KM is a third-generation Japanese-American from Los Angeles, CA. She now lives in Pasadena, CA with her husband and 18-year-old son.
KM gave me some insight on chopstick etiquette that was passed down from her Japanese parents:
“So in Japan, when you’re eating rice with chopsticks, or really anything which chopsticks, you NEVER rest them by sticking them straight up in your food. It looks like the number 4 spelled out, and in Japanese culture 4 is a very unlucky number – it means death. If you go to Japan you’ll never find anything grouped or sold in 4s, it’s just superstition, like how in America people are scared of the number 13. Also, you never point your chopsticks at people, like if you’re talking at the dinner table. It’s rude, and a little threatening.”
Many cultures have different traditions surrounding food and table etiquette, and this folk belief offers insight into utensil practices many American might not be familiar with. While Asian cuisine is not absent here, it’s often transformed over time by the influence of other places, or even other Asian cultures (like common Japanese-Korean fusion). People from all over use chopsticks, but it’s important to be aware of protocol observed by those whose heritage is more authoritative.
Apparently, chopsticks stuck straight-up in rice also imitate incense sticks on the altar at a funeral, another symbol of death or bad luck. Oftentimes people avoid mixing their foodways with death imagery, compounded by the prevalence of rice in Japanese meals.
I also think it’s interesting that the subject is Japanese-American, and three generations removed at that. Seeing which customs are continued when a family emigrates shows both their cultural and individual values, or superstitions that for some reason or another “stick” in places where they’re not observed.
Informant Background: The informant was born in Los Angeles. His family is originally from Taiwan. He grew up with his parents and grandparents who still speak Chinese, he does too. Many of his relatives are in Los Angeles so they all still practice a lot of Taiwanese/Chinese traditions and celebrate all the Chinese holiday such as: Chinese New Year, Ancestry day, Chinese Ghost day, etc. He said his family still hold many Chinese folk-beliefs and superstitions. He also travels back once in a while to visit his other relatives who are still back in Taiwan.
If you hold your chopstick close to the tip, you will never leave your family and stay at home with your parents forever. If you hold toward the end, you will probably run away from your family and never see them again. If you hold toward the middle, you will have a happy medium between creating your own life and your original family.
The informant stated that is one of many Chinese folk-beliefs around the dining table. The informant learned about this through his parents. This is meant as a way to teach children to hold their chopsticks properly.
I believe Chinese culture value and respect their ancestor and older generation greatly. The value and respect can also become overpowering to some. To stay at home forever is fear by many because it hints that they would never get married and start their own life. To not have any ties left is unconventional in Chinese culture and sometimes can be seen as undesirable when your family ties are weak or non-existence. To hold the chopstick at the middle is to have, as the informant said, a happy medium of both older wisdom and new knowledge.
This belief shows the important of marriage as a life transitional period. Marriage changes a person’s identity of him/herself, identity within the community, and identity with his/her own family. In this case it is either a presence or absence of marriage that dictates the person’s faith.
This folk belief reminds me of Goldilocks and the three bears where in the three options lies a happy medium between the two undesirable extremes. It also resonates with the idea of the number three: in this case three option of too much, too little, and just enough.
I do agree with the informant that this can be a way for parents to teach their children proper table manner through these folk-beliefs. Chopsticks are use in every meal in a Chinese cuisine so it is an important everyday habit to hold it properly. This also shows how folklore can exist in everyday life through association to common everyday activities.
Informant Background: This individual was born and grew up in Hawaii. His family is of Japanese and Chinese descent. He speaks Japanese and English. His family still practice many Japanese traditions, also many Chinese traditions. They celebrate some of the Japanese holidays. Many of the folk-beliefs and superstitious are still practiced. His relatives who are Japanese lives in Hawaii as well. He currently lives in Los Angeles to attend college.
Japanese rice balls, called Musibi, are never made as a perfect circle. They are can be in other geometric shapes. Because the spherical Musibi are made at funeral, so it is bad omen to make them in that shape out of context. That is why it is common to see them in triangular shape. You also cannot put your chopstick vertically into your bowl of rice or any food because that is what you do with candles and incent sticks at a funeral. You also cannot pass food from chopstick to chopstick. You’re supposed to put it down on a plate for the other person to pick it up….This is because during funeral people would sometimes pass the bones of the deceased by using chopstick…If you do any of these things, you will have bad luck and something bad will happen to someone close to you.
The informant is from Hawaii but his family is originally from Japan. So he practices many Japanese traditions. These practices he learned from his parents and grandparents growing up as things that you must not do simply because it is only reserve for funeral time.
I never realized why the Japanese rice balls at restaurants come in triangular shape until the informant told me about the tradition. From experience rice balls always come in triangular shape no matter how it’s cooked. It is common to see it through Japanese movies and cartoons as well.
I heard about not sticking chopsticks into rice bowls from people of Chinese descent because of the same reason. I also heard it from a tour guide while visiting Japan for the first time.
This belief reflects the importance of funeral as an event, an exclusive event. There are many beliefs and traditions surrounding it and specific things you do only during funerals. To do something you would do at a funeral in everyday life is then bringing yourself and the people around you bad omen. It is clearly reflect in these beliefs and practice which parallel everyday life activities.
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.
“In Japanese culture, if you’re eating with chopsticks, you shouldn’t put them straight up in your rice bowl, cuz it looks like um, the prayer incense sticks when you go pray to the dead. And also, you shouldn’t point your chopsticks at people, cuz that’s disrespectful.”
