Japanese Culture: Chopsticks

Transcribed Text:

“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.