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Japanese Find Rising Costs of Chinese Chopsticks Hard to Swallow

It has been four months since China imposed a tax on wooden chopsticks because of concerns about deforestation. That and rising production costs prompted Chinese exporters to raise chopstick prices by about 30 percent. This is causing indigestion in Japan, where most restaurant meals are eaten with disposable chopsticks from China.

Walking into the Suikoden pub in Tokyo's working class Ikebukuro district, customers hear gyoza dumplings sizzling in the frying pans as they get a traditional greeting from the staff.

But when patrons sit down to eat, they find not the traditional disposable wooden chopsticks, but plastic ones.

Japanese have long cherished their disposable wooden chopsticks, known as "waribashi", and take credit for inventing them 130 years ago. Until a few decades ago, the waribashi was decidedly a Japanese product.

Gradually imports from China, where there were more trees and cheaper labor, knocked domestic utensils off the table here.

Now, at thousands of restaurants across Japan waribashi are vanishing completely - the result of higher costs. China imposed a five percent tax on disposable chopsticks, in an effort to save trees, and manufacturers raised prices to cope with higher labor and shipping costs.

At many restaurants, customers' lips now touch plastic with every bite.

For patrons at Suikoden, such as Tsunehiko Ito, that leaves a bad taste in their mouths.

Ito says his primary concern is hygiene. He worries how well plastic chopsticks in restaurants are washed.

Some restaurants say they switched not because of cost, but out of environmental concerns - fears that disposable chopsticks contribute to deforestation in Asia and are wasteful.

But Hiroyuki Takayama at Suikoden is a skeptic.

Takayama says he has heard that the wood from China used to make most waribashi is scrap, so he does not think it makes a difference concerning the environment.

The waribashi industry concurs, saying chopsticks are mostly made from trees that are primarily harvested to make construction timber and paper products.

Environmental concerns aside, a problem for many Japanese diners is that plastic chopsticks, most frequently found in Chinese-style restaurants here, are more slippery, especially when eating noodles.

Tabloid newspapers in Japan have been warning that disposable wooden chopsticks may soon become as precious as the silver ones used by ancient Chinese emperors, with reports that China may end waribashi exports entirely.

The head of the Japan Chopsticks Import Association, Ichiro Fukuoka, says that is an exaggeration.

Fukuoka says China has given no such indication that it will further increase taxes on waribashi or end exports.

Fukuoka, who is also executive director of a major waribashi importer, acknowledges the 30 percent price hikes recently have prompted one-tenth of his customers to change to cheaper chopsticks of lesser quality.

Fukuoka has spent 40 years acquiring chopsticks for Japan and he says while there are hopes that other countries, such as Vietnam, Indonesia or Russia could eventually be sufficient alternative sources, no one can beat China on labor costs and quality.

Holding aloft a package of chopsticks from Vietnam in one hand and a package from China in the other, he says that even a casual user can see the quality difference. The Vietnamese waribashi appear rougher both to the eye and to the touch.

There are still a few domestic manufacturers of waribashi but Japan does not have the trees or production capacity to meet the demand. The average Japanese goes through 200 sets of chopsticks a year. China provides all but three percent of those 25 billion sets of waribashi.

To diversify the country's supply, Ichiro Fukuoka and his fellow importers are traveling the world, trying to find the right combination of timber, labor costs and production quality. Until then if restaurants in Japan and their customers prefer to pick up wood rather than plastic they will have to rely on the Chinese product - whatever the cost.