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"My Chopsticks" Movement Sweeps Japan

Some of the “pocket” chopsticks
carried by Nihon-bo.

This has popped up in blogs and commentary before, but Sankei Shimbun is reporting on the increasing popularity of “My Hashi” in Japan, spurred by environmental concerns as well as worry about the safety of Chinese-made products.

The term “My Hashi” is a linguistic mix of terms like “My Shoes” or “My Ball” that refer to your own personal bowling shoes or bowling ball, and “hashi,” the Japanese word for chopsticks. If you’ve ever eaten at a Japanese restaurant, you’re probably familiar with the disposable wooden chopsticks that usually accompany the meal. The same is true for nearly every non-European-style restaurant in Japan, and given the popularity of boxed lunches and after-work munching, that adds up to a lot of chopsticks.

One place the proliferation of personal chopsticks is visible is in “izakaya,” pubs that serve appetizers along with the drinks. It’s a common practice for bars and pubs to have a place set aside for “personal” bottles of liquor tagged for use by a particular customer. Now the same is being done for chopsticks—a shelf full of name-tagged chopsticks for that customer’s personal use.

For example, one company that runs a chain of 740 pubs has switched entirely from disposable wood chopsticks to reusable plastic ones. Further, an increasing number of their pubs are adding a “my hashi keep service,” where customers buy a pair of chopsticks for 280 yen (about US$2.50) that are kept at the bar. They’ve even sweetened the deal by offering customers who use their own chopsticks points toward a free meal. If environmental concern wasn’t enough, the prospect of free food has apparently made this popular among businesspeople.

Another example on the less leisurely end of the spectrum is a city hall in Chiba prefecture. Beginning this July, they’re requiring their 2800 employees to bring their own chopsticks for lunch. There were complaints, but this simple move will keep 410,000 chopsticks—about two tons worth—out of the garbage every year.

Then there are “pocket” chopsticks, which come with a case or bag so they can be easily carried for meals away from home. The convenience store chain Mini Stop has started selling “my hashi” made of deluxe Japanese-grown cypress, and the competing chain Lawson has supplied their 4500 employees with pocket chopsticks.

On the higher end of the scale there’s the newly opened upscale chopstick shop Nihon-bo—meaning “Two Sticks”—in Tokyo. They carry colorful chopsticks, quality pocket chopsticks, chopsticks that fold up for added portability, and first-class Wakasanuri-hashi (a type of laquerware) that can sell for an unbelievable 520,000 yen (US$4,400) per pair. The store told the Sankei Shimbun that a combination of environmental awareness and concerns about the safety of Chinese-made disposable chopsticks have kept business brisk. They report that 70% of shoppers are women, and the younger generation has also taken an interest in these more traditional utensils.

“Having a personal rice bowl and chopsticks is part of Japan’s unique culture,” the shopkeeper was quoted as saying. “We should enjoy meals with our own chopsticks even when we eat out.”

As for how much of a difference skipping the disposable chopsticks can really make, quite a bit. According to the Japanese Forest Agency, the Japanese run through about 26 billion disposable chopsticks every year, an average of 200 chopsticks per person. Do the math and that works out to well over 100,000 tons of waste to deal with, not to mention a significant impact on forests in China.

Currently 98% of disposable chopsticks in Japan are imported, almost all from China. The Japanese Forest Agency was quick to defend the 2% produced domestically, though, pointing out that they are produced from scrap wood like mill ends and small trees culled in forest thinning projects. This waste-to-product industry, they claim, makes more efficient use of Japan’s limited resources.

If you want to take part in this easy environmental gesture yourself, there are Japanese restaurants across the world that offer the same sort of “my chopsticks” service for regular customers, and you might even consider BYOC the next time you eat out at an Asian restaurant.

Robotic Taiko Drum Team Competes In Festival

Drumming ‘bots, as seen on Robot Watch.

Asashi.com (J) and TBS News (J) are reporting on a historic festival that for the first time included a group of robots, and Robot Watch (J) has the pictures.

Kitakyuushuu City, located on the southernmost of Japan’s four main islands in Fukuoka prefecture, has for the past 400 years celebrated the Kokura Gion Daiko festival. For the past 60 years this has included a parade of floats bearing teams Taiko drummers competing against each other. Until this year, though, there has never been any non-human competitors.

Yasukawa Electric, a company based in Kitakyuushuu City that builds industrial robots, celebrated the 60th anniversary of the competition by entering a team of drumming robots. So, a team of programmers set about giving these industrial arms some rhythm.

Each of the robot arms has seven joints, so they can move in the same way as a human arm. Actually getting them to play properly, however, was quite a challenge—playing Taiko drums is more than just banging away with a stick. To better understand the motions involved, the programmers started out by taking drumming lessons themselves, which was hard enough.

In the end, it took four months, but they managed to pull off the feat. So, in the parade, one of the floats had a team of three robots (four if you count the two arms separately, as the company does). One robot and a pair of independent arms sprouting from the platform played the drum, and a fourth handled cymbals. The robots were, of course, dressed in traditional robes, and the two usually headless robots with bodies even got styrofoam faces for the crowd.

According to Asashi Shimbun, one of the programmers went on record as calling it a “huge success.” The judges were impressed by the effort as well.

If you want to see for yourself, check out Robot Watch’s page (Japanese, but lots of photos and several high-rez video clips), and TBS News’ report (also Japanese, but the video speaks for itself).

Heart The Dog Has Feline Competition

Heart-kun, the puppy with the heart-shaped patch on his side, has become internationally famous, recently showing up on a Reuters story (check out the video if you like cute animals). But now he’s got some competition: Chachamaru, a kitten with a heart-shaped mark on the other side.

FNN is reporting on Masako Nakaya, a resident of Matsuyama City, Ehime Prefecture and her unusual cat, Chachamaru. A month ago, an animal hospital was looking for a home for an abandoned kitten that had a heart-shaped patch of fur on its right side. Nakaya volunteered to take him in.

Now five months old, Chachamaru has, according to FNN, made the Nakaya house a lively place. Although someone abandoned Chachamaru, Nakaya says he’s brought happiness to her home (not to mention her 15 minutes of fame). No word on whether they’re going to try for the life of fame and fortune like Heart-kun, but they appear to be happy to just have him around.

A bit of video from FNN: