Same, but different

If you have browsed for hashioki online or in a store you have undoubtedly noticed that many examples are different versions of the same form.

For example, these rabbits, cranes and sleeping cats appear to have come from the same molds, and the only difference between them is the way they are decorated and/or glazed. All three are very popular animals in Japan, so their producers undoubtedly know that a new version of one of these iconic shapes is bound to sell.

IMG_1992Sometimes differences in decoration go beyond color. Pebble-shaped hashioki with Chinese-style landscapes, like these examples, are also popular in Japan. However, the version on the right is not just multi-colored but is also a completely different scene with a unique border treatment.
Scrolls are also a popular shape for hashioki, particularly in restaurants. Note that these four examples not only have different kanji characters, but also have different decorations on the rolled portion of the scroll. I don’t actually know whether these patterns traditionally accompany these kanji, or whether it’s just happenstance. In any case, from left to right, these kanji are tomi for wealth, kotobuki for long life, roku for happiness, and fuku for good luck or fortune.  I have another version of this scroll with an inscription invites diners to relax and enjoy their meal, but I’ll write about that at a different time.

In the meantime, hope you enjoy these hashioki twins.



Cut-tongue sparrow

When I visited the Fushimi Inari Shrine outside of Kyoto in 2013 I hoped I would find hashioki shaped like foxes. Instead I found this little bird sitting in one of the shops inside the shrine grounds. I thought there had to be some special symbolism attached to this bird because of the way it was posed in its nest, but the shopkeeper couldn’t explain that in English to me. But he wrote down shita kiri suzume in hiragana, and with a little research I discovered it represents the cut-tongue sparrow from a famous Japanese folk tale.

IMG_1971The tale relates how an elderly woodcutter discovered an injured sparrow in the woods. He took it home and asked his wife to feed and nurse the sparrow, but she resented sharing their meager food supply with a bird. One day when the old woman’s back was turned the starving sparrow ate some rice she had left on a table, and she cut its tongue out as punishment. The sparrow fled into the forest. When her woodcutter husband went searching for the bird he was greeted by a flock of sparrows who led him to the sparrow’s home for a big feast. When the old man was leaving the now-recovered sparrow told him he wanted to give him a thank you gift, and he offered the woodcutter a choice between a large and a small basket. Being a modest man, the woodcutter chose the small basket. When he arrived home he discovered the basket was filled with a fortune in gold coins. Instead of rejoicing, his wife berated him for not taking the larger basket, and she ran into the woods, found the sparrow and his friends, and demanded the larger basket. They gave it to her, but before she arrived home she discovered that her basket was filled with poisonous snakes who frightened her to death.

I’ve read that this folktale is about friendship, but it seems to me that it’s about greed. In fact, I’m afraid this is a hashioki that you really couldn’t use for dining; wouldn’t setting it at someone’s place indicate that you thought they were selfish and greedy? So maybe the real lesson here is about choosing wisely.


I collected hashioki for more than 20 years before I found my first fox (kitsune) hashioki.

This bewilders me for a number of reasons. First of all, foxes are a familiar presence in Japan. A pair of stone foxes, one male and one female, greet visitors at the entrance to more than 30,000 Inari Shinto shrines throughout Japan. Inari is the Shinto deity who is associated with rice cultivation and sake brewing, and foxes are viewed as the deity’s IMG_1965messengers. In addition, live foxes continue to inhabit the four main islands of Japan. And because fried tofu is inexplicably the favorite food of otherwise carnivorous kitsune, foxes are also evoked in the popular Japanese snack food inari sushi, where fried tofu pouches are filled with rice and the corners are turned down to look like fox ears.

While these first two hashioki examples don’t look particularly bewitching or beguiling, inIMG_1969 Japanese folklore foxes are often portrayed as cunning shape-shifters. An evil fox can transform him or herself into something as innocuous as a teapot, or into an attractive and sexy female. In one popular folktale a fox marries a man after mutating into the form of a human female.

Just when I had almost given up hope of finding a foxy-looking fox hashioki I did find one — on, of course.   A ceramic artist from Oregon created some cat hashioki, and she and I agreed that her model could easily be adapted into a fox.  IMG_1970

Exploring the symbolism of foxes in Japan reminds me that many similar themes and beliefs surface in all parts of the world. For example, in the West calling a woman “foxy” suggests that she is sexy and appealing.   I don’t know if I would call this latest fox hashioki sexy but…  it certainly appeals to me because this fox looks like it could be ready for mischief.

Koi no bori

Today was the day I was going to hang up our Koi no bori.  But it’s raining, so I think I’ll wait until tomorrow.

Koi no bori are the colorful windsocks that fly outside Japanese homes from April untilIMG_1962 early May. Shaped like fish, their name means “carp streamers.”  They are associated with May 5, a national Japanese holiday known as Children’s Day. Prior to 1948 this holiday was known as Boys’ Day, and it was the custom to hang one koi no bori steamer for each male child in the family outside the house.
Carp are considered to be an auspicious fish in Japanese culture because they are strong enough to swim upstream. This is supposed to characterize or perhaps inspire a young IMG_1963man’s quest to obtain fame and fortune in life against daunting odds.The folk hero Kintarō is also associated with the May 5 holiday, and he is often depicted riding on a carp (please see my March 2016 post “Kintarō”.)

