Opener of Japan

Opener of JapanI labeled this hashioki with the title above the moment I saw it on a shelf in a small shop on a back street in Tokyo.

It appears to depict a Western man dressed in nineteenth century clothing. It may represent Commodore Matthew C. Perry, the American admiral whose ships sailed to Japan in 1853 and 1854, and who signed the treaty that opened Japan’s ports and borders to foreigners following more than 200 years of self-imposed isolation. The man is dressed in the colors of the American flag, making it an appropriate post for the week before the Fourth of July. And on July 8, 1853, when Perry entered Edo Bay near present-day Tokyo, he commanded his ships to fire blanks from their cannons, obstensively to celebrate United States’ Independence Day, but more likely as a show of force for the Japanese. So Perry has a definite connection to the Fourth of July.

But I prefer to think that this figure represents someone more like Ernest Fenollosa or William Sturgis Bigelow, Americans who traveled to Japan after Perry and brought Japanese art back to the States to display in American museums. (Curiously enough, both Fenollosa and Bigelow had beards, like this hashioki, but Perry did not.) Many Americans first experienced Japan by looking at a woodblock print or a statue of a buddha in museum. My mind was certainly opened to Japan by the Japanese art I saw as a teenager at the great museums of Philadelphia, New York, and Boston.

In either case, the piece is a bit unusual. It represents either an American who dictated policy to the Japanese government, or an American who removed art treasures from the country to display in a foreign museum. It may be an attractive and unique piece, but I’m not sure that it’s really politically correct.

January Daruma

I’ve already written about Daruma (“Daruma,” August 2016), the character also known as Bodhidharma, who is associated with making wishes or setting personal goals every new year.

img_2807I couldn’t resist this Daruma hashioki, because he’s a little bit different from the other Daruma’s in my collection. And because his face has the same expression mine has after I vow to give up pasta and bread, then promise that I’m going to exercise more, every year in early January.


I don’t know whether to label this expression anger or unhappiness or resolve, but this is the expression my face wears until my determination fades in… early Feburary. This is probably a good hashioki to use on your table in January so Daruma can suffer with you through the meal.

Of course maybe that’s not why Daruma wears this expression. Maybe he’s frowning because it took him 19 agonizing days to travel from Los Angeles to my home in Indiana. Apparently the eBay vendor who sold this piece shipped it by Pony Express….

Santa Claus

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus — even in hashioki.

Christmas is not an important holiday in Japan, where less than one percent of the population is Christian, but that doesn’t mean the Japanese don’t celebrate it. Many commercial buildings and stores decorate with lights and Christmas ornaments, and img_2636shops feature baked goods and other food items festooned with red and green. Christmas Eve is a popular date night in Japan, and December 25 kicks off the last week of Japan’s traditional year-end parties. So it’s not surprising that wreath, tree, jingle bell, and Santa hashioki all exist.

I’m not sure if this Santa is relaxed because he only has to make deliveries to 1% of the children in Japan, or whether he’s exhausted from his global delivery schedule.

By the way, the phrase”Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” comes from a newspaper editorial published in the New York Sun on September 21, 1897 which assured 8-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon that Santa Claus did exist, despite what her skeptical friends told her.  The editorial is reported to be the most reprinted editorial in the English language, no doubt especially at this time of year.


Fukusuke is a “lucky man” figure with a short stature and oversized head. He always wears a kataginu, a kind of vest with exaggerated shoulders. While this kind of garment was img_2575historically worn by samurai or court officials, some say that Fukusuke was based on a wealthy Kyoto merchant (1). Fukusuke is often seen in business establishments, and is today is treated as a common good luck icon.

If you’re a fan of The Beatles, Fukusuke may look familiar; he, along with Marilyn Monroe and W.C. Fields and a host of others, is one of the celebrities featured on the cover of their Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album (1967). Fukusuke appears in the lower left hand corner, just above the big red B, on the album cover.

(1) Frederic, Louis and Kathe Roth (translator).  Japan Encyclopedia.  Cambridge, MA:  The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2002, p. 219.



While these hashioki may seem to suggest that sumo is a sport where pudgy guys wearing aprons or diapers stomp around, this indigenous Japanese sport is actually a sophisticated test of technique and concentration in addition to being a contest of strength.


The Japanese word sumo comes from the pronunciation of the kanji meaning “get together” and the kanji meaning “strike.” It is often translated as “to mutually rush at.” According to the Kojiki, an early 8th. century Japanese collection of myths, the first sumo match was between two Shinto gods to determine which of them would rule Japan. Sumo continues to have many ties to Shinto today.

