When did Japanese people start using chopsticks? Although there are various opinions about the date, it appears that chopsticks came from China at least in the 7th century.
“Waribashi,” splittable wood chopsticks, were first made during late Edo period, around 1800. Waribashi are wooden chopsticks which are made from a single piece of wood. There is a groove in the wood between the two sticks. You split them apart just before use.
The origin of waribashi is in Yoshino, Nara prefecture, where many Japanese cedar are found since ancient times. The Yoshino region is popular in forestry and their woods are used for building, and for making barrels and buckets. During the manufacturing process, mill ends or offcuts are created. These are used for making waribashi.
Waribashi are made from Japanese cedar mill ends which are suitable for waribashi - they can be easily broken in the vertical direction. The idea of waribashi probably came from woodworkers in Yoshino region who knew the wood's characteristics well.
Since ancient times, Japanese people have believed that divine spirits (gods) reside in everything in nature - in trees, fire, water etc. This is called "Yaoyorozu no Kami" literally meaning "eight million kami (gods)," which is known outside Japan as the Shinto belief system. Yaoyorozu no Kami underpins life for Japanese people. In this way, Japanese people see divine spirits in mill ends. Rather than throwing these pieces of wood away, waribashi chopsticks were invented. These are consistent with the respect for Yaoyorozu no kami. We could also argue that waribashi is a product that results from the Japanese "mottainai" spirit - a sense of regret about waste.
Un-split waribashi means that chopsticks that have not yet been used. Waribashi represents a Japanese characteristic of valuing cleanliness.
The action of breaking waribashi depends on the idea of “kejime,” which means to set your mind to the decision that you are going to start something - in this case, to start eating your food. Waribashi are often used for special occasions or Shinto rituals, because of the meaning of “to start things” when breaking waribashi.
In recent years, Japanese waribashi culture has become an environmental issue, which was due to a misunderstanding about using wood in a disposable product. However, waribashi was born from the Japanese spirit of respecting and loving nature, and of cherishing objects.
Waribashi is tableware that suits Japanese people’s “omotenashi,” which is a sense of hospitality and cleanness. It is not merely about seeking a convenient product.
In Japan, waribashi are used for guests in a home or a customer in a restaurant. Using waribashi (chopsticks that have never been used) represents the Japanese “omotenashi” spirit of hospitality.
When you visit Japan next time and touch waribashi, please feel that there is an unspoken message.
“We prepare new chopsticks for you.”
Side note: Potter Mr & Ms Suzuki from Inima Thobo live in Yoshino, Nara prefecture, which is the origin of waribashi. When we visited their studio, they gave us a beautiful waribashi (in the photo) made locally in the village of Kawakami. These waribashi have a visible wood grain, a soft color and a beautifully curved shape. They are an art work made from the mill ends of Japanese cedar. Waribashi are used only once for guests, as we explained, although you might want to keep using them at home. You will see a divine beauty in waribashi.