The power of 5

IMG_3582It 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.

IMG_3566Five 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 IMG_3570swordsman 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.

IMG_3564There 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.

IMG_3599Some 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.

 

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Customer service

This isn’t just any hashioki. This is a symbol of Japanese customer service.

IMG_3536When I took our kids to Tokyo Disneyland in May 1998 I was really hoping that I would spot a Mickey Mouse hashioki in one of the shops inside the park. It certainly seemed like it was an item that should exist; I saw lots of Mickey Mouse chopsticks. But I couldn’t find a Mickey Mouse chopstick rests.

On our way out of the park we stopped in one last gift shop.

Mickey Mouse hashioki ga arimasu ka?” I asked one of the sales clerks in my halting Japanese.

The young woman looked confused, which is the usual reaction I get when I speak Japanese. So I repeated my question.

Mickey Mouse hashioki ga arimasu ka?” I said slowly.

She motioned for one of her co-workers to come over, and I repeated my question once again. That clerk led me to the counter where I had already browsed, and showed me the Mickey Mouse chopsticks.

Iie,” I told her, shaking my head. “Hashi jyaa nai. Hashioki ga iremasu.” I was pretty sure that meant, “Not chopsticks. I need a chopstick rest.”

Maybe it was because I used the verb for “need” instead of the verb for “want,” which I frankly couldn’t remember (it’s hoshigaru, by the way). In any case, the two clerks called over a third sales clerk, and they proceeded to have a rapid fire conversation in Japanese with her. At one point the first young woman picked up the phone and made several phone calls. Then she said, “Please wait,” to me, making me think I should made my request in English from the beginning, and the third young woman ran out of the shop.

She didn’t just walk quickly. She actually ran.

We waited a long time. It was maybe 20 minutes; I gave my kids money to buy a soda because it was such a long wait. But the first two clerks kept looking at me and smiling. Finally the third young woman ran breathlessly back into the shop, and opened the palm of her hand to produce this Mickey Mouse hashioki.

I thanked the three sales clerks. I opened my wallet and pulled out 300 yen — a little more than two US dollars — and paid, and they wrapped the hashioki in foam and in tissue paper and put it in a little Disney paper bag and sealed it with a sticker. The first clerk then presented it to me while she bowed from her waist, and the other clerks bowed in tandem, and then I bowed to them, and then one of my kids grabbed my arm and said, “Come on, Mom! Let’s go!” And so we did.

My point here is that when I as a customer asked for an insignificant item, the low level clerks working in the shop didn’t just shrug their shoulders or tell me they didn’t have it. They figured out that the item I wanted existed somewhere in Disneyland, and then one of them ran across the park to get it. It was the end of the day for them, too, but these three young clerks gladly went to all this trouble. In fact, they looked as happy as I did that I got my Mickey Mouse hashioki.

It may be that the Disney organization emphasizes customer satisfaction in their sales clerk training. But honestly, I’ve had similar shopping experiences across Japan: people in shops who are more than willingly to make a special effort to please a customer. And I think it’s because sales clerks in Japan are basically selfless. They’re not thinking about their aching feet or how long they have to wait until the end of this shift. They understand their job is not just about ringing sales on the cash register. They’re actually thinking about the customer.

I am purposely posting this anecdote a few days before the day after Thanksgiving, the biggest shopping day of the year in the U.S. Wish that shopping in the United States was more like shopping in Japan.

 

Hoosier hashioki

I think of this hashioki as my “Hoosier hashioki” because it depicts a red cardinal bird sitting on a log.

IMG_3537Cardinals are the state bird for the state of Indiana, along with 6 other states in the United States. They are my neighbors in the woods behind my house. So even though I spotted this metal hashioki in a department store on the Ginza in Tokyo, I knew it was a Hoosier hashioki right away.

In the Japanese language cardinal is shoujoukoukanchou. But they don’t seem to have red cardinals in Japan. There is a red-crested cardinal in Japan, but it’s a white and grey bird with a red head, and it’s apparently an import from South America.

So I guess my Hoosier hashioki is officially an invasive species in Japan.

 

 

Materials

MaterialsThe vast majority of hashioki are made from some sort of ceramic material, like these examples of fine china or porcelain, or this striated clay handmade example by a contemporary artisan.

Many scholars believe that Japan has the world’s oldest ceramic tradition; carbon dating of archeological Materialsdiscoveries suggest that the production of ceramics in Japan may have began as early as 10,000 BCE (1). So it seems appropriate that most hashioki are made from ceramics.

But hashioki have been fashioned from many other materials, including materials that are traditional and materials that are more modern.

