Point of interest: はし, 箸 and chopsticks

はし, 箸 and chopsticks
557 words
This article is based on the essay on 箸 in the Joy o' Kanji essay collection.
One of the most common words you will encounter in Japanese is はし, referring to one (or two) of the most common items you will encounter in Japan: chopsticks! Since this word refers to objects used in everyday life, if you are in Japan you will encounter the spoken word very regularly indeed, usually with the polite prefix お as おはし. You may not encounter the written form quite as often, and in fact the word はし (or おはし) is very often written in kana.
In fact, the word はし is not the only word for chopsticks in Japanese - the other common word is おてもと, which you have probably seen printed on the wrappers of disposable chopsticks. The Japanese use おてもと instead of おはし when referring to chopsticks in an elegant way. For instance, restaurant servers often opt for saying おてもと over おはし when speaking to customers.
The kanji form of はし is 箸, which combines the component ⺮ (bamboo) with the component (person), an older form of the Joyo kanji . (者 is used in 10 Joyo kanji, including 者 itself, whereas is only used in one other Joyo kanji, , so it's not obvious why 箸 doesn't use the simplified form. Note that this variant, , is a CJK compatibility ideograph - a subset of characters which are often hard to cut/paste - for more information, see CJK compatibility ideographs.)
The Chinese were the first to use chopsticks, perhaps as early as 1200 BCE. The earliest excavated chopsticks were made of bronze and are thought to have been used for cooking, not eating. Eventually, says Wikipedia, chopsticks spread to other East Asian countries, including Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. As Chinese people emigrated elsewhere on the continent, they inspired others to use their utensils. Although the ancient Chinese people did use that character, interestingly their descendants found 箸 problematic, because the component can mean "to stick onto," suggesting "stagnation" in Chinese. Thus, modern Chinese people came to represent "chopsticks" with 筷子 (which is not a word in Japanese, although both kanji are used). The first character 筷 contains the component 快 (quick), the opposite of stagnation!
One very important thing to note is that the word はし can mean either chopsticks, bridge, or edge. In their kanji forms these alternatives are easy to distinguish: 箸 (chopsticks), 橋 (bridge) and 端 (edge). In spoken Japanese, these three words are distinguished by using different 'pitch accents': the pattern of rising / falling pitch within a phrase. When using the word はし to mean chopsticks, the first sound は should be a higher pitch than the し and whatever comes next (typically a particle such as が etc). In other words, the pitch should match the line in this diagram:
箸 (chopsticks) 1
In comparison, here's how the words 橋 (bridge) and 端 (edge) should look / sound:
橋 (bridge) 2
端 (edge) 0
For more on how pitch accents work in Japanese, see our comprehensive guide: The Kanshudo definitive guide to Japanese pitch accents.
In Japan, August 4th is often informally known as 'chopstick day', since the date can be expressed as はし:
(8) +
To read more about the fascinating 箸 kanji, and a wealth of useful vocabulary and phrases around chopsticks, read the Joy o' Kanji essay on 箸.

Kanji used in this point of interest

はし chopsticks   
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シャ   もの person, someone   
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ト   かける to gamble, wager, bet   
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シ   ス   こ child   
カイ   こころよ comfortable, pleasant, refreshing   
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キョウ   はし a bridge   
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タン   edge   は    はし    はた    
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ハチ   や    や    よう eight   
シ   four   よ    よ    よっ    よん    
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