Japanese take their chopsticks seriously, very seriously.
If you are dining with Japanese people, they will most likely understand that you do not know [all of] the rules. They will probably forgive you if you commit some major faux pas. However, knowing a little about the local manners really goes a long way in making friends, winning business and just being a good guest.
While learning all the rule may be impossible for some, knowing these simple rules gets you 99% of the way to perfect politeness:
1. Hold your chopsticks correctly
Easier said than done. Watch how other people are doing it and be patient with yourself.
If you truly wish to learn you should get in as much practice as you can. If anything, get one of those children’s training clips or the chopsticks themselves and use them at home for practice until you get it right.
You will find that when you hold them properly they are much easier to use anyway.
Do not stab any piece of food on the plate or bowl, or hold the chopsticks together in one hand like a spear or knife. Do not hold two chopsticks by grasping them in your fist. This resembles the stance of an attacker, or a very dangerous grandmother going to her knitting club. This is the ‘art’ of 握り箸, or Nigiri-bashi, in which you grip chopsticks tightly with one hand and then 刺し箸 （突き箸）, or Sashi-bashi (tsuki-bashi), where you then proceed to stick or stab the dish with chopsticks.
It may be your life’s mission to finish that piece of tofu that just refuses to cooperate with you and thus makes your quest that much harder. With tofu you really only get one shot, there is no second lifeline you can fall back on (without committing a taboo). Using very slight pressure, lightly lift from underneath and gently raise it to your awaiting mouth. If you did it right, you have completed your mission and may advance to the next level of chopstick masters. If you go for the middle of a block of tofu (especially with too much force) you might end up slicing it in half — and then you are done for.
2. Do not eat directly from common dishes
Take food from the shared dishes and place it on your own plate or bowl before eating it.
Personally, I never both with this rule too much, at least consciously that is, when I am around friends and family in Japan. Unless it is one of my Japanese sempai (upperclassman and/or senior), professor, or work colleague, I will usually just ignore this rue because everyone else does so as well. I do tend to do it subconsciously at times I have recently realised when I am out to eat with others, but not too often.
3. Use your chopstick holder
Many restaurants will in fact provide a chopstick holder, which looks like small wooden or ceramic block. When you are not using your chopsticks place them on the holder.
If the chopsticks are disposable (waribashi), the wooden ones you have to break apart yourself, you will not be given a holder most of the time.
However, you can actually make one from the wrapper of the chopsticks, whether by folding/wrapping the paper up to form the little block (or as closely resembled as possible haha) or just simply placing the chopsticks on top of the paper itself.
You can also place the chopsticks on top of a dish or bowl when you are not using it. Make sure to place the chopsticks together and not pointed directly at someone when you do this though. Some people, who are more ‘prim and proper’, so to speak, may also claim this as also being a chopstick taboo, but it is very common and most people find it perfectly okay. There is an actual taboo term for this, which is 渡し箸, or Watashi-bashi, though as previously stated most people do common break this rule all the time. It is up to you whether you want to do so as well or not. 😛
Chopsticks should never be placed upright in your rice as this resembles a ceremony performed at funerals in Japan. This is called 立て箸, or Tate-bashi.
4. Do not browse with your chopsticks
Do not hover your chopsticks over all the dishes when thinking what you want. This is considered greedy. This is both そら箸, or Sora-bashi: Not grabbing any food even though you brought chopsticks near the dish; and 迷い箸, or Mayoi-bashi: Roaming chopsticks around plates wondering what to eat next.
5. Do not dig
Take food from the top of the dish. Do not dig in the dish looking for something good.
It is usually okay, in most situations nowadays at least, to stir food in a bowl, such as gyudon (beef bowls) or the likes, when you add in new ingredients or sauce to get it spread around, though there are also some people who stick by the rule down to a “T” and forbid this, so do try to avoid doing this around your superiors to be on the safe side.
This is called 探り箸, or Saguri-bashi in most cases. The term itself implies that you are attempting to look for ingredients that you like or to see what is in the bowl, which is why there is a very fine line when it comes to stirring in the added ingredients, and needs to be taken on a case-by-case basis.
