It turns out that a lot of Japanese tableware is packaged in sets of five: tea cups, plates, rice bowls, and so on. I have not been able to unearth a definitive reason for this, but I have collected quite a few contributing facts and practices.
H. Elliott McClure, an American collector hashioki collector who lived in Japan after the Occupation, had a charming explanation for sets of five. “Hashioki are usually sold in little boxes of five. Traditionally, five is the preferred number rather than six because it is an uneven number and uneven numbers have a future. One or more pieces can be added to make them even or perfect numbers; therefore the buyer and user is said to be blessed by the future.”(1)
However, people who prefer sets of five are probably thinking more about avoiding bad luck than they are about attracting good luck.
Sets of four, which are common in the West, are rarely seen in Japan because one pronunciation for four (shi) is also the pronunciation for the word for death. When I first went to Japan in the early 1990s multi-story buildings didn’t generally have a fourth floor; the floor count progressed directly three to five.
Five has particular significance in Japanese cuisine. Food is said to have five basic tastes: sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and savory. There are also five recognized ways to arrange food on a plate: yamamori, or mountainlike mounds; sugimori, standing or slanting; hiramori, flat arrangements; ayamori, woven arrangements, and yosemori, gathered arrangements.(2)
Five is a significant number in Buddhism, which of course permeates Japan. The famous swordsman and philosophy Miyamoto Musashi wrote about the five elements that make up the Buddhist cosmos — ground, water, fire, wind and void — in his classic The Book of Five Rings. He also identified the five key parts of the human body: head, left elbow, right elbow, left knee, and right knee.
I have to admit that before I started research, I thought sets of five hashioki existed because that seemed to match the composition of the families I saw in restaurants and on the streets in Japan: mother, father, child, and two grandparents.
There are of course other reasons why the number five resonates with human beings, whether they use chopsticks or not. We have five fingers on each hand and five toes on each foot. Our faces have five openings (eyes, nostrils, and mouth), and we have five senses. So grouping items in sets of five is probably a universal predilection that packaging in Japan seems to amplify.
Some sets of five hashioki feature rests that are identical, like this lovely set of Arita porcelain that was apparently distributed as some sort of thank gift by Japan’s ANA Airlines. According to the paperwork in the box, the set reproduces a pattern created by Sakaida Kakiemon for a family kiln established in 1616. About a quarter of the sets of five that I own are identical sets which I have used in other parts of this book, including the black kaban kettles shown in “Cast iron teapot,” and the first tanuki shown in “Bad Boys.”
Slightly more common are sets of five where the shape and motif are the same, but the coloring or the decoration is different. Several examples of these kinds of sets are shown earlier in this chapter. Other examples are shown here.
This set of five ceramic violins (left) seems to bridge the gap between sets that are identical and sets that are slightly different; these violins are almost identical, but subtle variations in their hand painting makes each member of the set a bit unique.
Less common than identical sets where there is a unifying theme, but the pieces are physically different. Examples of this include this set of vegetables (right) carved from bamboo, including a carrot,an eggplant, a radish, a cucumber or bitter mellon, and a fiddlehead fern,
and these frolicking felines, which shows 5 cats in 3 different poses.
Hashioki that are packaged in a set of five have some unique advantages, even for Westerners who may persist in thinking in terms of four. With a set of five if lose one or break one — something that often happens with small and delicate items — you still have enough to set the table for two couples.
(1) McClure, H. Elliott. “Hasioki: Art of the Chopstick Rest.” Orientations, June 1979, p. 46.
(2) Richie, Donald. A Taste of Japan. New York: Kodansha International, 1985, p. 9.