Image-conscious Japanese go back to class to learn how to hold chopsticks properly

TOKYO (Yomiuri Shimbun/Asia News Network) - Japanese concerned about etiquette or their image are going back to the basics when it comes to eating: learn how to hold chopsticks in a way their parents or grandparents would approve.

An increasing number of adults are signing up for seminars which teach them how to properly hold chopsticks, or buying specially designed chopsticks to correct their grip.

Many of them had failed to master the handling of chopsticks as children, and are now spurred to make up for it by the rising popularity of Japanese-style meals both at home and abroad.

One night at the end of September, a chopsticks seminar was held at an office building in central Tokyo.

"Place one chopstick between the thumb and index finger, and place your middle finger under the top chopstick," instructed lecturer Kumiko Nanbu to the stern-faced attendees. Nanbu holds seminars in various places in cooperation with a chopstick maker.

One of the participants, a 27-year-old female company employee from Koshigaya, Saitama Prefecture, admitted: "I'm not very good with chopsticks so I always order Western food and eat with a fork. I'd like to elegantly eat washoku (Japanese cuisine) using chopsticks."

In a similar vein, a 33-year-old man and company employee from Kawasaki revealed he decided to attend the seminar because "I feel ashamed I can't use chopsticks properly whenever I have business lunches or dinners."

Washoku was added to UNESCO's Intangible Cultural Heritage list in December last year. With increasing popularity overseas, washoku has been reevaluated in Japan for its good nutritional balance and beautiful appearance.

"Since washoku is attracting attention, people are becoming more conscious about the way they hold their chopsticks," Nanbu said.

Indeed, chopsticks seem to be a hot topic. Nihombo, a Tokyo-based chopsticks specialty store, held a chopsticks lesson targeting adults this summer in cooperation with a restaurant - the event was so popular that some people were placed on a waiting list. Visitors can make appointments there to have free chopstick-holding lessons.

J. F. Oberlin University in Machida, western Tokyo, holds annual open lectures on how to use chopsticks.

At Loft, a chain store offering everyday commodities headquartered in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo, practice chopsticks with indented grips are selling well. The store says they're popular with people in their 20s to 40s. "I'm hoping to correct the ungainly way I use chopsticks as I'm going to meet my future parents-in-law" and "I want to teach my friends overseas how to use chopsticks", are two of the reasons frequently cited by the customers for buying the product.

Maebashi-based chopsticks specialty store Hashikyu sells corrective chopsticks for adults via mail order, and says they sell about 500 pairs every year.

A Cabinet Office survey in 2009 showed that only 54 percent of 1,820 respondents aged 18 and older knew how to properly hold their chopsticks.

A member of the Japan Hashi Culture Association, a Tokyo-based private organization that hosts Hashi Kentei, a test to examine people's knowledge about chopsticks, said, "Since Western food that doesn't require chopsticks has prevailed in Japan, adults who are unable to hold chopsticks properly have increased."

Kazuko Okuda, a professor emeritus at Konan Women's University and author of "Hashi no Saho" (Chopsticks manners), says people "who hold chopsticks properly can eat elegantly because their movement when they pick up and hold food is smooth. It's never too late, especially for adults, so I hope they (those that cannot use chopsticks properly) learn how to use them correctly."

GUIDE TO HOLDING CHOPSTICKS RIGHT

Hyozaemon, a long-established chopsticks maker in Obama, Fukui Prefecture, tells us how to hold chopsticks properly.

Hold chopsticks about two-thirds from the end. The upper chopstick should be held by grasping it between the thumb and index finger, and support the chopstick underneath using the middle finger. The lower chopstick should be held in place between the base of the thumb and the index finger and pinky. The middle finger should rest between the upper and lower chopsticks.

When using chopsticks, only the upper chopstick should be moved. Imagine moving the chopstick by pushing it up with the middle finger and pulling it down with the index finger.