SumoThe garment that a sumo wrestler wears is known as a mawashi. It’s about 30 feet long and two feet wide.  The mawashi worn during tournaments are made of silk. Sumo wrestlers usually wear their hair in a oichomage or ceremonial topknot.


SumoThe other garment unique to sumo is the kesho-mawashi, or ceremonial apron. Higher ranked sumo wrestlers wear these aprons during the dohyo-ri or ring entering ceremony at the beginning of each match. Many rikishi receive their first ceremonial apron from their home town fan club when they graduate from apprentice to professional wrestler.

I purchased the following four vintage hashioki on eBay. Given the traditional Japanese prejudice against four, and the illustrations on these pieces, I have to believe that this set once had five, or maybe many more pieces.

SumoThe first hashioki depicts a particularly hefty sumo wrestler. His white belt or tsuna identifies that he has attained the lifetime rank of yokozuna, meaning Grand Champion, or the highest rank a wrestler can attain. The zig zag paper strips hanging from his belt signify lightening. Yokozuna are only promoted after winning two or more consecutive sumo tournaments, and they have rock-star celebrity status in Japan.
SumoThis hashioki shows a sumo match in progress. It gives a good view of a sumo dohyo, or clay and sand wrestling ring, and the tawara or rice straw bales that mark the edges of the 15-foot-diameter ring. Surprisingly, sumo depends more on strategy than bulk. There’s a lot of pushing and shoving, but a wrestler wins his match by forcing his opponent to lose his balance and step outside the ring, or to fall so that some body part touches the ground outside the tawara.


The inscription on this chopstick rest tells us that it depicts a dohyo-iri, or ring-entering ceremony, where all the wrestlers parade before a match begins. The wrestlers parade in rank order, and the leader in this illustration is a yokozuna.


SumoThis last hashioki depicts a particular sumo move, which supports the suggestion that this set originally had more pieces. The move is known as utchari, and it’s a dangerous move that can produce spectacular results. When a wrestler is pushed up against the edge of the ring he leans back, tempting his opponent to try to bump him out of the ring with his stomach. However, a skillful sumo wrestler sometimes manages to move to one side before this can happen, meaning that his opponent ends up falling flat on his face outside the ring.

While sumo tournaments are still televised on Japan’s leading television station, the sport has become less popular in recent years. This may be because some of the most successful or popular wrestlers are not Japanese, but come from places like Mongolia and Hawaii. Sumo has also been troubled by a series of scandals. Other sports, including soccer and mixed martial arts, seem to be wooing fans away from sumo, too. But sumo continues to be an iconic Japanese symbol, and to be a popular motif for hashioki.



What is it about this woman?

IMG_2404There’s something about this woman – Okame, or Otafuku as she is known – that calls out to me every time I see her. I already had seven Okame hashioki in my collection, but as soon as I saw this one I knew I would shortly have eight.

I’ve already written about her (“Okame” posted in January 2016) and explained how is Japan she is a symbol of joy, and also a symbol for simple and possibly sensual pleasures.

I suppose I am attracted to Okame because she is a pudgy middle-aged housewife with the soul of a dancing girl inside. I know I have a check mark inside those first three boxes; I’d like to think I have a check mark in the last one, too.

Plus, look at this face: can’t you just tell she’s a hashioki collector?



This roly-poly character, usually painted red, is symbol of good luck and wish fulfillmentIMG_2384 in Japan. His name, Daruma, is a nickname for the Buddhist monk Bodhidharma, who founded what is known as Zen Buddhism in China during the fifth or sixth century. Bodhidharma achieved enlightenment after spending nine years in a cave practicing zazen or seated meditation. He cut off his eye lids to keep himself from dozing, and his arms and legs withered away from lack of use. No wonder he looks like he is suffering.

IMG_2385Two interesting stories are associated with daruma. One is that his cut-off eye lids produced the first tea plants, which explains why Zen practitioners sip tea to stay awake during meditation. Second, in China Bodhidharma was sometimes referred to as “The Blue-Eyed Barbarian,” which reinforces the Japanese belief that he came to China from Persia.


At the beginning of the year daruma dolls with blank eye balls are often sold at Zen IMG_2386temples; you see them lined up on shelves, looking a lot like this unusual joined pair, in stalls as you approach the temple. The purchaser of a daruma is supposed to set a personal goal for the coming year, and then paint in one of the eyeballs. When that goal is achieved the owner paints in the other eyeball. At the end of the year the owner is supposed to return the daruma to the temple where they bought to be burned in a bonfire.