 

The examples above on the left are fashioned from a wood core which is thin covered with repeated coats of a film-thin lacquer made from the sap of the urushi tree. The one on the right is a plastic imitation of this technique.

Trees are traditionally objects of reverence in Japan, so various kinds of wood, including (left to right, top to bottom) maple, rosewood, cherry tree wood and bark, teak, coconut tree wood, and bamboo are popular materials for hashioki.

 

Sometimes hashioki made from washi, the Japanese paper made from the bark of aMaterials variety of trees and shrubs. The resulting product is stronger than paper made from wood pulp, and often more textured than standard paper. Despite its strength, paper hashioki like these made from patterned chiyogami (“1000 generation paper”) is usually coated with a clear protective coating.

 

Hashioki are sometimes made from machine-printed paper, like this example of pre-printed origami hashioki that look like animals. In fact, the most common hashioki are made from printed paper — specifically, from the printer wrappers that protect disposable chopsticks.

Some of the other materials represented in my collection include: (first row) silver and gold metal, hammered tin, stainless steel, (second row) glass, nephrite or jade, granite, (third row) marble, polished quartz, slate, (fourth row) animal horn, bone, mother of pearl, (fifth row) hard plastic, soft silicone plastic, and concrete.

 

 

 

The last examples prove that hashioki continue to evolve, incorporating modern materials while still making a nod to tradition.

Finally, these natural stone pebbles demonstrate that nature can be a skilled hashiokiMaterials creator. The one on the right comes from from Nobu, the restaurant of master chef Nobu Matsuhisa in the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. In addition to using these pebbles at their place settings, Nobu features them in a beautiful rock wall on one side of the restaurant. The pebble hashioki with the interesting color variations on the right is from MaterialsIppudo, a famous Japanese ramen restaurant which happens to have a branch in midtown Manhattan.

 

 

 

Of course this catalog of materials is far from exhaustive; imagination and creativity are the only limits to the kinds of materials that can be used to create hashioki.
Dalby, Liza, et al. All-Japan: The Catalogue of Everything Japanese. New York: Quill, 1984, p, 20.

 

 

Shapes

Hashioki are made in an endless variety of shapes, as should be readily apparent to anyone who has scrolled through the posts on this blog.

The most basic hashioki shape is a simple rectangle or ingot with a flat bottom.

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Many rectangular hashioki have curved tops to keep chopsticks from sliding off, and some have ends with a pronounced curl.

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As previously noted, some hashioki are reminiscent of bridges, reflecting the fact that hashi is a homonym for both chopsticks and bridge in Japanese, and stand on little feet like pilings. (See “A hashi for your hashi” post from January 2016.)

 

Apparently hashioki shaped like makura, or Japanese pillow, where once popular. Makura are hard and rigid, usually made from ceramics or wood, and support the neck instead of IMG_1397the head of the user. “For years, the most commonly used form [for hashioki] was that of the pillow,” writes H. Elliott McClure. “Gradually it came in different colors and patterns, but still retaining the pillow form.”(1)  Some ceramic pillows had holes in the sides which could be filled with hot water in winter, as the painted dots on either side of this example suggest.

Some hashioki indicate the place where the tips of the chopsticks should rest,

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while some, like this tiny ceramic plate with an attached rabbit, provide a large target area.

 

 

Other hashioki envelope chopsticks to keep them from rolling around the table.

IMG_1408

Some hashioki do double duty by functioning as a toothpick holder as well as a place for the tips of your chopsticks, like this plastic shamisen, while others provide a place to rest a soup spoons.
But this is just a brief overview. The shape of a hashioki is limited only by the creative mind of its maker and the preference of its user. That is what this blog is all about.

(1) McClure, H. Elliott.  “Hashioki:  The Art of the Chopstick Rest.”  Orientations.  June 1979, p. 46.

_______

Hashioki origin & timeline

The origin of hashioki is difficult to date.

Historians believe that chopsticks originated in China, and that they were first imported to neighboring countries sometime after the fifth century BCE. In Japan chopsticks were probably initially used solely by the imperial court and nobility, the people who interacted with Chinese and Korean emissaries; many chopsticks have been discovered in theIMG_1362 excavations of the first permanent capital that was constructed near Nara, Japan beginning in 710 CE. Prior to the introduction of chopsticks the Japanese people, like many of their global contemporaries, ate with their hands, or sipped liquids like soup from bowls. However, archeological excavations outside of Kyoto suggest that chopsticks were in common use by the general population by the end of the eighth century.(1) This pebble shaped hashioki has been glazed and fired in the style of many ceramics from that period.

