As I write this post the temperature in South Central Indiana is 31 degrees Fahrenheit, and my least favorite four-letter word (s-n-o-w) may be in the forecast. So, it’s reassuring to focus on this lovely set of Japanese hashioki which show the four seasons, and to remind myself that spring is coming.
I like this set because it exemplifies attention to detail. The tops are slightly curved to keep the tips of the chopsticks from sliding off, and the surfaces are glazed so they are easy to clean.
The designs are combine beauty and whimsy, and each one features a nature element (flowers, flowing water or leaves) and an iconic symbol from the reason (a bunny, a butterfly, fans, and a dragonfly). Maybe these symbols aren’t iconic in the West, but in Japan they are well-recognized symbols for Winter, Spring, Summer, and Autumn.
I also like this set because it reminds me of one of my favorite Japanese novels, Sasameyuki (translated into English as The Makioka Sisters) by Jun’ichiro Tanizaki.
The Makioka Sisters follows the lives of four upper-middle-class sisters in Osaka from the mid 1930’s until the early 1940’s. The specter of war haunts the book as these four adult women dress in elaborate kimonos, go to dance recitals and dine in Western restaurants, make their annual pilgrimage to view cherry blossoms at a famous site, and so on. The family fortune has declined, which changes the social and economic position of the family, and the reader comes to realize that the decline of this family echoes the downward spiral of Japanese society.
When I look at these four hashioki I see the four Makioka sisters. The winter piece evokes Tsuruko, the oldest sister, the rather stern and uptight head of the family, who also has a house full of young children. The spring hashioki suggests Sachiko, the second sister, the stylish but somewhat superficial matron who focuses on pleasant pastimes while the world around her crumbles.
The summer piece personifies Yukiko, the third sister, who is the most traditional and most reserved member of the family. The family’s attempts to arrange a marriage for Yukiko, and the progression of unsuccessful miai where she is introduced to prospective husbands forms the backbone of the novel. The autumn hashioki represents Taeko, the youngest and
wildest sister, who during the novel changes almost as completely as leaves turn in autumn. Taeko starts her own business, attempts to elope, becomes pregnant out of wedlock by another man, and ultimately starts living with a man who is far different from the kind of man her family wished she would marry.
In other words, The Makioka Sisters is a Japanese soap opera.
The Makioka Sisters fascinates me because it chronicles such a dynamic period in modern Japanese history, a period when modernization and Westernization really clashed with traditional mores, including nationalistic militarism. Tanizaki essentially went into seclusion during WW2; to occupy himself he worked on a project that the Japanese military machine would not have considered politically correct, a modern Japanese language version of The Tale of Genji. When it was published after the war this publication enabled many Japanese to read a previously-inaccessible classic of Japanese literature, which probably helped to preserve some more peaceful Japanese traditions.
Sachiko may not be my favorite Makioka sister, but as I sit here shivering the spring hashioki is my favorite from this set.