Japanese Food: Bridging The Gap
Japan's Chopsticks 箸
by Alan J. Wiren
What do you usually eat with?
If your answer is not, "My hands," then you belong to one of two minorities on this planet. Thirty percent of us usually eat with cutlery. Another thirty percent use chopsticks.
How the Japanese began to use chopsticks is a subject of debate. Some say chopsticks wended their way, along with other facets of culture, from China, through Korea, to Japan around the sixth century AD. Others, that they were brought directly back to Japan by an imperial envoy at a somewhat later date. In any case, like many things that came from China to Japan, chopsticks were initially revered.
The Japanese word for "chopsticks" is hashi which is a homophone with the Japanese word meaning "bridge". The concept of chopsticks providing a bridge is a recurring motif in Japanese culture, reflected in distinctive shapes and materials that vary with the occasions of their use.
In their early history, Japanese chopsticks provided a bridge between the human and the divine. Rather than for taking ordinary meals, they were used, at first, for sharing food with the gods. It was believed that when a pair of chopsticks was offered to a deity, the chopsticks became inhabited by that deity. When those chopsticks were used to eat the food that was offered along with them, mortal and immortal dined together.
Unlike their Chinese precursors, of uniform thickness, Japanese chopsticks are tapered along their length. The chopsticks used for ceremonial purposes are tapered on both ends. Akira Izu explained when I visited his chopstick museum in Kyoto, "The gods said, 'One end is for you, the other is for us.'"
This kind of ceremonial chopstick is still in use in Japan, today. One venue is the formal tea ceremony. The form of the tea ceremony was crystallized by the seventeenth century tea master, Senno Rikyu, who prescribed a light meal before sharing tea. It is said that Rikyu would carve new chopsticks, himself, from a fresh block of cedar before his guests would arrive. These had tapered, rounded ends and a squared off middle section so as to be held easily. This style of chopsticks still bears Rikyu's name and is used for the tea ceremony and in many restaurants.
You will also find ceremonial chopsticks used in Japanese homes during New Year celebrations. They are made from light colored wood, with a round cross-section throughout. It is common, at a big family gathering, for each member to receive his or her own set of these chopsticks to use throughout the holiday period. Following the holidays these chopsticks are often taken to a temple and burned in a fire maintained for that purpose.
The custom of individuals using their own pair of chopsticks is not only for the holidays. Chopsticks gradually took their place, in Japan, as a bridge between serving vessels and the mouth in ordinary meals. Unlike Chinese families, who keep a collection of a dozen or so identical chopsticks in a box or a large cup on the dining table, Japanese families tend to keep personal pairs of chopsticks for each family member.
Japanese chopsticks for every day use are tapered at only the end used to grasp the food, and can be found in vast variety. At the beginning of the seventeenth century the people of Wakasa (an area along the Japan Sea coast) began to apply lacquer to chopsticks. This made them more slippery, but longer lasting. Lacquered chopsticks from Wakasa are among the most traditional styles. They may be dusted with powdered seashells, or coated with several layers of different colored lacquer which are then sanded through to produce multicolored patterns. Other prefectures produce chopsticks featuring the materials or techniques they are known for such as inlays of shells or intricate carving techniques.
Modern designs may include your astrological sign (Eastern or Western), the flora or fauna of the seasons, or popular animation characters. Some stores in Japan are devoted exclusively to the sale of chopsticks. They offer various designs for eating foods ranging from needle sharp points for fish, to spiraled tips for spaghetti, to almost paddle-like ends for ochazuke (rice covered with green tea).
You can find chopsticks made of ivory, bone, or plastic, but wood is the most common material. Willow is often chosen for a wedding gift because it is long lasting. The Yoshino area, in Nara prefecture, is known for its cedar forests and as the origin of waribashi, "disposable chopsticks". During the seventeenth century, Yoshino was a production center for sake barrels and began turning the leftover scraps into the kind of chopsticks that are now commonly found in restaurants all over the nation. Waribashi are made from a single piece of wood, partially split in the middle. The end user completes the splitting by pulling apart the two halves.
There is some controversy over disposable chopsticks. Some argue that, since they are made, even today, from scrap wood, they pose no threat to the environment. While this is true of waribashi made in Japan, it is estimated that ninety percent of the disposable chopsticks used in Japan are made in China, where trees are harvested for that single purpose.
A recent invention has eased the minds of both those who are concerned with the preservation of natural resources and those who feel squeamish about chopsticks that have been previously used by strangers. Tsunagibashi (literally "connecting chopsticks") are chopsticks with a socket halfway through their length so they cam be taken apart and fit into a convenient carrying case, to go anywhere with their owners. Connecting chopsticks are a thoughtful souvenir for the eco-friendly traveler.
Japanese chopsticks have also been made from silver and gold, especially for use in royal households where food tasters were employed. There was a time when it was believed precious metals would turn black when in contact with certain poisons. Japan's royalty may have lost some of its food tasters to this myth.
And speaking of death brings us back to the ceremonial use of chopsticks. Cremation is nearly universal in modern-day, Japanese funerals. The body, however, is not reduced entirely to ash. It is customary for the extended family to transfer the bones of the deceased into an urn with chopsticks. Funerary chopsticks are tapered at only one end, but are quite different for those used at table. One is made from bamboo and one from wood, representing the elements of water and fire, thus creating a bridge between this world and the next.
In the Japanese way of thinking, there is a lingering sense of the divine in any pair of chopsticks. A pair of your own, inhabited by memories made in Japan, can bridge the gap between the present and the past.
Other articles on Japan by Alan Wiren
'To the Winner Goes the Eye': Katsuoji Temple