To the uninformed, this might look like a chopstick rest with a random design of lines and scribbles.
But this hashioki is actually inscribed with the first line of a poem.
The line, written in the Japanese native syllabary hiragana, starts on the upper right hand side of the chopstick rest, and can be read in three more or less vertical lines:
The entire poem, known as the Iroha, is famous because it uses 47 hiragana symbols exactly once, including two archaic symbols that are no longer in use. The iroha also omits one symbol, the final n.
The Iroha dates from the Heian period (794-1185). It was once known by every literate Japanese person, and functioned much like the ABCs do in the English language. The order of the hiragana symbols in the poem outlined the way words were listed in a Japanese dictionary, and were used for things like seat numbering in theaters.
However, a translation of the Iroha poem reveals that the subject matter has nothing to do with dictionaries or seat numbering:
The colors blossom, scatter, and fall.
In this world of ours, who lasts forever?
Today let us cross over the remote mountains of life’s illusions,
And dream no more shallow dreams nor succumb to drunkenness. (1)
Alas, even the Iroha didn’t last forever; today a system known as Gojuuon, or Fifty Sounds, which is based on hiragana in an a-e-i-o-u progression, is used for dictionaries, and the ABCs are generally used for seat numbering.
While these Iroha chopstick rests are an interesting cultural key to Japan, especially to an obsessive hashioki collector, I have to wonder when a Japanese person would actually use this item a table setting. Would you put it out if you invited a literature teacher to dinner? Or place it in front of your child the night before school began? Does placing it before a guest constitute a challenge for them to recite the entire poem from memory? Or does it challenge them not to get drunk?
(1) Kodansha, Ltd. “Iroha poem” in Japan: An Illustrated Encyclopedia. Tokyo: Kodansha, Ltd., 1993, pp. 624-625.