How to Use Chopsticks Like a Japanese Native

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Chopsticks have been a part of East Asian culture for over 3000 years. Whether you’re in China, Korea, Vietnam, or Japan, it’s essential to know how to use chopsticks for a truly authentic dining experience. That being said, mastery of chopsticks can also be useful outside of that region in restaurants, for home meals, or for cooking East Asian dishes.

However, it can definitely be tough to use a pair of chopsticks when you haven’t grown up with them. So whether it’s to enjoy a Japanese meal, impress friends and loved ones, or prepare for a trip, take a look at this step-by-step guide on how to use chopsticks properly.

How to use chopsticks

A guide to holding chopsticks with a hand in four different positions, going from holding nothing to holding two chopsticks and a salmon roll
To help with the learning process, this picture guide is here to help show the steps. Image via Shutterstock

Step 1: The bottom chopstick

Open your dominant hand. Take one of the chopsticks and place the top of it in the nook between your pointer finger and thumb. Then, bend your ring and pinky fingers, and rest the length of the chopstick on your ring finger. This chopstick will remain stationary no matter what.

Step 2: The upper chopstick

Take the second chopstick and hold it between your thumb, index finger, and middle finger. The index and middle fingers will always stay together. It often helps to think of this step like holding a pencil.

Step 3: Open and close the chopsticks

To pick up anything, open your chopsticks by lifting the top one along with your pointer (index) and middle fingers. Close them by moving the same fingers back down. Your thumb may bend slightly, but won’t move much. 

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Step 4: Pick up the food and enjoy

Now that you’ve mastered opening and closing your chopsticks, it’s time to start picking up pieces of food. Open your chopsticks large enough to fit around one piece, then simply close them and pinch the food. Pick it up, bring it to your mouth, and enjoy!

Tips and Tricks

Three women enjoy eating yakiniku at a restaurant while smiling and laughing.
Chopsticks, no matter the length, should be held closer to the top for freedom of movement. Image via Shutterstock

If you are still having trouble, there are a few tips that may help to make it much easier.

When holding the chopsticks, don’t hold them too tightly. Doing so can actually cause items to slip from in between them. Even worse, you may just end up cutting softer foods, like yokan (Japanese jelly candy) in half before it reaches your mouth. Plus, it can tire out your hand.

Also, be aware of where you are gripping your chopsticks. You should actually be holding them only one-third of the way down from the top. Holding it too far down just makes it more difficult and limits your range of motion. You also run the risk of landing your hand in the food.

Don’t be intimidated by hard to eat foods like rice or beans. For one thing, unlike Western table manners, in Japan, it’s totally acceptable to pick up your plate and bring it closer to your mouth. Second, if it’s too difficult to grab, it’s also okay to use the chopsticks to politely shovel the food into your mouth. Even veterans struggle with foods like these sometimes and use that technique. 

Chopsticks Don’ts

A woman's hand stabs a sushi roll with her chopsticks in a restaurant.
It may be tempting at first, but stabbing your food is rude at Japanese table. Image via Shutterstock

After learning how to master chopsticks, it’s important to note some very important cultural rules around them. These rules apply to any Japanese table, and, although many Japanese people will forgive these missteps, you don’t want to ruin the mood.

Some of the larger chopstick mistakes are based on Japanese funeral traditions. Passing things from chopsticks to chopsticks may seem like an easier way to pass food, but doing so is associated with funerals and should be avoided. Instead, offer up the plate itself to the other person so they can take it themselves. 

Another big mistake is sticking your chopsticks upright in your food. This action is also related to funerals and the dead. When you’re not using them, just lay them down. Japanese table settings usually have chopstick rests or a tray where you can lay them. 

Some people can make a rest out of paper chopstick wrappers. Failing those options, lay them on the edge of a dish. In any case, you should lay them with the tip facing to your left.

Some other bad manners include stabbing your food, pointing at others, or using your chopsticks to grab food from communal plates. Stabbing your food and pointing at others are just rude in general, with school children often being scolded for doing so by their parents and teachers. For communal plates, just flip your utensil around and use the top, or use an extra pair just for sharing.

Chopsticks may not come naturally to those who weren’t raised with them, but they can be easily mastered with these tips and a lot of practice. So pick up your chopsticks at your next Japanese meal and give it a try.

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