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.