March 31, 2006


Reviving Lacquered Chopsticks

Keywords: Newsletter 

JFS Newsletter No.43 (March 2006)

Though Japanese abounds with adopted English words, only a few Japanese words, such as "tsunami" have been adopted into English. A recent contender is the word "mottainai." Mottainai means "waste not want not," and implies respect for the things we use. However, even in Japan people came to forget the spirit of mottainai as society modernized. In this context, some people are trying to change this trend and revive the spirit of mottainai. This article introduces one such movement, which promotes the use of lacquered chopsticks.

Japan has a long history of using chopsticks to eat. It is believed that they were first used in the Yayoi Era, around 2000 years ago. Chopsticks are widely used in China and many other Asian countries. Unlike Chinese chopsticks, Japanese chopsticks are tapered, which makes it easier to pick up, split off or scoop up food. Japanese people use different types of chopsticks; for example sai-bashi chopsticks are used for cooking, tori-bashi chopsticks to share dinner dishes, and kashi-bashi chopsticks to share sweets. Each has a shape that matches its use.

Because chopsticks are used for eating, sanitation is a top priority. Recently, antibacterial products have gained popularity, and many articles ranging from dishes to stationery items for daily use are marketed as having antibacterial properties. However, antibacterial treatment usually uses chemicals, which has in turn raised safety concerns. Thus, a new agent has been gaining attention over the last few years - natural resin lacquer, called urushi in Japanese.

Urushi is the sap of the urushi tree (Rhus verniciflua), a variety of poison sumac. This tree mainly grows in East Asia including Japan, China and the Korean Peninsula. Its main ingredient is the poisonous substance urushiol, which can cause a severe allergic reaction. However, once it dries, urushi lacquer is very hard, strong, insoluble and resistant to alkali, acid, salinity and alcohol. Moreover, it is waterproof, antiseptic, and has insulation properties, and is thus rarely damaged by heat or electricity. Due to these properties, urushi has been often used to coat wooden chopsticks and dishes since ancient times. Wooden tableware coated with urushi lacquer is far lighter than ceramic tableware, as well as being lustrous and elegant. Urushi-lacquered tableware (shikki) is one of Japan's great artisan traditions.

However, natural lacquer ware production in Japan has been in decline because many urushi trees were cut down during World War II, and replaced with trees suitable for building lumber after the war. Also, there are fewer workers who collect urushi sap and fewer artisans who know how to produce lacquer ware. Meanwhile, the growing demand for chemically coated utensils, which can be mass-produced at low prices, has led to a further drop in lacquer ware production. Today, more than 90 percent of the lacquer ware used in Japan is produced in China. Top quality natural lacquer ware is very expensive, and this has also contributed to the disappearance of lacquer ware from most Japanese households.

This has led to an effort to preserve the practice of using and producing natural lacquer chopsticks, and bring them back into daily use at our dining tables. The agent of this change is a "lacquer ware chopstick re-coating service."

Urushi-lacquered products are durable because they are coated with multiple layers of lacquer. A single thick coating of lacquer is fragile, so lacquer is repeatedly applied, dried and scraped. In this way, making lacquer ware requires time and effort, and this makes it expensive. But no matter how durable, it unavoidably wears off with daily use. Although urushi lacquer itself is resistant to chemicals, it will wear off when it is used for a long time or suffers a strong blow. Therefore, high-quality lacquer dishes, such as those used in high-class Japanese-style restaurants, are re-lacquered repeatedly to refresh their appearance and durability. The re-lacquering process also requires highly skilled artisans.

Until recently, this kind of recoating service was provided only for expensive tableware such as bowls and trays, but not for chopsticks because of their relative cheapness. This is now being reconsidered due to changing public awareness about throwaway lifestyles.

Most restaurants in Japan provide disposable chopsticks. In the past, such chopsticks were made with domestic wood produced when plantations were thinned or from waste wood generated through timber processing. In recent decades, however, production of such wood has failed to keep up with demand because domestic timber production has been decreasing overall while demand for disposable chopsticks has been growing. Today, most chopsticks are made of imported wood from China or Southeast Asian countries, where trees are cut down just to produce disposable chopsticks, causing deforestation in those countries. Another issue is the waste problem caused by large amounts of discarded chopsticks. Taking into account the many Japanese-style restaurants overseas that also provide disposable chopsticks, the total amount of discarded chopsticks throughout the world must be tremendous. However, if chopsticks are used repeatedly instead of thrown away after a single use, this would reduce waste and help prevent deforestation. This way of thinking has led to a reconsideration of chopsticks themselves.

Some restaurants have requested re-application of urushi lacquer on their chopsticks, or are considering using lacquered chopsticks instead of disposable chopsticks. Responding to these demands, some chopstick specialty stores have started a service for re-lacquering used chopsticks. It takes from three weeks to a month to completely renew used chopsticks, depending on the kind of chopsticks and lacquering methods. Some restaurants using a large number of chopsticks re-lacquer half their chopsticks every six months on rotation. Because all the chopsticks are the same, they can use half of their chopsticks while the others are being renewed, meaning they are always offering newly re-lacquered chopsticks. More restaurants are starting to use this service and shift from disposable chopsticks to lacquered ones.

Kawakami Corporation, a lacquered chopstick manufacturer, started this business after a two-year monitoring period. Kawakami president Takayuki Kawakami says, "Requests from customers that wanted to shift from disposable chopsticks to lacquered ones induced me to start this service. I did not expect that this kind of service would be accepted by Japanese people, because Japanese people are accustomed to disposable chopsticks and do not want to use the same chopsticks that have been used by other people even though they are clean." So far, there have not been any complaints in this vein and new customers are showing interest in the service. Kawakami Corporation: (Japanese)

To re-lacquer chopsticks, the old coating has to be peeled off, which requires a lot of time and labor. If people merely focus on the relatively high cost compared to disposable chopsticks, this business will not take off. However, Mr. Kawakami plans to keep providing the service. He says, "I don't want people around the world to regard using chopsticks, an important part of Japanese culture, as waste of natural resources." He continues, "Although reusable chopsticks are also made of wood from forests, we want to minimize the use of trees to make chopsticks. In fact, people from abroad tend to find Japanese chopsticks convenient and easy to use."

Chopsticks are used in about 30 percent of the countries in the world. However, only a small percentage of people in the world have a personal pair of chopsticks, while most Japanese people have a particular pair of chopsticks that they use when they have a meal at home. Because using disposable chopsticks causes forest destruction and waste problems, the number of people who carry their own chopsticks to use in restaurants instead of disposable chopsticks is gradually increasing in Japan. The chopstick re-lacquering service, even though it has just started, symbolizes the Japanese spirit of "mottainai" that connects users who do not want to waste resources and producers who want to provide non-wasteful products.

(Staff writer Nobuko Saigusa)