6. Do not lick
Do not lick the ends of chopsticks, which are calledねぶり箸, or Neburi-bashi. It is said to also bear a resemblance to the malnourished in developing countries and is frowned upon.
No matter how tempted you are to get that pesky grain of rice stuck to the end or the savour the taste of that delicious sauce, fight the temptation!
7. Be careful giving food to others
The taboo of 移し箸 （拾い箸）, or Utsushi-bashi (hiroi-bashi). Never share food by passing from chopsticks to chopsticks because this resembles a custom at Japanese funerals when cremated bones are ceremoniously transfered to the urn. This is probably the biggest taboo at the Japanese dinner table. You can transfer food using your chopsticks to someone else’s plate but get them to pass the plate to you if it is a distance. Ideally you would ask the server for another pair of chopsticks that are placed in the center of the table and used whenever someone needs to transfer food for another person.
8. Chopsticks are not a toy
Do not point with your chopsticks when talking or hold them for extended periods of time without eating. This is the equivalent of you being the instigator of World War III or calling for someone’s firstborn child as a blood feud. Okay, maybe not that extreme…but nevertheless it is considered to be extremely rude and in essence has the implication of you having some sort of beef (unfortunately not the edible kind) with someone. Pointing at someone in general, without chopsticks, is usually seen as an act aggression in Japan. So you can imagine that using your chopsticks to do so is tantamount to declaring war.
It is the perfect way to get yourself out of that terrible job you’ve be wishing to quit for weeks now though if you point them at your boss!
Never rub the chopsticks together repeatedly after you break them apart because it is a sign that you think the chopsticks are cheap.
One trap that many foreigners frequently fall into is being under preconception that rubbinga pair of waribashi chopsticks together to smooth-off the rough edges, to avoid splinters, are in some way courteous behaviour. Nothing could be further from the truth. Whilst it may seem to be a useful act of caution against splinters, no self-respecting Japanese would be caught dead doing this. This is called こすり箸, or Kosuri-bashi.
Try to, gently, tap the chopsticks on the table once or twice to loosen them slightly instead, for it helps to create an even break later on. Do try to do this on the side of you that is not facing others at a different table, so it is not seen by others to ‘disturb’ them. If you are sitting against a wall, then tap them on that side of the table rather than other patrons.
Another tip on how to break them, that is not too much of a big issue for most: When breaking them apart, waribashi should, in practice, be brought down close to your knees, so as not to hit any of the plates on the table. Use both hands to break them into two horizontally by pulling the stick that is closer to you. Using your mouth to break them might look cool, but contravenes table manners!
I had to do this last year actually since I have only had one arm, the other being broken in a splint, so I had been pardoned from this recently. I felt pretty cool. 😛
Also, waving your chopsticks about too much in the air is a sign that you have either gone off the edge, whether after one too many drinks or simply life has gotten the best over you finally, or are lacking mental dexterity. Either way, not the best impression you want to give to someone. This is called 振上げ箸, or Furiage-bashi.
9. Don’t cross your chopsticks when resting them on the table
Your chopsticks belong in their holder and make sure they are parallel to each other when resting. Crossed chopsticks are another thing that reminds people of funeral ceremonies.
10. Don’t swirl your chopsticks in your soup
The rule of 探り箸, or Saguri-bashi: Fumbling the dishes, such as soup, to see what’s inside using chopsticks. When you do this it looks like you are trying to clean them. This is sometimes tempting because miso soup remains suspended and does not dissolve. Resist the temptation! You can do it!
There are still far many more chopstick rules of etiquette but these tend to be the most important and frowned upon ones.
Overall, the most significant rules are the ones that remind people of funeral customs. Try to recall that chopsticks are not just two sticks for eating but are profoundly rooted culture symbols. Chopstick manners differ from culture to culture and in China and Korea the rules are different—what may be polite in Japan may be social taboos in another country.
If you try your best the whole thing will go pretty well, do not get too anxious about the rules and with adjusting your chopsticks. The most important thing is that you understand it is a part of Japanese culture and to respect that, and then to enjoy the food which is a huge part of the culture as well!