More Genji passion

Among the most beautiful hashioki in my collection are a set of hand-painted fan-shaped rests which portray five scenes from the The Tale of Genji.

As explained in my first post about The Tale of Genji (January 2016),  this eleventh century novel could be described as a soap opera about promiscuity and adultery. So you might think that subject matter would disqualify it from being Japan’s most treasured work of literature. But what I think fans of the novel value are not the affairs recounted in the novel, but the level of passion and depth of feeling that characterize these relationships. So it’s not a book about casual affairs, but a novel about how a single glimpse or even a poem can cause a person to fall head over heels in love, even if it’s only for a brief time. The characters in Genji are enlivened by their passions, and I think Genji’s readers long to do the same.

More Genji passionThe first hashioki illustrates chapter five, which is titled Wakamurasaki. Waka means “young” in Japanese, while murasaki is the name of a plant whose roots are brewed to produce a purple dye. Murasaki also connotates a close relationship and lasting passion. In this scene we see the heroine of the novel, who is named Murasaki, age 10, standing on the engawa or porch of her grandmother’s house. She is unhappy because her pet baby sparrows have escaped into the woods. While she is standing there she is secretly seen for the first time by the 19-year-old Prince Genji. He is captivated by her beauty, and when her grandmother dies shortly thereafter, he kidnaps Murasaki and brings her to his home, planning to eventually make her his wife.

We don’t know the real name of the author of The Tale of Genji, but tradition has assigned her the name of her heroine, paired with the title that indicates her status at the emperor’s court:  Lady Murasaki.

The next hashioki refers to chapter nine, or Aoi. This is name of a plant that was traditionally used for decoration during the Kamo Festival at Kyoto’s Kamo Shrine in May. The word Aoi also suggests “day of (lovers’) meeting”, and happens to be the name of More Genji passionPrince Genji’s first wife. The hashioki shows Genji trimming the hair of his ward Murasaki, now in her early teens, before taking her to the festival. After the festival Genji’s wife Aoi gives birth to his son Yūgiri, but then dies. Her death may have been caused by an evil spirit created by one of Genji’s lovers, who became jealous when she saw Murasaki in his carriage at the festival. In the wake of Aoi’s death Genji decides to curtail his extramarital relationships, and to make Murasaki his consort.

IMG_2271The third hashioki depicts chapter 12, entitled Suma. This is the name of a coastal area south of Kyoto where Genji is exiled after the relatives of Oborozukiyo, his most recent inamorata, falsely accuse him of plotting against the Emperor. Genji is very lonely in Suma, and misses Murasaki very much. In the hashioki we see him gazing mournfully out at the sea.

The fourth chopstick rest in this set alludes to chapter 25, Hotaru, which means “fireflies.” In this chapter Genji has adopted Tamakazura, the daughter of one of his former flames, as his ward. Although Genji isn’t sure whether he wants to be her father or her lover, he IMG_2272invites his brother — also named Hotaru — to consider marrying her. During the Heian period aristocratic women hid in dark rooms behind curtained screens when men who were not family members came to call them, but when his brother visits Tamakazura Genji releases fireflies from a bag, which enables his brother to see the young woman’s beauty. The two yellow spots on the hashioki represent the fireflies that illuminated her face.

The vendor who sold me this set said the final chopstick rest depicts chapter 48, or Sawarabi. That title means “bracken shoots,” and the traditional illustration for this chapter is two baskets of mountain ferns that were sent to a woman named Naka no Kimi, IMG_2273who is mourning the death of her sister. But I think this hashioki actually alludes to chapter 52, Kagerō, meaning “mayfly.” It seems to portray Kaoru, a man who was raised as Prince Genji’s son but who is actually the illegitimate son of his best friend. Kaoru was in love with Ukifune, a young woman who has apparently drowned herself in a river. Kaoru is quite distraught, we see him sitting on an engawa near the river she disappeared into. His right hand is raised as if he was reaching out to capture a small insect. The chapter ends with his poem:

“There it is, just there, yet ever beyond my reach, till I look once more,
and it is gone, the mayfly, never to be seen again.”(1)

I’ve now read The Tale of Genji a total of four times, in three different translations. I’m sure that I will read it again, like the many Japanese who have read it multiple times. I’m looking forward to capturing that mayfly vicariously again.  Meanwhile, I have these hashioki to help me remember the power of romance.

