THE diplomatic wrangling between Beijing and Tokyo has spilt on to dinner tables, forcing Japanese to contemplate the unthinkable: eating their food the way China wants them to.
From the ramen noodle bars of Hiroshima to the gyudon beef bowl restaurants of Sapporo, a sharp Chinese tax hike on disposable chopsticks is starting to bite. And some Japanese are wincing at a taste they have learnt to despise: plastic, reusable chopsticks.
For more than two decades Japan’s addiction to disposable chopsticks has been the ultimate indication of its success. What other Asian nation, runs the unspoken boast, can afford to throw away 25 billion pairs of wooden chopsticks every year after only a single use? The use of disposable chopsticks, or waribashi, surged in the late 1970s and through the 1980s. They were a symbol of national growth that meant people were eating out more frequently, and of a culture that was wealthy enough to pander to an obsession with hygiene.
Even during tougher times in the 1990s, Japanese continued to throw away their eating utensils after using them only once. Recession might have curbed other luxuries, but the throwaway white birch chopsticks have, until now, remained sacred.
About 93 per cent of those 25 billion pairs are produced in China, and Beijing, citing the environmental concerns of deforestation, has slapped a heavy duty on chopstick exports, and is planning more increases.
Beijing is reportedly considering an end to all chopstick exports in 2008. High oil prices have also inflated waribashi costs. Where Japanese restaurants and convenience store chains used to be able to source the chopsticks at about one yen (½ p) each, they are now approaching twice that.
With the economics of waribashi becoming more difficult to sustain, and other sources such as Vietnam unable to match the old prices, Japan is turning to plastic — an investment that is likely to pay for itself in about a year.
Marché, a chain of more than 760 izakaya Japanese restaurants in the Osaka area, has switched to plastic chopsticks, which are washed and reused in all its branches.
A spokesman said that in recent weeks the company had been flooded with requests from restaurants, convenience stores and makers of bento lunchboxes asking to know what customers’ reaction had been.
Kokusai Kako, the Japanese company that makes plastic chopsticks, has had some very lean years but has doubled production to 2 million pairs a year, and is anticipating an increase in sales if Japanese can overcome their prejudice about using chopsticks that have been in other people’s mouths. “There are going to be people who object even when they know the chopsticks have been washed properly,” a spokesman said. “It’s a sort of mental problem.”
Other restaurant chains and convenience store operators are looking for other ways to feed the disposable chopstick addiction. Chopsticks made of domestically grown bamboo, and even ones crafted from recycled paper, are among the options being considered.