Japan: Rules of no offense at the dinner table | Asia | An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW

For two simple pieces of wood about 25 cm long each, Japanese “hashi” – or chopsticks – can cause a lot of misunderstanding and even offence.

Chopsticks are believed to have been first used in China during the Xia Dynasty, the period from 470 B.C. to 1600 B.C., before gradually spreading throughout East Asia.

According to scientists, the world was subsequently divided into three “cultural spheres”: eating with fingers, knives and forks or chopsticks.

Chopsticks technology has evolved over time

With chopsticks becoming increasingly popular among the people of Japan, artisans have elevated simple double sticks of wood or bamboo into an art form, with elegant lacquer designs adorned with mother-of-pearl or inlaid with metal.

At the same time, very specific rules emerged regarding how to hold chopsticks, what they should be used for, and most importantly, what they should be used for. Start Can be used at the dinner table.

And in Japanese society, meal times are extremely important.

Historical respect for food

“Historically Japan was an agricultural society, so most people subsisted by growing rice and vegetables,” says Mark Matsumoto, host of the NHK cooking program “Bento Expo” and co-author of the book “Ultimate Bento.”

“As producers of food, these early Japanese people gave respect to food,” he said. “Japanese family structures are also heavily influenced by Confucian ideals, so there is a strong sense of filial piety. It is not uncommon – even today – for families to live in a multigenerational family. The people within the family will go about their lives separately, but meal times are when the family comes together.” .

Rice bowl, natto and chopsticks

Eating certain foods with chopsticks is often easier than eating a knife and fork

The idea that the knife, fork and spoon are “better” tools for eating, Matsumoto says, “is a very Western way of thinking.”

“If you want to argue about the benefit, there is no easier way to eat than using your hands, and people in many cultures around the world still eat that way,” he points out. “The pots came out as an extension of our hands and fingers, so we didn’t have to get them dirty.

“As an extension of our fingers, I can’t think of an easier-to-use app than chopsticks,” he told DW. “Of course, like any utensil, chopsticks have weaknesses – like soup – but for the kinds of foods consumed in Japan, I don’t see forks or spoons replacing chopsticks.

“In fact, I see chefs using chopsticks in the kitchen more and more as an alternative to tongs or tongs because they are more precise.”

chopsticks etiquette

And just as it would be rude to slap your lips on a table in the West, Matsumoto says manners are required when eating with chopsticks. However, it is extensive and potentially overwhelming for the uninitiated.

Agebashi, i.e. raising chopsticks above the height of the mouth, is considered bad. Like “okibashi,” or holding a bowl for the second serving while still holding the chopsticks, “uchibashi” means dropping chopsticks, and “oshikomibashi,” which translates as using utensils to push food deep into one’s mouth.

Other false items on the extensive menu include “kakibashi”, or putting one’s mouth to the side of a plate and scraping food with chopsticks, and “kamibashi”, which means biting off chopsticks, while usually “kosuribashi” – or rubbing food with chopsticks. which can be discarded together to remove any splinters – considered intermediate because they indicate that the host provided poor quality utensils.

There are at least 40 eating stick maneuvers to avoid, but there are two that will cause a certain insult.

“Tatebashi” is the mistake of placing chopsticks upright in a bowl of rice, the way the dish is served as an offering at a Buddhist funeral. Likewise taboo is ‘wasabashi’, which means transferring food from one pair of chopsticks to those used by another, and is usually part of the traditional cremation ceremony in which family members pick up the bones and pass them to each other. A sign of respect.

“It is very important to eat in a way that does not offend others,” said Maki Ogawa, a chef who collaborates with Matsumoto on both the TV cooking show and the bento book, and is the author of cuteobento.blog.

A chef at his restaurant in Tokyo

Experts doubt that Japanese food will be eaten with knives and forks

Nature’s blessings

“My parents taught me the manners of chopsticks when I was a kid, and I just passed it on to my kids,” she said.

She noted that “Japanese people respect nature and have been grateful for its blessings for a long time,” adding that saying “itadakimasu”—which literally means “I receive humbly” at the beginning of the meal—and “gochisusama,” or “thank you for the meal was a feast” at the end, Expressing gratitude for the food, nature and the person who prepared it.

“Eating together strengthens family bonds,” Ogawa said. “Talking about today’s events is a good opportunity for kids to learn eating etiquette, such as how to hold chopsticks and plates.”

And while Japanese hosts welcome mastering the basics of dining etiquette, Ogawa says there are always solutions at hand.

“I don’t think the Japanese really care that foreigners can’t use chopsticks well,” she said. “We Japanese may not be good with knives and forks either. And if anyone can’t use chopsticks well, they can always ask for a fork.”

Edited by: Srinivas Mazumdaro

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