Using chopsticks in the right way is an important part of Japanese dining etiquette. Holding them in the right way is seen as an impossible task by many. Indeed, they are simple tools that are hard to master. This guide will give you a kickstart.
When I first came to Japan in 2009 I was barely able to use chopsticks. I was able to work out how to use them rather quickly, so luckily, I survived. When I was staying at my girlfriend’s parent’s house for the first time five years later however, her father told me that I was using them wrong. I was holding them only with my thumb, index and middle finger, which is, as I then learned, not the appropriate way.
Using chopsticks wrong is like holding a fork with a fist – it makes you look unsophisticated, like a person that never received a proper introduction into table manners. Now, since you’re a foreigner, you probably indeed never received this introduction and will be forgiven. Nevertheless, being able to eat elegantly is a good way to respectfully honor the excellent Japanese cuisine.
So let’s have a look at how it should be done.
1. A solid foundation
The lower chopstick is the powerful foundation. During eating, it does barely move but provide a platform for the upper chopstick to push against.
2. The moving stick
The chopstick placed at the top is the one that does the movement.
3. Move them
Move the top chopstick up by applying pressure with the middle finger and down by applying pressure with the index finger.
4. Use them
Just like most things you have to practice. For example try eating some rice. You will notice that the further back you grab the chopsticks, the more rice you can pick up.
Also, try to separate some meat patty (ハンバグ) or fish. I found this the most difficult, especially for the latter.
Extra: Learning the right amount of pressure
For me it was difficult at first to apply the right amount of pressure when eating and my hand often felt stiff after larger meals. What I found especially useful was to grab the chopstick as far back as possible. This will give you the possibility to learn how little pressure actually is necessary to grab something.
Now, when sitting in a high class sushi restaurant for the first time, there will be one less thing you need to worry about and you are free to focus on the rest of Japanese dining etiquette.