Japan fears shortage of disposable chopsticks

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 hike currently pending.

The increase has sent Japanese restaurants scrambling to find alternative sources for chopsticks, which are 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 US$0.01) now is 1.5-1.7 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 try to cushion the impact through cost-cutting in distribution and transportation.

"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."

Disposable chopsticks produced by domestic makers accounted to half of the market share until about 20 years ago, but were taken over by cheaper and high quality Chinese counterparts, mostly produced by Japan-China joint ventures.

Supporters of environmental cause see the development 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 all 760 outlets after testing various materials and a six-month tryout at one-third of its outlets, 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 personal chopsticks also get a small discount.

A pair of 130 yen (US$1.17; euro1) plastic chopsticks can be reused some 130 times, whose cost per use 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 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 US$189.4 billion (Ђ146.66 billion), in its seventh straight year of growth, according to the Japan External Trade Organization.

However, ties between the two have become increasingly strained amid a dispute over the ownership of undersea gas fields claimed by both.

Other territorial tiffs and Japanese 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.