(1)  Murasaki, Shikibu and Tyler, Royall (translator).  The Tale of Genji.  New York:  Viking Penguin, 2001, p, 1073.



If geisha (please see post from May 2016) are the most widely recognized female icons from Japan, then samurai are the male equivalent.

The samurai were the elite warriors who essentially ran Japan from the tenth century until the Meiji Restoration in 1868. As anyone who has seen a Japanese samurai movie knows, these warriors lived by a moral code that stressed courage, simple living, and unquestioned loyalty to their lord, whether it be the daimyo or military lord who controlled their province, or the shogun who was the supreme leader. The word samurai is derived from a word meaning “one who serves.”

When going into battle a samurai wore armor made from leather, lacquer, and eventually metal. On his head he wore a kabuto, or helmet, made from the same materials.

Kabuto were usually decorated with horns or antlers in the front, and often had wings to protect the warrior’s head from blows from his opponent’s sword.

Swords were “the soul of the samurai.” Samurai often wore two swords as a sign of theirIMG_2241 special status. This hashioki shows a katana, or long sword; it was the samurai’s skill at wielding the katana’s curved tempered-steel blade with its razor-sharp edge that made him such formidable opponent. The other sword, known as a wakizashi, was short, and most famously used to commit seppaku, suicide by cutting open the stomach, to avoid being captured alive by your opponents or to atone for some moral code lapse.

By the sixteenth century Japan was a country of peace, and the need for samurai and their swords declined. The introduction of firearms from the West also made swords obsolete. Many samurai ended up becoming rōnin, or wandering “wave men.” The samurai were ultimately stripped of their privileges and status in the late 1800s during Japan’s rapid Westernization.

Note:  you may also want to investigate the “yakko” kite hashioki included in my post about Omocha (toys) in May 2016.  Yakko were a samurai’s manservant.


The features on this round lacquered hashioki are made with hiragana, the native JapaneseIMG_2232 syllabary. The character he forms the eyebrows and the mouth, the character no is used for the eyes, and the nose is made from the character mo. The chin and ear are made from the character for ji. Therefore this face is known as a heno (eye) heno (eye) mo (nose) he (mouth) ji (chin).

For a long time I thought this was simply a fanciful design. But it turns out that this is the way Japanese children often draw faces on scarecrows or other figures, and that it’s also a popular graffiti.

The hashioki actually reminds me of Sei Shōnagon, the 11th century diarist and chronicler of Heian court life. One of the 164 lists in Ivan Morris’s translation of The Pillow Book is a itemized list entitled Adorable Things, and the first item on the list is “the face of a child drawn on a melon.”(1) I’ll have more to say about Sei Shōnagon in a future post.

Apparently drawing faces on melons was a popular pastime for women and children in 11th century Japan, similar to our modern custom of drawing faces on pumpkins at Halloween. Even though the face on this melon or hashioki is a frowning face, it still is pretty adorable.


(1) Morris, Ivan, translator and editor.  The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon.  Baltimore:  Penguin Books, 1971, p. 168.


Making noise

IMG_2262There are always sound effects at the Japanese dinner table — at least, there are when there are musical hashioki.

The most plaintive notes in Japanese music are made by the shakuhachi, or Japanese end-blown flute. Its name relates to its traditional size; shaku is a traditional measure equal to a little less than a foot, IMG_2263and hachi means eight. A traditional bamboo shakuhachi measures one shaku plus eight-tenths of a shaku, or about 21 1/2 inches. Some schools of Zen Buddhism use a shakuhachi during meditation, and expert players can produce a wide range of notes and pitches from this simple instruments.


This hashioki depicts a hyoshigi, a traditional Japanese percussion instrument made from aIMG_2264 block of wood or bamboo. Normally a pair of hyoshigi are attached with a rope strung between one end of each. They are clapped together or beat against the floor in kabuki and other Japanese theatrical performances to announce the beginning of a play, or to emphasize dramatic moments.

The tsuzumi is a small hand drum. It is shaped like an hourglass, and is constructed fromIMG_2265 two leather skins laced over a lacquered wooden frame, and a player can modulate the tone by squeezing the laces. Versions of this drum are used to accompany both Noh and Kabuki dramas. Tsuzumi are also frequently played by geisha when they in entertain at parties.