IMG_2387I can’t help but think that hashioki manufacturers are missing a marketing opportunity here. Wouldn’t daruma chopstick rests with blank eyeballs be great? Then the purchaser would be reminded of their goal for the year every time they used their daruma hashioki with its one painted eyeball, and they could celebrateIMG_2388 with a special meal when the time came to paint in the other eyeball. Then they could purchase a new daruma hashioki for next year’s goal.  This is definitely a missed opportunity for hashioki manufacturers.



I personally find the daruma figure to be very appealing.  In fact, a photo of a daruma hashioki with lots of soul  appears on my business card.  But more about that daruma hashioki in the future.


Kabuki actors

Kabuki is one of Japan’s three most famous indigenous drama forms; it’s more colorful and energetic than Noh, but shares many of the same stories and plays as the Bunraku puppet theatre.

In Japanese kabuki is written with three kanji that mean sing, dance and skill. But the word itself probably derives from the verb kabuku, which means unusual or surprising. Therefore, we might say that kabuki is a form of drama containing dance and music which has the power to surprise its audience.

Kabuki has its roots in erotic dances that were performed by traveling troupes of women in the early 1600s. When the shogunate government figured out that many of these dancers were also working as prostitutes they responded by banning all women from performing on the stage. But kabuki continued with male actors playing both the male and female roles. Kabuki eventually evolved into a dramatic form with plays based on historical events and heroes, with elaborate costumes and carefully choreographed dance-fights, and performances that featured very stylized gestures and movements. It’s still possible to see kabuki in Tokyo and Osaka, and it’s a wonderful spectacle.


I’m not sure whether the hashioki above is a tribute to kabuki or to the artist Tōshūsai Sharaku. It features a famous woodblock print by Sharaku showing a popular kabuki actor in one of his most renown roles. The print was featured on a postage stamp issued by Japan in the 1950s.

IMG_2307These tokkuri (sake flask) and sake cup sets also feature kabuki portraits by Sharaku. The one of the left appears to be the same actor or same portrait that is featured on the stamp hashioki, with somewhat different coloring. The one on the right shows a kabuki actor in an onnagata or woman’s role.


Attending a kabuki play is more than just attending a performance;  people purchase box lunches (bento) from stalls outside the theatre or in the lobby to eat during intermission, and I’m sure some of those bento are washed down with sake.  So it’s entirely appropriate to have tokkuri displaying the faces of famous kabuki actors.



These hashioki depict an okina, the mask worn by the old man character a Kyōgen playIMG_2309 with the same name. Kyōgen, short plays that are performed before or during the intermission of solemn Noh dramas, are often humorous, but this particular play is more inspiring than humorous. The okina character, whose white hair and white beard signify wisdom, performs a dance while he prays for peace and prosperity during the play. He also makes references to the tortoise and the crane, which are popular longevity symbols (see June 2016 post “An auspicious pair” and July 2016 posts”Cranes” and “Turtles”). An Okina play is traditionally performed at New Year’s. In both these hashioki the okina mask rests on a folded sensu or ōgi fan, which is a common prop in Noh and Kyōgen plays.


I purchased this particular okina hashioki at the Oedo Antiques Fair in Tokyo in December 2010. The dealer who sold it insisted that it was “very old,” and a rough spot on his nose and some discoloring on the back at the base certainly suggest that it is an antique. Since it’s unusual to see anyone under 50 at a Noh performance today, only someone who was an antique themself — or a crazy Westerner who was a collector — would probably be interested in such an item.


This hashioki doesn’t depict a famous character from literature, or the heroine from a Japanese folk tale, or anybody famous or noteworthy at all.

But then again, maybe it depicts a character who is all those things, because I think this IMG_2304hashioki is a tribute to an okasan, or mother in Japanese.

This okasan is sitting patiently on the floor in the traditional seiza style, with her thighs resting on her folded legs, and her derriere resting on her feet. Maybe she is welcoming guests in the doorway to her home, or waiting for her family to eat the meal she just cooked. She is smiling, perhaps because this hashioki demonstrates that for once she has been given a well-deserved place of honor not only at the table, but also on the table.

While we may think of Japan as a traditionally patriarchal society, it is actually the okasan who has held the family together in recent times. The okasan runs the household, manages the finances, and generally rules over both children and spouse. She is the first one up in the morning, and the last to go to bed at night. Today many okasan also work outside the home.

Okasan isn’t the only word for mother. It’s the polite term you use to refer to someone else’s mother, or to demonstrate your respect for your own mother in formal or polite situations. Inside the family most sons and daughters use the shorter and more amusing word haha to address their mothers.

I like to think that this hashioki was fashioned so that a husband or child could buy it and bring it home to show their okasan– not haha,  but okasan — how much she is appreciated.