TOKYO – Walk into any Japanese noodle shop or restaurant and chances are you'll be eating with a pair of disposable wooden chopsticks from China. But not for long.
In a move that has cheered environmentalists but worried restaurant owners, China has slapped a 5 percent tax on the chopsticks over concerns of deforestation.
The move is hitting hard at the Japanese, who consume a tremendous 25 billion sets of wooden chopsticks a year — about 200 pairs per person. Some 97 percent of them come from China.
Chinese chopstick exporters have responded to the tax increase and a rise in other costs by slapping a 30 percent hike on chopstick prices — with a planned additional 20 percent increase pending.
The price hike has sent Japanese restaurants scrambling to find alternative sources for chopsticks, called "waribashi" in Japanese.
"We're not in an emergency situation yet, but there has been some impact," said Ichiro Fukuoka, director of Japan Chopsticks Import Association.
A pair of waribashi that used to cost a little over 1 yen — less than 1 cent — now goes for 1.5 to 1.7 yen. The rising costs of raw wood and transportation because of higher oil prices have also contributed to the rise, industry officials said.
But pretty soon, some fear Japan won't even be able to get expensive chopsticks from China: Japanese newspapers Mainichi and Nihon Keizai reported that China is expected to stop waribashi exports to Japan as early as 2008.
To minimize the impact, Japanese importers now buy more bamboo chopsticks and are considering new suppliers, including Vietnam, Indonesia and Russia, said Fukuoka.
Convenience store operators are trying to cushion the impact through cost-cutting in distribution.
"We provide chopsticks only to customers who ask for them," said Mayumi Ito, a spokeswoman for Seven & I Holdings Co., owner of 7-Eleven convenience stores. "We're closely watching the development."
Until the 1980s, about half the disposable chopsticks used in Japan were produced by Japanese companies. But that changed with the introduction of far cheaper Chinese-produced ones.
Supporters of environmental causes see the new Chinese tax as a chance to get rid of disposable chopsticks, which have been linked to deforestation and a wasteful lifestyle.
An Osaka-based restaurant chain operator, Marche Corp., switched to reusable plastic chopsticks in February at its 760 outlets after testing various materials over six months, said company spokesman Michihiro Ajioka.
The chain still keeps waribashi in stock in case customers have trouble snaring noodles with plastic chopsticks, he said. Customers who bring their own chopsticks also get a small discount.
A pair of plastic chopsticks costs about $1.17 and can be reused some 130 times — a cost-per-use that matches a pair of waribashi, Ajioka said.
"So far, we haven't received any complaints," he said. "The amount of garbage has decreased significantly, which is definitely better for the environment."
Japan is China's largest export destination, while China is the third-largest market for Japanese goods, according to government figures.
Japan's trade with China rose 12.7 percent in 2005 to $189.4 billion in its seventh straight year of growth, according to the Japan External Trade Organization.
However, ties between the two countries have become increasingly strained amid a dispute over the ownership of undersea gas fields claimed by both.
Other territorial tiffs and Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's repeated visits to a Tokyo war shrine that Beijing considers a glorification of militarism have also put a strain on ties. The shrine honors Japan's 2.5 million war dead, including several executed World War II war criminals. China has strongly protested the visits and boycotted summits with Koizumi until he pledges to stop going.