Chopsticks in Japanese folklore, ritual, and food culture
Most of us raised in the larger population centres of North America are at least passingly familiar with chopsticks as the exotic and, for some, confounding eating utensil (a few of my friends have sworn them off, out of frustration) traditional to Asian cuisine. What most of us in the west aren’t familiar with, however, is the lesser-known place of importance that chopsticks occupy in the material culture of Japanese religion. In Japan, chopsticks are connected with Shinto folklore and kami worship, as well as funeral rites.
Modern chopsticks are thought by archaeologists to have developed from kanabasami – tweezer-like utensils made of iron. These were among the items, like sake, offered to kami in ceremonial rituals. The belief was that when chopsticks were offered to a kami, its spirit inhabited the chopsticks, allowing it to dine with the humans. These offered chopsticks, are thought to have been what are known as ryokuchi-bashi, two sticks of white wood heavy in the centre and tapered at both ends. Most often, the wood used in the construction of the ryokuchi-bashi would be willow, from the ancient belief of the wood’s resistance to evil spirits and impurities. Also, due to the fact that it’s leaves form earlier in the spring then others, the willow is considered a lucky tree. Remnants of these beliefs subsist in modern Japanese food culture; the concept of a god inhabiting a pair of chopsticks with its vital energy and spirit, thus allowing their user to be imbued with this divine power, is likely the reason why special ryokuchi-bashi chopsticks are, to this day, used in weddings, new years celebrations, and other important festivals and feasts (Warrant 12). We see, in these traditional beliefs, chopsticks acting as a bridge between gods and humans, and accordingly the modern Japanese word for chopsticks, hashi (箸), means “bridge.”
Chopsticks are also important in traditional Japanese funeral rites, in the ritual treatment of the cremated remains. A blogger’s account of his grandfather’s traditional Japanese funeral details a ceremony in which the guests were offered a pair of mismatched chopsticks (one stick of wood and one of bamboo), and each encouraged to pick up, with the chopsticks, the bone fragments leftover following the cremation, transferring them to the urn in this way, starting with the feet to ensure the upright orientation of the body within the urn. Here, again, we see the effect of these rituals on common food culture: it is taboo to use mismatched chopsticks when eating. Other food-related taboos in Japan most likely related to the chopsticks use in the cremation ritual include the faux pas of passing of food directly from one person’s chopsticks to another’s – this resembles a ritual described in some funeral accounts of the bones being passed between guests in this way – and the taboo of sticking chopsticks in a bowl of rice and leaving them in a vertical position, which could come from a resemblance either to the customary incense offering in Buddhist funerals, or to the way in which a departed family member’s personal pair of chopsticks is stuck in the bowl of uncooked rice placed upon the family altar as an offering.
Chopsticks have been used in Japan since about the 8th century, so it is not surprising that they should have such significance. In Japan chopsticks are more than just simple eating utensils; they are important objects of tradition.
If you are one of those who have not yet mastered chopstick use or etiquette, and are inclined to participate in this aspect of Japanese culture, there are some links below to instructional resources on the subject.
Article on chopstick etiquette and use.
Instructional video on chopstick use.
The blog link to the full article containing a detailed account of a Japanese funeral.
~ guest blogger, Will Fox