Tag Archives: chopsticks

Musubis and Chopsticks

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.

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.

A Chinese Chopstick Custom and Folk Belief

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).

Custom – Chinese


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.  They’re nothing special like the 5 pronged fork or the sharp edged knife.  Rather, they’re 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.