I don’t know if Japanese families today fly koi no bori for both their male and female children, although I have read that large koi windsocks sometimes represent both parents. Because Children’s Day occurs during Golden Week, a holiday period when many Japanese families go on vacation, it’s common to see long strings of these bright IMG_1964windsocks decorating parks and other public places during the first week of May. Once made of paper of silk, koi no bori today are screen printed on nylon, and are almost as weather resistant as the fish that inspired them.


Our koi no bori are nylon, and we have three of them:  one for my husband, one for my adult son, and one for our grandson.


Hashioki origin & timeline

The origin of hashioki is difficult to date.

Historians believe that chopsticks originated in China, and that they were first imported to neighboring countries sometime after the fifth century BCE. In Japan chopsticks were probably initially used solely by the imperial court and nobility, the people who interacted with Chinese and Korean emissaries; many chopsticks have been discovered in theIMG_1362 excavations of the first permanent capital that was constructed near Nara, Japan beginning in 710 CE. Prior to the introduction of chopsticks the Japanese people, like many of their global contemporaries, ate with their hands, or sipped liquids like soup from bowls. However, archeological excavations outside of Kyoto suggest that chopsticks were in common use by the general population by the end of the eighth century.(1) This pebble shaped hashioki has been glazed and fired in the style of many ceramics from that period.

Unfortunately, the origin of hashioki is less certain. Some commentators suggest there is a connection to rituals performed in Shintoism, the indigenous spiritual system of Japan IMG_1363associated with nature, where the chopsticks used to offer ritual foods to the gods were placed on a stand to keep them uncontaminated.(2) This cherry tree bark hasioki could be considered to express the Shinto emphasis on natural materials. An illustration in the Shijōke shichigosan no kazarikata (Shijō-House Decorations for 7-5-3 Trays), a Japanese culinary text dated 1612, features what appears to be a hashioki in diagrams for two banquet trays, although in this drawing the center of the chopsticks are balanced on the hashioki like a seesaw,(3) not simply supporting the tips, as they are used today. Because this text is essentially an interpretation of Chinese practices for ceremonial occasions, it supports the idea that hashioki, like chopsticks, are items that may have originated in China.

British scholar Charles J. Dunn claims that hashioki were used by more affluent JapaneseIMG_1364 households during the Tokugawa period (1603-1868).(4) This ivory-colored porcelain rest its asymmetrical floral design and gold embellishment is typical of the Satsuma ceramics popular during that period.

H. Elliott McClure, an American ornithologist and hashioki collector who lived in Japan during the 1950s, and the author of the only article on hashioki published in an English-language scholarly journal to date, believed that hashioki are a “modern innovation… probably not used before the turn of the [twentieth] century.”(5)

Even if chopstick rests existed in Japan prior to 1900, they became much more popular after this time in response to several trends. First, this period coincided with the establishment of depāto, or department stores in Japan. These department stores fueled the growth of a consumer culture in Japan,(6) specifically among the merchant and artisan classes, which now constituted a middle class with money to spend. Anthropologist Millie Creighton points out that while the department stores sell Western goods in Japan, they also sell domestic products, and as such are “involved in the creation IMG_1365of cultural meanings… they are also curators of Japanese tradition, re-defining the meanings associated with a Japanese heritage.”(7)  For example, this blue and white speckled hyotan or gourd, purchased in a Mitsukoshi department store, is a traditional good luck symbol, and also reflects the Japanese affinity for forms from nature. Today the housewares departments of Japanese depāto continue to offer some of the largest and most varied assortments of hashioki, including many hashioki featuring traditional motifs.
Second, the beginning of the twentieth century saw a dramatic change in the dining habits of the Japanese. Historian Jordan Sand notes that prior to the early 1900s “members of Japanese families generally dined at different times, sometimes in different rooms, from individual trays.”(8) This meant most people ate in silence. Sand refers to a Japanese household management guide and moral instruction guide published in 1907 titled Ie (Household) which introduced the idea that ‘houses of the middle level of society (chūtō shakai) should make a custom whenever possible of gathering the whole family for meals.’ Meals should be taken in the most pleasant place in the house, conversation should be encouraged, and ‘to the degree possible, trays should be abandoned for a table structure…’”(9)  Ethnographer Naomichi Ishige reports that by the mid 1920s most Japanese familiesIMG_1366 had transitioned to low communal tables called chabudai, which were largely replaced by a Western-style dining table by the 1970s.(10) Hashioki like this hand-painted crescent, which allowed a diner to pause and lay down his or her chopsticks during a meal, are one device that could facilitate conversation at a communal table.

