks often found at Japanese fast food restaurants.

From birth to death with chopsticks

There's an old saying in Japan, "Begins with chopsticks, ends with chopsticks." This proverb means that from the brith to death, and even after death, chopsticks play a very important role in life. A traditional ritual in Japan that exemplifies this is the "okui-zome," performed when a child is 100 days old. This ritual celebrates the 100th day since birth by having parents pretend to feed the baby with chopsticks, offering fish and red rice.

As adults, chopsticks are used almost daily, and they even appear after a person passes away. In Japan, cremation is almost universal, and after the process, relatives pick up the bones with dedicated chopsticks. Rice offered to the Buddhist altar is also served with chopsticks. From birth to death and during every meal in between, chopsticks accompany people throughout their lives, hence the deep significance of this simple but deeply rooted tool in Japanese culture.

Using personal chopsticks

In Japanese households, each person typically has their own set of chopsticks from childhood. Different colours, styles or patterns distinguish them among family members. This is a unique Japanese tradition not found in China, and perhaps other Asian cultures as well. If you think about it, forks and spoons don’t seem to adopt the same practices.

While it might appear that this practice stems from Japanese hygiene etiquettes, it's interesting to note that spoons and forks are often shared among family members. When asked why chopsticks are considered special, Japanese individuals often respond that they never thought of them as special but acknowledge a sense of ownership over them. Perhaps due to the relatively recent adoption of Western tableware in Japan, this sense of ownership hasn’t yet transcended everyday routines.

Personal chopsticks are also gaining traction outside the household. With more focus on the wastage of natural resources from disposable chopsticks, there is a trend in Japan where people bring their own portable chopsticks to use outdoors and at restaurants. The use of one’s own portable chopsticks for bento boxes is quite the norm though.

personal portable chopsticks with bento box

Personal portable chopsticks with style - Kimono Sakura Blossoms chopsticks case set together with matching bento box and bento bag.

What are Japanese chopsticks made from?

You've probably seen chopsticks that are made out of wood, plastic or metal, but Japanese chopsticks are usually made from the first two. Chopsticks which have a high rate of use in households or restaurants are often made of plastic or resin due to their durability and cost. The resin chopsticks at Majime Life are a perfect example where style meets function. These chopsticks are made from a durable thermoplastic resin called PBT (Polybutylene terephthalate), which can withstand temperatures of up to 200 degrees Celcius.

Other types of plastics used for chopsticks include polypropylene, melamine and acrylonitrile butadiene styrene. These have high durability against heat and chemicals and are often dishwasher safe. And because they can withstand repeated use, plastic chopsticks can last a long time, and does reduce the impact to the environment.

When you think about the material of Japanese chopsticks though, wood probably comes first to mind. Many wooden Japanese chopsticks are made from synthetic wood (a composite of wood scraps or powder) or bamboo (which technically isn't a wood), and coated with urethane, acrylic or other resins for a better look, feel and durability. You can even get wooden chopsticks that are dishwasher safe. Unlike metal cutlery, resin and wooden chopsticks don't heat up quickly, are light, and don't feel cold to the touch, which adds to their appeal.

Of course there are ‘higher grade’ chopsticks, expertly hand crafted by skilled ‘shokunin’ (crafts person). These are often coated with ‘urushi’ or Japanese lacquer, and adorned with beautiful designs and decorations with other traditional techniques like ‘maki-e’. Maki-e is a technique of using a metallic powder like gold or silver to add intricate patterns and designs onto coated objects. These chopsticks are often made with higher quality and domestically sourced wood like hinoki cypress or cherry wood. Such chopsticks are expensive, and often presented as gifts or souvenirs, although this does not preclude them from being used lovingly at home.

high quality japanese chopsticks

 Hand crafted Japanese chopsticks coated with urushi and decorated with beautiful patterns using the 'maki-e' technique. 