Like the tsuzumi, shamisen (below left) are associated with geisha. They reportedly originated in Okinawa. This 3-string instrument is a kind of lute, and is played or plucked with a plectrum. Shamisen (also known as samisen) are made from wood, and the box-like portion of their body is traditionally covered with cat or dog skin. That fact is a little unsettling for me, although I will admit that the high pitched twang of a shamisen sounds a bit like an unhappy feline.

IMG_2266 IMG_2267

More recognizable as a lute is the biwa, a short-necked instrument (above right) which usually has four strings. Historically the biwa was used as to accompany the oral recitation of stories, especially The Tale of the Heike, a twelfth century history of a battle between the Minamoto (or Genji) and Taira (or Heike) clans. Historically many biwa players were blind.
This wooden saxaphone and guitar attest to the popularity of jazz music in Japan. Jazz wasIMG_2268 first popularized in the beginning of the twentieth century when it was featured in hotel bars and on cruise ships crossing the Pacific. And the influx of Americans after WWII made jazz even cooler. Appropriately, I purchased these hashioki in a department store in Osaka, which is the unofficial jazz capital of Japan.

My only disappointment from these musical hashioki is that none of them actually make noise. In other words, none of them work. I’m still on the lookout for a hashioki that appeals to both the eyes and the ears.



It’s appropriate that this hashioki depicts two permanently attached temari balls because it turns out that temari have two back stories.



Temari are Japanese handballs (te is a Japanese word for hand). Some people will tell you they are a craft created long ago by ladies-in-waiting at the emperor’s court, and were essentially a smaller version of a similar kemari that was used in a hacky-sack kind of football game introduced from China in the 7th. century. These temari were made from thick thread or yarn wrapped around a round core, and then embroidered with intricate geometric patterns using brightly colored thread.

Others claim that temari are a version of a folk toy made in the homes of poor people from scraps of fabric, particularly old yukata or kimono. Because they were a soft ball children could use them to play indoors when the weather was bad or it wasn’t safe to play outside. There are even traditional rhythmic songs known as temari uta, or temari songs, which were sung or chanted while the temari were passed back and forth.

Of course the reality is probably that today’s temari are descended from both. I treasure the hashioki above because, in addition to being beautiful, it was also a very thoughtful gift from an Etsy vendor named Linda from Chigasaki, Japan.

Temari are still a popular craft today; kits and instruction books abound on the Internet. Today they are made using a styrofoam ball as the base, which is then covered with quilt batting and wrapped in yarn, and then that ball is embroidered with colored and gilt silk thread. The finished products look something like the hashioki above.

I am completely intimidated by the apparent complexity of this craft, so there are no homemade temari in my house. But I particularly like the contrast of angular geometric shapes on a spherical surface. I doubt if any temari owners today allow children to use them as playthings. Instead, they are used as decorations, or sometimes presented as a kind of trophy or commemorative piece.



The subject of the Japanese poem best known in the West is a frog:IMG_2236

The ancient pond–
A frog jumps in,
The sound of water.(1)

A frog may be the lead character of Bashō’s haiku, but notice that he or she is not the protagonist; the poet — the one who hears the splash of the water — experiences the moment. This famous haiku has been used to teach millions of school children that what distinguishes Japanese poetry is its IMG_2237emphasis on change and sensory observation, and also that Japanese poetry is sometimes blissfully short. I would say that the hashioki above shows a frog in pre-jump contemplation, while the one of the left seems to be asking us what we thought of that cannonball into the pond that  he just made.


Because Japan has many ponds and many rice paddies, frogs are commonplace. Japan views them as a symbol of good fortune The Japanese word for frog is kaeru, which also happens to be a homophone for the Japanese verb meaning “to return.” Frogs are sometimes sold at Shinto shrines because the priests are hoping their visitors will return (and buy even more frogs).



I don’t know why so many frog hashioki have googly eyes, but they do. Maybe it’s an attempt to make a wet and slimey creature more agreeable.



This lounging pair of frogs with googly eyes is among my favorites in my collection, because they were a present from Sumie Jones, Professor Emerita of Comparative Literature and of East Asian Languages and Cultures at Indiana University. I was fortunate to audit Sumie’s seminar on The Tale of Genji in Fall 2006 at Indiana University, and it was a fantastic experience to study the classic in depth, and to benefit from Sumie’s expert commentary.


I know that Sumie purchased this pair in Berkeley, California, and that adds to my appreciation of them. I think of Berkeley as being a place of serious scholarship and political action, but I suspect that these guys must have been drop-outs.

