To the foreigners who are living in Japan or came Japan as tourists.
Question. Do you use toothpicks in your daily life? Do you have them at home, or never seen them before?
Here in Japan, we have so many occasions to use toothpicks in our daily life and this article will show you the history of toothpicks and how Japanese people use them in their daily life.
1. How Toothpicks were Created?
People say Neanderthal people first used toothpicks about 100,000 years ago.
According to the Neanderthal peoples’ fossil of teeth, we found vertical lines on their teeth, and this shows that they rubbed teeth by something hard stick, so what we call now toothpicks. Wild chimpanzees also used toothpicks as well at that time.
Next, in ancient India, people used small wooden sticks to clean their teeth.
This habit had spread throughout to China and they used toothpicks as treatments for cavity pains as a painkiller.
We can see how it was important to keep cleaning your teeth at that time.
2. When did Japanese People Start to Use Toothpicks?
Japanese people started to use toothpicks from Nara period, in the year 710.
It was the time Buddhism started and Buddha trained his disciples how to brush their teeth by using the toothpicks.
This was the real beginning of toothpicks and toothbrushes in Japan.
According to Buddhism, it says disciples must always carry toothpicks and it’s important to keep your teeth clean.
Ordinary people started to use toothpicks by the age of Heian Period (794) and people used toothpicks also for brushing their tongues in Edo Period (1603)
People cared so much about bad breath, so they tried to clean their tongue as well.
This is off topic, but people in Edo Period were using toothpaste as well. Of course, it wasn’t the toothpaste like what we’re using now, but they used sands or salts.
After the year 1830, the variety of toothpastes became more than 100.
3. Toothpicks were the Original Form of Toothbrushes
From the previous information, you can see people were using toothpicks as toothbrushes.
However, people stopped using toothpicks as toothbrushes when the “Real Toothbrushes” (like we are using now) came from the USA in the age of Meiji Period (1872)
Since people realised it was quite difficult to clean their teeth by toothpicks, they started to use American toothbrushes, and this became very popular.
4. In What Situation Do People Use Toothpicks Now?
We see that toothpicks were also used toothbrushes, but how are Japanese people using toothpicks now?
There are several situations that Japanese people use them, such as:
(1) Using for Pinchos like Assorted Vegetables
If you go to Spanish restaurants, bars or izakaya and order assorted vegetables, you can see toothpicks are sticking in the food like olive, salmon, prosciutto, etc.
Why this usage is quite popular for food-service industries? It’s simply because the food can stick to the toothpicks easily, and it’s difficult to drop the food.
Japanese people love using toothpicks this way, so they often use them at their home parties as well.
If you want quickly check toothpicks in Japan, why don’t you stop by octopus dumpling shops what we call “Takoyaki-ya” along the streets in Japan?
They serve you Takoyaki with toothpicks, and it’s the same system in every shop.
It’s convenient and simple, and no need for chopsticks!
(2) Using at Restaurants or Izakaya
Not at the high-class restaurants, but general restaurants or izakaya, you can find toothpicks on every table.
If you sit at the table, look right or left side. There are toothpicks that have been placed with wooden chopsticks, soy sauce, paper napkins, etc.
Normally men (more likely middle aged) are using toothpicks after finished eating if food are stuck in their teeth.
They hide their mouth covered by their left hand, while using toothpicks in their right, because not using your hand to cover your mouth while using toothpicks is considered a little rude.
Some people don’t cover their mouth with their hands, and it’s not appropriate. Women normally don’t use toothpicks at all in public, since they feel it’s very embarrassing and rude.
It’s rude to use toothpicks in front of people, but okay to use at the bathroom or powder room privately.
(3) Using at Japanese Tea Ceremonies
Have you ever experienced Japanese tea ceremony in Japan?
It’s one of the Japanese traditional ceremonies, and you will also find that toothpicks are used for this ceremony.
People use toothpicks for what we call “Kuromoji”, when they eat Japanese sweets with powdered green tea. They cut Japanese sweets by Kuromoji and eat a small portion.
Not using them for one’s teeth, but using them for traditional Japanese courtesy.
(4) Using as Entertainment
Toothpicks are very versatile, so people use them as for entertainment events as well.
Making flags with toothpicks and putting it in kids’ meals, making moustaches and lips from toothpicks for wedding ceremonies, making lunch boxes and using toothpicks as pinchos, etc. Not only basic wooden toothpicks, but there are many types made out of plastic, such as animal shaped, fruit shaped, heart or star shaped, cartoon character shaped, etc.
Here in Japan, making character lunch boxes, what we call “Kyaraben”, is getting very popular lately, and many Japanese mothers are obsessed with making Kyaraben for their kids. The reason is very simple, they want their kids to enjoy their lunch and eat all of it, including the foods they dislike.
Toothpicks are used as a strategy for Japanese mothers
Do you now see why Japanese people are using toothpicks so often in their daily life?
If people make significant changes in thier mindset, they can create the brand-new ideas which never crossed their mind before.
Toothpicks may not be a very important thing for you, but what if you think up some new ideas to use toothpicks?
Following the toothpicks history, maybe you’re the one who can create new types of toothpick uses for the next generation.
Make sure to give some of these uses a try!