This is a Japanese belief and tradition with chopsticks. The informant says that she learned about this folk belief when she was about to go study abroad in Japan two years ago. The informant says that because chopsticks placed upright in a bowl of rice resembles incense sticks that are used to pray to the dead. This resemblance probably deterred the Japanese from doing this with their chopsticks no matter how convenient it is, as to associate food and mealtime with death is not wanted. Furthermore, the informant says that pointing chopsticks at people is disrespectful, but does not know why exactly that is. The use of chopsticks is part of Japanese meal time etiquette, which can be rather elaborate depending on how casual the meal is. Even with casual meals, the Japanese are much stricter than many other cultures about keeping with food traditions, so it makes sense that these folk beliefs about chopsticks are very prominent for Japanese people. According to the Encyclopedia of Asian American Folklore, chopsticks shouldn’t be propped up in rice because that is how it is offered to the spirits and is a way to call the spirits to the person. In some extreme cases, some even believe that doing this wishes death upon one’s family.
The informant is an active bearer of this tradition, as she describes that whenever she uses chopsticks, she makes sure to actively never place them sticking up in the rice, and never points with them. She also mentions that it often irritates her when people not familiar with the Japanese tradition make the mistake, as she worded it, of doing that. She recounts that when her group mate did that while she was eating a meal with the informant, she did not say anything about it, but was very shocked.
My informant says this about her background:
“I was born in Connecticut, left when I was two months old, went to Taiwan. For elementary school, went to Hong Kong and went to Shanghai when I was starting middle school, and finished high school there. My parents are typical Taiwanese or Asian parents who only came to America for school and they don’t know that much about American culture and aren’t that great at English. So I was raised in a very “Asian” atmosphere/family.”
One time during dinner at a shopping mall, she brought this folk belief up, reprimanding one of her Caucasian friends for sticking his chopsticks vertically into his rice:
“If you stick chopsticks in the rice straight down into the rice bowl, it’s a bad, a very bad omen. It’s disrespectful because it’s like you’re putting incense on a grave and yeah, okay.”
Before I elaborate on this custom, I just wanted to talk about my own background first. I’m a third generation Chinese Taiwanese male student who was born in Taipei, Taiwan. I speak English and Chinese. I lived in Taipei for two years before moving to New Jersey, where I lived for seven years. After that, I returned to Taipei where I finished high school.
Returning to the topic at hand, in Chinese culture, it is customary to use incense as a way of communicating with spirits or as a way of indicating something is an offering to the spirits of our ancestors. My informant reprimanded her friend for sticking his chopsticks vertically into his rice because it is similar to putting incense on foodstuffs Chinese people offer in front of graves.
I grew up in a Chinese family too so I’ve heard this “rule” before. But, varied as folklore should be, the version my parents told me was that sticking chopsticks (or anything similar in shape to incense) in my rice would invite spirits to feast on the rice, which is at once disrespectful and uncanny–you wouldn’t want spirits eating your rice at the same time you are eating it.
She mentioned another folk belief right after talking about the chopstick “rule”:
“Ok, I heard this from my mom. So another thing is, depending on how far you hold the chopsticks [she picks up her chopsticks], so depending on how far you grip the chopsticks, it depends– they say that…this is for girls, like if you hold it like here [she notions to the bottom of the chopsticks], you’re going to be married off to some guy who lives really close to you and like vice versa, like if you hold it like super far they it’s like ‘oh, you’re going to be married to like, you know, to a distant country or something like that’. Like it depends on how far you hold the chopsticks [she notions to the top of the chopsticks] , like around the tip.”
While I never heard of this belief before, maybe because I am male, this website (a sort of online journal) has a writer who brings up the same belief: thestar. This belief reveals a heavy emphasis on marriage in Chinese culture, which seems to be targeted at young women, that is passed from parent to children or in this case, mother to daughter. My informant elaborated that she heard this from her mother when she, herself, was caught holding the chopsticks near the tip. Her mother lamented that my informant was going to be married far away from home. From that background, we can see that marrying and residing far away from home carries a certain stigma-like quality to the extent where parents will warn their children that they will marry away from home (home as in the sense of city, town or country).
Vickie Yang learned how to use chopsticks from an early age from her parents. Though she was born and raised in America, learning to use chopsticks was a basic skill that she was expected to learn as a Chinese American. She was taught that chopsticks were not just another method of eating but an important part of Asian culture. Using chopsticks gives a sense of pride to the user and instills a feeling of belonging. It also pays respect to the culture by acknowledging the differences between American and Asian traditions.
Chopsticks are an interesting reflection of the Asian culture. It illustrates the simplicity of Asian life while noting the delicate intricacies and detail often characterized of Asians. For example, the Chinese and Japanese are known for their traditions of meditating and taking walks in tea gardens lifestyles of pleasure and simplicity. However, they are also widely recognized for their skills in producing beautiful pieces of art with intricate designs and minute details. Likewise, chopsticks are a mix between simplicity and difficulty. Chopsticks are fairly simple in that they are merely two pieces of sticks. Theyre nothing special like the 5 pronged fork or the sharp edged knife. Rather, theyre merely 2 pieces of wood that can easily be made in nature from branches. However, chopsticks are also complex in that they can be difficult to use. It requires a degree of control by the hand and the correct manipulation of the fingers. The ability to use a chopstick, therefore, is not as widespread as the usage of forks and spoons. As a result, chopsticks remain a unique representation of the Asian culture.