(1)Keene, Donald.  World Within Walls:  Japanese Literature of the Pre-Modern Era 1600-1857.  New York:  Columbia University Press, 1999, p. 88.

An auspicious pair

While the crane and the turtle may seem like an unlikely duo, in Japanese culture they areIMG_2247 celebrated as a pair. Items decorated with a tortoise and crane are popular wedding gifts, often packaged together in a wooden presentation box. These two dissimilar creatures are so linked in Japanese lore that the names Tsuru (crane) and Kame (turtle) are sometimes even used as names for twins.

The reason why these two very different creatures are paired can be traced to a Japanese folk tale. According to the legend, after a big flood a crane was unable to find any dry land where he could land and rest. Seeing that the crane was struggling, the turtle floated on the water’s surface so the bird would have a place to rest. Many years later the same area suffered a terrible drought. When the crane saw that the turtle searching to find water, he lifted the turtle up and carried him to a big lake.



IMG_2250Some versions of this folk tale say that these two very different creatures continued to be friends and help each other for many years. It’s interesting to me that in a culture that generally celebrates conformity this well-known folk tale celebrates the very real advantages of diversity.


I couldn’t resist editing this post a month after I originally published it to add this image of a sweet kokeshi pair that have  their own auspicious pair;  the old woman on the left is adorned with a crane, while the old man on the right has a turtle.

Hashioki manga

Until recently I moaned about being unable to find hashioki featuring manga, Japan’s sophisticated cartoon genre. But lately that has changed. On my last trip to Japan I found a hashioki depicting a character who looks like he reads manga, even if he’s not a manga protagonist himself. at Kyoto’s International Manga Museum (see “Otaku” posted in May 2016). And now I’m beginning to see hashioki depicting modern manga — meaning the chisel-jawed men in spandex body suits and big-eyed girls in short skirts with frilly petticoats — on Internet sites like eBay.

This trio is a good example. They show three of the stars of a popular Japanese manga series called Shingei no Titan or Advancing Giants. From left to right they are Eren, Mikasa, and Armin. In addition to a series of comic books, this trio appear in a TV anime show, multiple video games, and a live-action movie rumored to be in production. There’s even a version in English.

But manga, which means “random sketches”, are not limited to these twentieth and twenty-first century characters. There are manga dating back to 745 CE in the Todai-ji temple’s treasure house in Nara. The caricature drawings of rabbits, monkeys and frogs in the 12th century Chōjū-giga scrolls are recognized as an early form of manga. The famous woodblock print artist Katsushika Hokusai also drew thousands of manga during his career in the late 18th.and early 19th. centuries.

IMG_2256But perhaps my best manga example is this frog hashioki set that actually tells a story with its random sketches. The story begins with two lily pads in the middle of a pond, as shown in the first fan shaped piece here.

In the next hashioki the hero of the story arrives. Maybe he’s just swimming by, but then again maybe he’s IMG_2258struggling, worn out by the daily grind of being a frog. The retailer’s description said that Frog Story had pathos, so maybe this is what they meant.


Struggling or not, this little green guy is the hero of Frog Story, so in the next hashioki (below left) we see the frog summoning all his energy to jump high in the air, so high in fact that he can touch the branches of an overhanging willow tree. There isn’t really a logical reason for a tired frog to jump high in the air except it’s the kind of bold thing that heroes do, and it’s a dramatic illustration.

In the next hashioki (above right)  we see the frog landing safely on the lily pad. Can you hear his sigh of relief? According to an insert enclosed with this set by the manufacturer, Japanese frogs make a noise that sounds like kero kero, unlike the ribbit, ribbit sound made by their American cousins. But frogs’ sighs probably all sound the same.
IMG_2261In the final hashioki we see the frog resting contentedly on the lily pad. The scene here looks very much like the scene in the first hashioki, but there’s one important difference. Frog Story has introduced a hero, one that can leap tall lily pads in a single bound, into the pond environment. Things are never going to be the same in this pond. Keep your eyes peeled for Frog Story 2, although I’m not optimistic about selling the rights for a live-action version.


Of course my rendition of Frog Story is just one narration of these manga hashioki. There could be others. In fact, I think it would be fun to invite four friends to dinner, set the table with this set of hashioki, and invite my guests to join me in creating a new version of Frog Story. Except next time I think I’ll change the order of the five manga fans so we can wring a little more pathos from this frog tale.