 Common types of wood used to make chopsticks in Japan include:

  • Cedar (sugi no ki) - antibacterial properties and pleasant aroma
  • Japanese horse chestnut (kuri no ki) - antibacterial properties, smooth texture and resistance to cracking
  • Maple (kaede no ki) - attractive grain patterns, smooth texture and various colours
  • Cherry (sakura no ki) - beatiful reddish brown colour and fine grain which contributes to their aesthetic appeal
  • Boxwood (tsuge no ki) - highly durable due to being dense and very finely grained
  • Ebony (kokutan) - has a dense grain and black, often chosen to showcase elegance and sophistication
  • Rosewood (shitan) - has a reddish brown colour with distinctive grain patterns, valued for their beauty and durability
  • Cyrpress (hinoki) - has a beautiful natural aroma and is light in colour
  • Oak (kashi no ki) - durable hardwood, chosen for their strength and durability, good for everyday use

Chopsticks as a traditional craft

Lacquerware is one of Japan's traditional crafts. While chopsticks can be bought for as little as 100 yen (approximately 1 Australian dollar), lacquered ones are considered high-end. When made using domestically sourced lacquer and wood by artisans, a single pair of chopsticks can cost up to 25,000 yen (approximately 255 Australian dollars) or more on Japanese websites.

The price of high-end chopsticks is due in part to Japanese lacquer (urushi), which can cost over 100,000 yen (1,000 Australian dollars) per kg. This is because the extraction process is extremely time consuming and laborious. Only about 200ml of urushi can be collected from a 10 to 15 year old tree, after which it is cut down to make way for planting a new tree.

japanese urushi tree after harvest

Grooves are made into the bark of the tree and urushi sap is collected manually. 

The urushi coating process itself undergoes at least 20 repetitions of application (often much more) before completion, and it takes about 10 years to become a skilled artisan. For these reasons, lacquerware, including those of chopsticks, is considered a luxury item in Japan, and are justifiably very expensive.

Overseas made lacquerware is much cheaper, but due to the refined processes over the centuries, Japan-made lacquerware is said to be more durable. It can last for decades, making it a lifelong investment. The tradition of lacquerware, along with tatami mats and gold leaves, was registered as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2020. Lacquer techniques are also used in shrines and temples, contributing to Japanese culture. So next time you see a $100 pair of lacquered chopsticks, you’ll know why!

Production of Japanese chopsticks

While 80% of chopsticks in Japan are produced in Obama city in Fukui prefecture, there are many other areas in Japan that produces beautiful chopsticks with their own unique technique and materials. Below is a map of the regions and summary of the characteristics of chopsticks produced in different parts of Japan.  

chopsticks regions of japan
  1. Wakasa-nuri (Obama city, Fukui prefecture). Uses ‘togidashi technique’ which creates patterns using small objects like seashells and eggshells, and then applying lacquer over them to create a sharpened aesthetic.
  2. Kiso-nuri (Nagano prefecture). Uses a wiping lacquer technique of rubbing lacquer onto the wood surface. Variations of the technique results in beautiful chopsticks that highlight the grainy texture of the underlying wood. These chopsticks are also very light and have a warm aesthetic.
  3. Wajima-nuri (Ishikawa prefecture). Uses intricate techniques involving inserting gold into engraved areas or ‘maki-e’, which uses gold or silver powder to create beautiful patterns with the lacquer. The chopsticks have an elegant and luxurious feel when held. There are over 100 steps involved in this lacquering process, and as a result boasts a reputation of extremely high quality.
  4. Tsugaru-nuri (Aomori prefecture). Uses a technique called ‘togidashi kagi nuri’, whereby lacquer is applied dozens of times to a Tsugaru cypress wood base, and then polished. This is repeated for two months to create a layered coloured lacquer pattern on the wood.
  5. Aizu-nuri (Fukushima prefecture). Uses techniques to create very detailed and intricate designs and decorations. Grooves are finer and shallower than the lacquerware from other regions, so you can almost feel the delicateness of the patterns emanating from the surface. Due to the low volume of production, it is very hard to obtain these chopsticks.
  6. Shunkei-nuri (Gifu prefecture). Uses transparent lacquer to create deep and unique transparent tones of colour that focuses on the natural beauty of the wood grain. Usually these chopsticks are made from very high quality wood from the Hida region called ‘Ichii’, a type of Yew tree. Specially prepared lacquer is then used to coat the wood to make the wood grain stand out even more.
  7. Yamanaka-nuri (Ishikawa prefecture). Uses the natural wood grown in the region (such as Jujube, a type of date tree), which has a very beautiful wood grain texture. Incorporating refined ‘maki-e’ techniques, the chopsticks lacquerware made in this region has a unique aesthetic and stunning decorative finishes.
  8. Bamboo chopsticks (Oita prefecture). Uses a variety of bamboo like sesame bamboo and tiger bamboo that can be obtained in the region. These are very pliable, so able to be designed and made with fine tips.
  9. Edo chopsticks (Tokyo). Mainly made from Arcanaceae wood (Ebony, Persimmon) for a simple and rustic design. Edo chopsticks are designed to be almost round but still sided, so they have a very soft and comfortably feeling in your hand. In that sense, they are different from lacquered chopsticks in terms of their beauty and ease (and conveniences) of use. They are coated with a variety of materials, including but not limited to lacquer.

