Folk Beliefs

Chopstick Etiquette – Japanese Folk Belief

Informant: “I don’t remember exactly when I heard this; I think it must’ve been sometime in elementary school a few years after my grandpa died and was cremated. I was at a sushi restaurant and I wanted my brother’s tuna roll, so I was about to take the roll from where he was offering it to me with his chopsticks, when my mom turned to us and said, “Don’t do that,” really seriously, and I remember being kind of scared. Apparently in Japan, it’s really bad to transfer food from chopstick to chopstick, because, in the cremation rituals at a funeral, family members transfer the deceased’s bones from chopstick to chopstick, and that parallel gives the food a tinge of death. So now, usually, when I find myself about to receive food with my chopsticks from someone else’s chopsticks, I stop, get them to put the food on a plate, so that I can pick it up from the plate instead of from them. This is widely known across Japan, and probably the only reason why I didn’t know of it till later in my elementary school years was because I’d been living in America for so long. According to one of my friends in Japan, it’s one of the first things they touch you in Japan when they teach you how to use chopsticks.”

My informant was born in Okinawa, Japan, and lived there until she was five, before moving to America. She speaks English to her brother but primarily Japanese within her family, because her parents don’t speak much English. She lives at USC currently, and with her family in Irvine.

The parallel between a death and eating ritual is particularly interesting. That the same items used for eating is also used in transferring the funeral urn lends itself to possibly a culture who has a more circular conception of life and death. Food itself is what keeps the wheel of life turning every day, so for that to be paralleled with death implies some sort of  circularity.

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