Chopsticks Faux Pas and Other Cultural Land Mines in Japan

Travel Blog  •  Terry Ward  •  07.11.07 | 12:47 PM ET

imageI try to be sensitive to cultural customs while traveling abroad but inevitably find my American-ness shining through. I can only imagine what cultural land mines await me in a traditional country like Japan. An insightful piece in the International Herald Tribune looks at the country’s subtle etiquette code from the viewpoint of a Japanese woman readjusting to her country’s norms after spending many years abroad. From “faux pas chopstick maneuvers” to dealing with her runny nose on a crowded train (in Japan, blowing your nose in public is the epitome of bad manners), Kumiko Makihara often finds herself overcompensating in an attempt to avoid offense.

She writes: “From the proper degree of a bow (15 to 45 degrees depending on occasion) to how a lady eats a rice cracker (broken by hand into bite size pieces with handkerchief on lap), a complex and subtle etiquette code dictates the proper way to do everything in Japan.”

Chopsticks are another matter altogether:

On several occasions I’ve seen foreigners striking wooden chopsticks against each other, smug that they know how to smooth off any splinters. That’s actually a crass gesture. These people probably don’t know that there are more than 30 faux pas chopsticks maneuvers each with their proper term like sucking and wandering.

Kumiko’s piece called to mind the book “Japanland” by Karen Muller, which I reviewed for World Hum back in 2005.

Armed with both women’s insights, I can feel at least a little better prepared if I’m lucky enough to find myself in Japan one of these days.

Related on World Hum:
* Bambi Roll, Anyone? Inside Japan’s Sushi Crisis.
* Japan’s Mount Fuji: Icon, Garbage Dump
* The Hot New Trend in Japanese Cuisine: 500-Year-Old Kaiseki

Photo by Guillermo Ruiz de Loizaga via Flickr, (Creative Commons).

Tags: Asia, Japan

Terry Ward

Terry Ward is a Florida-based writer and a long-time contributor to World Hum.

4 Comments for Chopsticks Faux Pas and Other Cultural Land Mines in Japan

jv 07.11.07 | 3:22 PM ET

Great find, Terry.

What I find oddest is that after spending some time in Japan, these norms can rub off on you—even as a foreigner, and even if we don’t “get” everything.

To this day, I have an almost physical reaction when I see someone rubbing their chopsticks together or sticking their chopsticks in rice. It’s like fingernails on a chalkboard. Why? I can’t explain it ...

Julia Ross 07.11.07 | 10:45 PM ET

Thanks for this, Terry. I wonder how much chopsticks etiquette varies by country. In Taiwan, I noticed early on that everyone rubs their chopsticks together to smooth off splinters before they begin a meal. Now I do it without thinking twice. Next time I’m in Japan, I’ll have to refrain.

joseph liang 08.07.07 | 12:53 AM ET

i wonder what is the proper way of removing splinters from the disposable wood chopsticks in japan? can someone tell me?

Shane Hopkins 11.11.08 | 8:11 PM ET


If they’re disposable, it usually is OK to rub them together. I think the problem is that when you’re at a dignified restaurant, to suggest that the host may be providing you with unsatisfactory utensils is very rude.

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