In Japan, chopsticks are a cultural instrument, universally used and understood for the role they play. But for disabled people who may have limited movement in their hands, or missing fingers, they can be tricky to use.
In the UK, using chopsticks badly might be met with laughter from friends and a bashful grab for a spoon. But in Japan, it’s a matter of far greater importance – particularly if your disability stops you from using them in the accepted way.
Michael Peckitt is a UK national who has been living in Japan for two years. He has cerebral palsy and, a little shaky himself, believes that holding chopsticks in a non-standard way is viewed as a “social deviance”.
“There is a proper way to do things,” he says. “Simply holding chopsticks incorrectly wouldn’t get you thrown out of a restaurant of course, but someone, usually a waiter or waitress, will laugh it off to excuse your failure to follow the ‘Japanese way’. Of course, people who are physically disabled find it very difficult to follow these etiquettes.”
Food is a very important element of Japanese culture and the use of chopsticks an integral component of Japanese identity says Chris Perkins, a lecturer in Japanese at the University of Edinburgh. He adds, “it would be very strange to see a Japanese person in a restaurant eating with a spoon or fork” – something a less dexterous disabled person might have to do.
Chopsticks are mentioned as early as 1,400 years ago in the Kojiki book – a chronicle of Japanese history thought to have been written in 712 AD. But historians believe they made their way to Japan from China via Korea much earlier than this, and have been a fundamental part of Japanese eating since.
Katsuyuki Miyabi, a Japanese craftsman, doesn’t think anybody should be excluded from this age-old tradition and is custom-making chopsticks for clients who are disabled.
Based in the Fukui prefecture of Japan, Miyabi’s solution is spring-operated, and requires little strength and dexterity to use. Although they look like chopsticks, they operate almost like tongs. Squeeze them together to pick up food, and once the pressure is released, they spring back open.
Individually designed, Miyabi says each set of chopsticks needs to meet the specific needs of the owner. For example, a person lacking a thumb would need a completely different design to somebody who has paralysis.
Miyabi meets clients face-to-face. First they choose the style of chopstick together, then Miyabi carves them according to the precise shape and measurement of the client’s hand, and factors in other disability needs such as strength. The end result is a pair of bespoke chopsticks, uniquely suited to the individual client.
According to the Japanese cultural blog Spoon & Tamago, the meetings are not just so Miyabi can simply get measurements, but also so he can understand how the disability of clients affects them in daily life.