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Veteran writes book on proper chopstick use

By DAVID ALLEN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: January 29, 2007

YONABARU, Okinawa — One of the most perplexing moments for a Westerner dining in Asia is figuring how to cut fish or meat with chopsticks.

I’ve been known to hold the slab down with the point of the chopstick held in my left hand while I use the stick in my right hand to pull at the meat.

“Wrong!” says Gordon Warner, who has cleared up the mysteries of chopstick use in a new book, “Dining In Chopstick Societies.”

In Warner’s book, he shows in photos how to cut into meat holding both chopsticks in the same hand.

The subtitle adequately describes what’s in store for the next 145 pages: “Introducing the when, where, why, what and how to manipulate chopsticks with ease in chopstick societies — knowing manners, tradition and the dos and don’ts.”

But this book is more than just a bunch of slaps on the wrist to get the chopstick novice to hold the sticks properly. It’s also full of colorful pictures of mouthwatering Chinese and Japanese dishes and “Doc” Warner’s extensive collection of chopsticks and hashioki, or chopstick rests.

Warner, 94, is a decorated veteran of World War II, a kendo master, historian and retired educator who has made Okinawa his home since 1964, when he was named Education Department director of the U.S. Civil Administration of the Ryukyu Islands. He’s published several books on such far-ranging subjects as Okinawa’s reversion to Japanese sovereignty in 1972 and kendo, the Japanese art of sword fighting.

Chopsticks, Warner writes, are K’uai Tzu — the Nimble Brothers — and are used by about 1.5 billion people every meal. “The Nimble Brothers — k’uai tzu, hashi, otemoto, umeshi or chopsticks — are always on call to carry rice from a bowl to the mouth, as the food bridge of human life.”

Portuguese seafarers who established a trading post in Macao in the 13th century coined the term “chopsticks,” Warner says. The “barbarians” were amazed at how quickly children could gulp down a bowl of rice by using chopsticks and used the Cantonese term for speed (“Chop, Chop!”) to describe the “fast” sticks.

Of course, the Chinese, and later the Japanese, were horrified at the table manners of the barbarians who ate with their fingers and daggers.

After some more history, Warner gets to the book’s main point: How to use chopsticks properly without embarrassing yourself in front of your Asian hosts.

“The book is actually more than 20 years in the making,” Warner said recently in his den in Yonabaru, a town in southern Okinawa. On the large computer screen is the beginning of his next book, a history of the Battle of Okinawa.

“I started a series of lectures at various officers’ and wives’ clubs on Japanese customs, including the proper use of chopsticks,” he said. “The book just grew from there.”

Warner said he’s always been fascinated with Japan and all things Asian. He grew up among the children of Japanese immigrants in Long Beach, Calif., who introduced him to the martial arts, particularly kendo. He practiced the art of swordplay as a teenager and continued at the University of California, where he lived in a Japanese fraternity and briefly held the world record for the breaststroke.

He studied kendo in Japan in the late 1930s until a letter from his mother tipped off the Japanese secret police that he was a second lieutenant in the Marine Reserves. He slipped out of the country minutes before the Kempei came to look for him.

During World War II he fought in the Solomon Islands, losing his left leg but never his spirit. He continued to practice kendo and taught college in California before coming to Okinawa.

In 2000 he received the “Korsho,” the highest All-Japan Kendo Federation award, for his 63 years of promoting the martial art. The next year he was honored with the Order of the Sacred Treasure, Gold Rays with Neck Ribbon, awarded by the emperor of Japan. He has reached the rank of 7th Dan — the only foreigner ever to do so.

Warner’s newest book is self-published and printed in Okinawa. The actual publication date is Feb. 1; it will be available on www.docwarner.com and Amazon.com. He is also planning to sign books and CD copies of his book Feb. 2 at the USO on Kadena Air Base.

“I am hoping Americans, especially, will read this book as a way to foster better Asian relations,” Warner says. “People should know how to properly use chopsticks before they go to China for the upcoming Olympics.”

That’s where Chapter 8 becomes particularly useful. In it Warner warns of the various sins of chopstick usage that unschooled gaijin (non-Japanese) frequently fall into, such as plunging the chopsticks upright in a bowl of rice.

“Such a position is reserved for an offering to the spirit of a deceased person and is only placed on a family shrine altar shelf,” he writes.

Other “don’ts” include passing food from chopstick to chopstick, using the rim of the bowl as a rest for the chopsticks, tapping empty rice bowls, using chopsticks as pointers, dunking the chopsticks in your water glass, and moving a bowl or dish while still holding the chopsticks in your hands. Other chapters include customs for eating sushi (one time where it’s OK to pick up food with your hand).