One prominent design feature of Japanese chopsticks compared to chopsticks from other countries is that they have pointed tips. For example, chopsticks in China have the same diameter throughout the length of the chopsticks and are typically round and blunt. Japanese chopsticks on the other hand have pointed ends to allow for better handling and picking of food, a reflection of the diet. Using pointed chopsticks is convenient for picking bones and flesh from fish, which was a staple food in the Japanese diet. And function in form, many designs have textured tips to allow for easier handling of slippery food like noodles.

While there are so many types and designs of chopsticks in Japan, it is difficult finding similar types overseas. Many are not massed produced or are too expensive to be economically viable for common export and sale outside of Japan.

At Majime Life, just like with bento boxes, we aim to introduce unique and affordable Japanese chopsticks in Australia. Have a look at our current collection.

majime life ohashi collection chopsticks

Majime Life has a collection of affordable and stylish Japanese chopsticks.

Chopsticks etiquette

There are proper ways to use chopsticks, such as how to hold and handle them. But if you plan to travel to Japan, there are some etiquettes to be mindful of. Many of these etiquettes are based on mindfulness and hygiene.

  • Use chopsticks to bring dishes closer to yourself, and not put your face close to the food.
  • Avoid stabbing food with chopsticks like a skewer, particularly with rice. This is because it mimics a religious practice performed for the deceased in Japan.
  • Refrain from licking the tips of chopsticks. This is just bad manners.
  • Don’t use your own chopsticks to eat food directly from shared dishes. Rather, use a serving cutlery to take a portion to your own plate. It is a hygiene practice as your own chopsticks have been put in your mouth.
  • Don’t use your chopsticks to point at another person when engaged in conversation. It is considered rude, just like pointing your fingers at another person when talking.
  • Don’t cross your chopsticks. Again, this is similar to customs in Japan relating to funerals and death.
  • Don’t pass food from one chopsticks to another. This is also related to a funeral custom when bones are passed from one person to another with chopsticks.
  • Don’t bite your chopsticks.
  • Don’t rummage for a particular item from a shared dish with your chopsticks. This is considered rude and classless.
  • Don’t hover your chopsticks over the table while deciding what to eat. It prevents others from doing so.
  • Don’t let liquid drip from your chopsticks as it imitates tears and sadness.
  • Don’t drum or play with your chopsticks on the table. This is just bad manners.

Finally, if there are chopstick rests available, it's considered polite to use them and not place your chopsticks directly on the dishes or plates.

Parents often teach their children these manners when they are growing up, as well as the correct way to hold chopsticks. As adults, not using chopsticks correctly can invoke a sense of embarrassment amongst Japanese people, so it is almost a rite of passage.

In closing

Japanese chopsticks are unique in design, craftsmanship and functionality. This everyday cutlery is deeply rooted in the culture of both food and everyday life. And like many other things Japanese, there has been significant thought and meaning embedded into the evolution of this simple tool. Entire generations have been dedicated to perfecting the art of crafting this simple tool.

Chopsticks have also become a staple souvenir for travellers in Japan. Designs featuring motifs like cherry blossoms, traditional Japanese patterns and those made of wood are particularly popular and can be found in many tourist areas, at airports and major train stations. Chopsticks with personal engraving are also very popular. If you are in Tokyo, shops like Hyozaemon and Mikura are definitely worth a visit if you are after something special.

However, if you need something right now in Australia, do check out our chopsticks collection here at Majime Life. We are continually expanding our range and selection to bring you just a little bit closer to the Japanese chopsticks experience.