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.
The 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.