Japanese Chopsticks – All about “Hashi”

Japanese Chopsticks – All about “Hashi”

Chopsticks are one of the items that truly embody the Japanese spirit! From mass produced to handmade by a Japanese craftsman, from high-quality materials to low-cost alternatives, from basic patterns to complex decorative designs, there is a plethora of styles and types that fit different tastes.

What is Hashi?

“Hashi” (箸) or “ohashi” has the meaning of chopsticks in Japanese. The direct translation is “bridge”, which stems from history. The sticks were used to share food with the gods after they were ceremonially offered to a specific god or deity. There are distinctive types of chopsticks that are used depending on the occasion or ceremony. The sticks are also known as “otemoto” (おてもと), which translated means “a hand around something”.

How do chopsticks in Japan look like?

Tapered plastic chopsticks and rests with wooden finishingThe Japanese chopsticks are traditionally 9 inches long with a thick handle and tapered tip, which prevents food from slipping away. The tip is sharp because Japanese cuisine has plenty of dishes that are sliced thinly including fish. There is no universal style as it depends on the occasion. For example, there is chopstick style for activities such as cooking and picking sweets or ceremonies such as serving tea or attending a funeral.

The main difference from the chopsticks from the other Asian countries is that in Japan the sticks are more tapered and they usually use more colors and different designs. The materials used are usually bamboo or wood and they are most often lacquered unless they are intended to be disposable.

In the traditional cuisine in Japan everything is served on separate plates, so people don’t have to pick out dishes from far off and thus their sticks are shorter compared to the Chinese ones where the dining table is arranged differently. There are child and woman sizes, which are even smaller.

 

What materials are used?

Japanese chopsticks are usually made of wood or bamboo, which is then lacquered or treated with resin. Other materials used can be ivory (for special occasions), metal, bone, or plastic. Bamboo and wood are preferred as they are inexpensive, low in temperature conduction, and offer good grip for picking food.

Any sticks that are not varnished or lacquered are not durable as they start changing form with time. Such are the disposable chopsticks, which come as a piece of wood that is partially cut and must be split into two separate sticks by the user. They are mostly used in restaurants and they are known as wari-bashi (割り箸), which originates from wari (able to be split) and hashi (chopsticks). They were originally made using the scraps of cedar wood produced during the making of sake barrels around the 16-18 century and got popular when they were found to be easier to use than the more slippery lacquered ones.

Plastic is also an inexpensive option that is durable and low in temperature conduction. However, they are slippery and cannot be used when cooking as the temperature can damage them. Metal chopsticks are easy to clean and durable, but slippery. Silver, bone jade, gold and ivory are considered luxurious and used only by wealthy families.

History of the craftsmanship

The first records of chopsticks being used in Japan date back to the beginning of the 8th century AD. However, they were most probably used even earlier, considering the fact that in the 6th century their usage had spread from China to most parts of Southeast Asia. Initially, chopsticks were used during sacred ceremonies where the Japanese were worshipping their gods and deities. The material used to make them was bamboo and were joined at the top, just like the sticks for training are produced nowadays. With the passing of time, the chopsticks became the utensils used for everyday eating especially after they became separated somewhere in the 9th or 10th century.

Somewhere in the 17th century, the citizens of the Wakasa District (part of the Fukui Prefecture at the moment) started making their chopsticks lacquered. Although that made them more slippery, such kind of chopsticks had better durability and thus became widely accepted across Japan. Up until nowadays, the chopsticks started evolving in terms of texture and design, type of production, colors and even the materials used. For example, wealthier families had their chopsticks made from gold, silver, ivory and jade.

In the 21st century, Obama (the former capital of the Wakasa Province) manufactures 80-85% of the Japanese chopsticks. After this craftsmanship developed into a tradition, the city was renowned to have more than 100 families that were producing handcrafted sticks. Nowadays, there are less than 10 such families where chopsticks masters are practising their craft.

Types of Japanese chopsticks

There are lots of different types of chopsticks in Japan. Their use depends on the situation and tradition. Here are some of the most common types:

  • Meoto-bashi is a set, which is gifted to couples that have just married. It has 2 pairs of chopsticks – one for the groom and one for the bride.
  • Iwai-bashi are the sets that are used throughout the New Year celebrations in Japan. Each family member receives such set and when the holidays end they are ceremonially burned in a shrine.
  • Rikyu-bashi are handcrafted wooden chopsticks used in the modern Japanese tea ceremony. Before the tea is served, the guests are given small sweets using these sticks.
  • Sai-bashi are longer chopsticks (usually around 17-18 inches) that are used for cooking, serving and plating.

Japanese chopsticks etiquette

There are plenty of rules that should be followed when enjoying Japanese cuisine. Of course, whether the Japanese adhere to all of them depends mostly on the situation. The etiquette is not so strictly followed during unofficial family meals, but it is very important during special occasions and official events. Here are the basic rules of how to use chopsticks:

  • do not lick them;
  • do not stir food with them;
  • do not spear food with them;
  • do not point at people with them;
  • do not use unmatched sticks;
  • do not use one chopstick at a time;
  • do not wash them in your beverage or soup;
  • do not hold them in the middle or the front third;
  • do not leave them crossed on the plate or table;
  • use a chopstick rest (hashi-oki), if you have one;
  • do not leave them sticking upright in the rice bowl;
  • do not shovel food directly from your rice bowl into your mouth;
  • do not pass food directly from one pair of chopsticks to another;
  • do not keep them in your mouth while doing something with your hands;
  • do not pick food from a shared plate with an individual pair of chopsticks;
  • do not rub the disposable wooden chopsticks after you break them apart;
  • when not eating lay the chopsticks in front of you with the tips pointing to the left.

FAQ

Do the Japanese use chopsticks?

Yes, they are everyday eating utensils in Japan.

How to say chopsticks in Japanese?

“Hashi” is the Japanese word for chopsticks.

Why do the Japanese use chopsticks?

Just like Western cultures use fork and knife nowadays, the same is the case for chopsticks in Japan. Having entered the Japanese cuisine around the 9th century, these utensils are indispensible part of the Japanese table traditions.

Are chopsticks Japanese?

Although originating in China, the use of chopsticks spreads in Japan around the 8th century AD.

Do the Japanese eat sushi with chopsticks?

Yes, sushi is traditionally eaten with chopsticks.

Why are Japanese chopsticks pointed?

The ends of the sticks are tapered because it helps to prevent the food from slipping away.