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.
Hashioki 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)
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.
The 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.