Third, while Japan was bombarded with Western influences after the opening of the country to trade with the West in 1854, this actually encouraged some citizens to become nostalgic for traditional items. Design historian Penny Sparke confirms this trend when she notes that in the hundred years beginning in the 1870s “as [Japan] gradually embraced a way of life inspired by the West, design developed erratically, sometimes moving enthusiastically forward, fired by IMG_1367advances in technology, and sometimes resisting advancement, mirroring and reinvigorating the continuing role of tradition and spirituality in everyday life.”(11)  Hashioki, like this one in the shape of a folded fan, brought traditional symbols to the dining table, and also facilitated the use of traditional chopsticks instead of Western cutlery.
Finally, domestic travel by Japanese citizens, including recreational tourism to famous sites throughout Japan, expanded significantly during the twentieth century. After World War 2 the number of foreign tourists visiting Japan also increased. So the new marketIMG_1368 created by tourists shopping for souvenirs, like this stylized cherry blossom, may have fueled hashioki growth.  Anyone who has been to Japan will attest to the lines of shops along the approaches to temples and shrines, and the kiosks that line the hallways of railroad stations, that exist solely to provide keepsakes for travelers, or for the folks back home. There are always a few shops selling plates and cups and chopstick rests; hashioki make attractive souvenirs that are both inexpensive and easy to carry.

My takeaway from this timeline is that during a century of dynamic economic growth and societal metamorphosis hashioki have been hashi, or bridges, spanning a river of change.

(1) Ishige, Naomichi.  The History and Culture of Japanese Food.  London:  Keegan Paul, 2001, p. 67.

(2) Kikkoman Corporation.  Chopsticks (O-hashi). (downloaded March 2011), p. 1.

(3) Rath, Eric C.  Food and Fantasy in Early Modern Japan.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010, Plate 5.

(4) Dunn, Charles J.  Everyday Life in Traditional Japan.  North Clarendon, Vermont:  Tuttle Publishing, 1969, p. 136.

(5) McClure, H. Elliott.  Hashioki: Art of the Chopstick Rest.  Orientations, June 1979, p. 45.

(6) Tamari, Tomoko.  “Rise of the Department Store and the Aestheticization of Everyday Life in 20th. Century Japan.”  International Journal of Japanese Sociology.  2006 (November: Number 15), p.100.

(7) Creighton, Millie. “Pre-industrial dreaming in post-industrial Japan:  department stores and the commoditization of community traditions.” Japan Forum 1998, 10 (2), p. 127.

(8) Sand, Jordan. House and Home in Modern Japan:  Architecture, Domestic Space and Bourgeois Culture 1880-1930.  Cambridge:  Harvard University Press, 2003, p. 33.

(9) Ibid., p. 34.

(10) Ishige, Naomichi.  “Food Culture,” in Sugimoto, Yoshio (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Modern Japanese Culture.  Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2009, p. 310.

(11) Sparke, Penny.  Japanese Design.  New York:  Museum of Modern Art, 2009, p. 13.



One item revisited

If you look back to December 2015, the first post I made on this blog was about a little green fish with an upturned mouth and a flapping tail.

Last week I met his cousin.

My first green fish was really my first, meaning my first hashioki. That fish was carved from translucent nephrite, and was shown lying on his or her side.

My more recent green fish is ceramic, and is glazed in the pale color known as celadon thatOne item revisited is so popular in Asian ceramics. This fish is shown in a position that I suspect is anatomically impossible for a fish – basically the fish is trying to do a sit-up – but I think the pose is supposed to suggest a fish frolicking or jumping in the waves. The vendor on eBay who sold this fish said that it was an “estate sale find,” and I think the fish has a kind of old-fashioned, pre-Pacific War vibe to it. Even though it’s not as detailed as my first fish, I think this little green guy is also charming.

Both these fish are koi, which is the name of the large goldfish you sometimes see in garden ponds. They could also be described as carp. Carp are a very popular image in Japan because they are reputed to be a very strong fish that will swim upstream against the current and jump over rocks and waterfalls in order to get to where it’s going. So the carp is associated with perseverance, a highly prized attribute in Japan. There is even a professional baseball team in Japan called the Hiroshima Toyo Carp.

Can you imagine a baseball team in the United States called something like the Galveston Goldfish? I think not.



Bamboo basket

Last week my husband and I visited a small but wonderful exhibition entitled Discovering Japanese Bamboo Art at Indiana University’s Herron School of Art and Design in Indianapolis. This was my favorite from the 45 baskets on display; it’s titled “GracefulIMG_0432 Dragon,” and it’s by a Japanese artist named Yufu Shohaku.

Touring exhibits like this always leads me to the same question: do these objects or materials or themes appear in hashioki?   I have a number of hashioki that have the shape of bamboo, and a few that are decorated with bamboo designs, and a few more that are made from bamboo. But I didn’t think I had any chopstick rests that were truly bamboo baskets…. until I remembered this gambion.



Gambion is actually an Italian word; I don’t know the Japanese word for this. It is a kind of cage that holds rocks, and is used for flood control or to prevent the erosion of river banks, similar to the way that sandbags are used.


Of course in this example the cage is made up of bamboo strips, and the rocks are small semi-precious stones. I’ve seen hashioki like this for sale in many stores in Japan.

In the press release for the bamboo art exhibit they quoted an expert named Robert T. Coffland as saying ”Bamboo is as deeply intertwined as rice in Japanese history and culture.”

To that I add: so are hashioki.