TOKYO -- A decade ago, parents and educators here began noticing, with some horror, that Japanese children were losing the knack of eating with chopsticks.
Seduced by spoons and by cheeseburgers, the younger generation wasn't practicing the more difficult, traditional method of eating. Some children held their chopsticks ham-handedly, some speared their food, some ate "dog-style" -- with their faces in their rice bowls -- and some couldn't use chopsticks at all.
Faced with this threat to the physical agility and mental acuity of the next generation -- and to an essential element of Japanese culture -- the Ministry of Education launched a program of "utensil reform."
Now, spurred by that effort and by a general sense of national self-confidence, chopsticks have made a comeback. A government poll published this week revealed that 90 percent of the nation's school lunch programs now provide chopsticks -- or hashi, in Japanese -- for at least some meals, an increase from 69 percent five years ago and less than 10 percent in 1975.
"I think the trend is going the right way now, because all over Japan traditional culture is being revived," said Tsuneo Baba, an elementary school vice principal in Tokyo. "From that sense, the hashi culture is regaining its strength."
Still, Baba cautioned that the battle is not over, at least judging from the 336 pupils in his Taimei Elementary School, where chopsticks were only introduced last April.
"Frankly speaking," he said, "the children are not skillful."
In Aya Takeuchi's second-grade class, two dozen 7-year-olds provided the evidence to back up that statement as they wrestled gamely with large pieces of fish and mixed Chinese vegetables. None of the children went hungry, but none -- with perhaps the exception of Tani Yuta, who said his mother worked on his form throughout last summer's vacation -- would have won many points for style.
"It's easier to handle a fork and spoon, and many kids just hold onto that habit," said teacher Takeuchi, a 25-year veteran of the classroom and a great believer in chopstick training. "I think the capacity is clearly declining."
But Takeuchi said that she, too, is fighting back. Beginning this year, she will start using a chopstick video to train her pupils in proper finger holds.
"To eat with chopsticks is to train the hand, and so the brain," the teacher said. "And to eat beautifully is the first step toward living a civilized life."
The technique of using two long sticks of wood or ivory to carry food from bowl to mouth originated in China and reached Japan more than 1,000 years ago, according to hashi historians here. Through World War II, chopsticks remained unchallenged as the eating utensil of choice. Even today, Japanese would no sooner eat a traditional meal of rice and side dishes with a spoon than an American would eat a ball game hot dog with a knife and fork.
But American generosity after the war triggered a long, and at first unnoticed, decline. When U.S. occupation forces launched a school lunch program for the malnourished children of this defeated nation, the staple of the diet, not surprisingly, was U.S. wheat.
Until 1976, in fact, school lunch programs in Japan never served rice. They offered hamu-sando (ham sandwiches) and other western food and provided forks, spoons or a utensil that looks like a cross between the two and is said to encourage the worst possible manners.
Outside the schoolroom, meanwhile, an increasingly wealthy and cosmopolitan nation was learning to appreciate curry, spaghetti, Big Macs and other culinary wonders of the western world that seemed to make hashi superfluous. "In some cases, hashi are rarely used in the home," Takeuchi said disapprovingly.
So when school officials began serving rice and traditional Japanese meals from time to time -- in deference to the powerful rice farmers' lobby as well as to Japanese tradition -- they were in for a surprise.
"We gradually came to understand that chilren's ability to use chopsticks was very low," said Toshio Kudo, deputy director of the school lunch division of the Ministry of Education. "So utensil reform was necessary."
The ministry could not order schools to provide chopsticks any more than most parents can order their children away from McDonalds. But officials did everything short of that. They funded the development of chopstick-training slide shows. They designated certain schools as centers for research into the promotion of chopstick use. And they jawboned, as only Japanese bureaucrats can, to "revive what was good in Japanese tradition," as another official, Miyako Murayasu, said.
"When we introduced the school lunch program, the main point was to get nourishment to poor Japanese children," Murayasu added. "Now in our affluent society, children have plenty of chances to get nourishment. Now education in how to eat has become more important."
In the upper kindergarten at Taimei Elementary School this week, it appeared that the effort of countless bureaucrats, parents and teachers is paying off. Most of the 6-year-olds present had brought Japanese-style lunches and, when asked for a show of hands, most said they preferred chopsticks to spoons and forks.
"I think hashi are easier to handle," said Mina Horiguchi, who has been practicing since she was 4. Her pink, child-sized hashi crossed from time to time and, like her classmates, she sometimes found it necessary to use her chopsticks like swords. But overall, she managed well.
"It's very rare to find any Japanese adults who cannot use chopsticks," acknowledged the Education Ministry's Kudo. "So I think as they grow up they will figure it out.
"But I must tell you," he added sadly, "that even among adults there are many who cannot use their chopsticks in exactly the right way."