By far the most common you are likely to get from Japanese people, especially those who have limited or no experience in western countries, is “Can you use chopsticks?”
For a less-than-fluent English speaker, this is often the easiest question to ask, and many Japanese are unaware of the prevalence of chopsticks in households and restaurants throughout the rest of the world.
However, in Japan, the more important issue is not how to use chopsticks, but how to NOT use them. Here are three handy rules for handling them like a native:
1. Never leave chopsticks sticking up vertically in your food
Buddhists funeral rites involve placing a pair of chopsticks vertically in a bowl of uncooked rice. Doing the same at a dinner table in Japan is a major faux pas. Think of any scene in a gangster movie involving a dead fish and you get the idea. Higher-end restaurants will have a chopstick rest at the table for you to use. If not, lay them across your bowl or plate. However…
2. Don’t leave your chopsticks pointing directly toward another person at your table.
This is a smaller rule and often ignored, but it’s considered impolite to leave your chopsticks pointed at anyone you are dining with. With traditional table settings, the chopsticks will be set parallel to the side of the table so as to avoid this, and circular tables are never used in Japanese restaurants. Set your chopsticks parallel to side of the table rather than perpendicularly facing another member of your party.
3. Do not pass food with chopsticks directly
Another Buddhist funeral rite involves two people passing the cremated bones of the deceased directly between two pairs of chopsticks. If you do need to pass food, it’s acceptable to place it on a small plate or let the other person take it directly from yours.
Now, you can say “itadakimasu” (a polite word said before eating) with more confidence!