For millions of Japanese every day, the snap of a pair of cheap wooden splints signals the start of a meal. But the ritual of pulling apart two disposable chopsticks before eating has for years been accompanied by the unappetising sound of collapsing forests and angry protests from environmentalists. Now a lingerie maker has developed a novel remedy: a chopstick bra.
Unveiled this week in Tokyo, the bra's cups holster a pair of collapsible chopsticks which are pulled out before a meal. Triumph International Japan, the maker of the "My Chopsticks Bra", says it hopes it will promote environmental awareness. "It's a small step, but because many Japanese chopsticks are disposable, big chunks of forests are being cut down," a spokesman said.
Japan ploughs through about 25 billion sets of wood and bamboo waribashi, disposable chopsticks, a year – more than 200 for every person in the country. The splints, the vast bulk of which are imported from China, are handed out in noodle shops, sushi bars and convenience stores, then thrown away with tons of plastic wrapping. Cheap and hygienic, the chopsticks are popular with Japan's fussy diners, and despised by environmentalists.
But the waribashi habit has taken a hit from China, which last year imposed a 5 per cent tax on the 45 billion pairs of chopsticks it produces a year. The world's largest producer of chopsticks cuts down 25 million trees a year to supply the industry, which employs over 50,000 people. The Japanese media has since reported that Beijing intends to stop exporting the chopsticks to Japan altogether by next year.
The tax rise has doubled the cost of disposable chopsticks to nearly two yen a pair, leaving thousands of Japanese restaurants struggling to find alternatives. Several chains have already switched to reusable plastic chopsticks and some offer small refunds to customers who bring their own. South Korea has gone further, banning disposable chopsticks in restaurants in favour of metal ones.
"I always carry my own chopsticks," said Naoko Koshimura, a student, displaying a handsome set of lacquered wooden utensils she says she has had for months. "We have to be kinder to the environment."
The Triumph bra is not for sale and would in any case probably struggle to find many buyers.
Each cup is made up as a bowl: one for rice and the other for that great staple of Japanese dining, miso soup. The reusable chopstick rests in the "cleavage". "Anything that stops people using throwaway wooden chopsticks is a good thing," said Jun Hosokawa, head of Greenpeace Japan.