What are hashioki?

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Hashioki are small objects made from ceramics, wood, metal, or other materials that are used as tableware in Japan and other parts of Asia.  Generally measuring less than two inches in length, they appear in a wide variety of shapes and forms.  Often called chopstick rests in English, diners use them to rest the tips of their chopsticks upon when they’re not using them during a meal.

Hashioki are popular throughout Asia, and increasingly seen in the United States and Europe today.  But while they may have originated elsewhere in Asia, I believe chopstick rests are predominantly a Japanese phenomenon.  Their considerable presence throughout Japan in restaurants, gift shops, department store, and other venues supports this view, as does the Japanese cultural themes and indigenous flora and fauna they habitually depict.  Many hashioki also resonate with the same aesthetic and design principles that are expressed in the fine arts of Japan.  Therefore, chopstick rests will be called hashioki, their Japanese name, throughout this blog.

IMG_1323Hashioki perform several functions.  They are a sanitation device because they prevent the tips of chopsticks — the part that touches a person’s mouth — from touching a tabletop and collecting germs.  From a practical standpoint they protect a tabletop or tablecloth from becoming soiled with food particles or residues during a meal.

But for hashioki collectors they are much more.  More than 100 years ago the eminent Japanologist Basil Hall Chamberlain wrote, “In the Japanese view of life the tritest articles of daily use should, if possible, rejoice the eye and feed the mind.” (1)

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Whether they are mass-produced or handmade, hashioki are often miniature works of art, and objects that have the power to evoke emotional responses.  They are routinely made in the shape of cultural icons, decorated in a manner that suggests traditional Japanese values and practices, or made from materials infused with allusions.  They often suggest a season or a holiday, and frequently communicate something about the people using them.

IMG_1318The role of hashioki as symbols is part of what makes chopstick rests Japanese.  Contemporary scholar Merrily Baird has observed that, “It is the nature of man to both think and express himself symbolically.  Moreover, the power of symbols is magnified when a society has broadly shaped experience, a deep knowledge of its cultural traditions and common sentiments about those experiences and traditions.  The fact that these conditions exist in Japan to a striking degree has ensured that the country continues to enjoy a cultural life meaningfully enriched by the use of symbols.”(2)

The simple truth that hashioki resonate with the essence of Japan has drawn me to them for over twenty years.

(1) Chamberlain, Basil Hall.  Things Japanese:  Being Notes on Various Subjects Connected with Japan.  Berkeley:  Stone Bridge Press, 2007 (reprint of 1905 edition), p. 57.

(2) Baird, Merrily.  Symbols of Japan:  Thematic Motifs in Art and Design.  New York:  Rizzoli International Publications, 2001, p. 9.

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Every collection begins with just one item

 

I started collecting hashioki is the fall of 1993 when our family was living in Hong Kong.

One day my husband and I made one of our regular visit to the Hong Kong Museum of Art.  Before leaving the museum we stopped in the gift shop to do some browsing, and I happened to spot a tiny pale green fish, lying on its side on top of a pedestal, with its head and tailing curving up in the air.

IMG_2324“What is that?” my husband asked as we walked over to the diminutive sculpture displayed on a glass shelf.

“I think it’s a chopstick rest,” I said, pointing to the pair of chopsticks propped on top of its mate on the shelf.  “We saw them in some restaurants when we were in Japan.”

The fish was a little over an inch and a half long, and only one inch high, and weighed well under an ounce.  It appeared to be carved out of nephrite, the translucent stone that is sometimes mistakenly referred to as jade.  The carving was a little uneven, but the craftsman had given the fish an open mouth and one big round eye, and cut crosshatch marks into the top of the body to simulate scales.

“How much is it?” my husband asked.

I checked the sticker on its bottom.  “Not much,” I said.  “Twenty-one Hong Kong dollars.”  That was the equivalent of three U.S. dollars.

“Let me buy it for you,” he said, taking the fish from my hand and heading for the cash wrap counter.  Then he grinned.  “Maybe you can start a collection.” Since arriving in Hong Kong to spend a year while my husband taught at a HK university I had pondered what kind of special souvenirs we might bring back to our home in the United States.  Other expatriate wives I had met said they planned to return with strings of pearls or Chinese antiques, but I knew our one-salary, three-school-aged-children budget wouldn’t allow me to purchase items like that.

Chopstick rests, or hashioki in Japanese, seemed like the perfect answer. They were small and inexpensive, and would be easy to pack for our return home.  My husband and I had a particular connection to Japan because we had met in a Japanese history class 20 years earlier.  We often used chopsticks when we ate Asian foods at home.  I remembered seeing hashioki for sale in other Hong Kong stores, particularly the Japanese department stores, so I suspected they would be relatively easy to collect.

“Just this?” the sales clerk asked when my husband placed the little fish on the counter.

“Just one chopstick rest,” I confirmed.  For now.