Unfortunately, the origin of hashioki is less certain. Some commentators suggest there is a connection to rituals performed in Shintoism, the indigenous spiritual system of Japan IMG_1363associated with nature, where the chopsticks used to offer ritual foods to the gods were placed on a stand to keep them uncontaminated.(2) This cherry tree bark hasioki could be considered to express the Shinto emphasis on natural materials. An illustration in the Shijōke shichigosan no kazarikata (Shijō-House Decorations for 7-5-3 Trays), a Japanese culinary text dated 1612, features what appears to be a hashioki in diagrams for two banquet trays, although in this drawing the center of the chopsticks are balanced on the hashioki like a seesaw,(3) not simply supporting the tips, as they are used today. Because this text is essentially an interpretation of Chinese practices for ceremonial occasions, it supports the idea that hashioki, like chopsticks, are items that may have originated in China.

British scholar Charles J. Dunn claims that hashioki were used by more affluent JapaneseIMG_1364 households during the Tokugawa period (1603-1868).(4) This ivory-colored porcelain rest its asymmetrical floral design and gold embellishment is typical of the Satsuma ceramics popular during that period.

H. Elliott McClure, an American ornithologist and hashioki collector who lived in Japan during the 1950s, and the author of the only article on hashioki published in an English-language scholarly journal to date, believed that hashioki are a “modern innovation… probably not used before the turn of the [twentieth] century.”(5)

Even if chopstick rests existed in Japan prior to 1900, they became much more popular after this time in response to several trends. First, this period coincided with the establishment of depāto, or department stores in Japan. These department stores fueled the growth of a consumer culture in Japan,(6) specifically among the merchant and artisan classes, which now constituted a middle class with money to spend. Anthropologist Millie Creighton points out that while the department stores sell Western goods in Japan, they also sell domestic products, and as such are “involved in the creation IMG_1365of cultural meanings… they are also curators of Japanese tradition, re-defining the meanings associated with a Japanese heritage.”(7)  For example, this blue and white speckled hyotan or gourd, purchased in a Mitsukoshi department store, is a traditional good luck symbol, and also reflects the Japanese affinity for forms from nature. Today the housewares departments of Japanese depāto continue to offer some of the largest and most varied assortments of hashioki, including many hashioki featuring traditional motifs.
Second, the beginning of the twentieth century saw a dramatic change in the dining habits of the Japanese. Historian Jordan Sand notes that prior to the early 1900s “members of Japanese families generally dined at different times, sometimes in different rooms, from individual trays.”(8) This meant most people ate in silence. Sand refers to a Japanese household management guide and moral instruction guide published in 1907 titled Ie (Household) which introduced the idea that ‘houses of the middle level of society (chūtō shakai) should make a custom whenever possible of gathering the whole family for meals.’ Meals should be taken in the most pleasant place in the house, conversation should be encouraged, and ‘to the degree possible, trays should be abandoned for a table structure…’”(9)  Ethnographer Naomichi Ishige reports that by the mid 1920s most Japanese familiesIMG_1366 had transitioned to low communal tables called chabudai, which were largely replaced by a Western-style dining table by the 1970s.(10) Hashioki like this hand-painted crescent, which allowed a diner to pause and lay down his or her chopsticks during a meal, are one device that could facilitate conversation at a communal table.

Third, while Japan was bombarded with Western influences after the opening of the country to trade with the West in 1854, this actually encouraged some citizens to become nostalgic for traditional items. Design historian Penny Sparke confirms this trend when she notes that in the hundred years beginning in the 1870s “as [Japan] gradually embraced a way of life inspired by the West, design developed erratically, sometimes moving enthusiastically forward, fired by IMG_1367advances in technology, and sometimes resisting advancement, mirroring and reinvigorating the continuing role of tradition and spirituality in everyday life.”(11)  Hashioki, like this one in the shape of a folded fan, brought traditional symbols to the dining table, and also facilitated the use of traditional chopsticks instead of Western cutlery.
Finally, domestic travel by Japanese citizens, including recreational tourism to famous sites throughout Japan, expanded significantly during the twentieth century. After World War 2 the number of foreign tourists visiting Japan also increased. So the new marketIMG_1368 created by tourists shopping for souvenirs, like this stylized cherry blossom, may have fueled hashioki growth.  Anyone who has been to Japan will attest to the lines of shops along the approaches to temples and shrines, and the kiosks that line the hallways of railroad stations, that exist solely to provide keepsakes for travelers, or for the folks back home. There are always a few shops selling plates and cups and chopstick rests; hashioki make attractive souvenirs that are both inexpensive and easy to carry.

My takeaway from this timeline is that during a century of dynamic economic growth and societal metamorphosis hashioki have been hashi, or bridges, spanning a river of change.

(1) Ishige, Naomichi.  The History and Culture of Japanese Food.  London:  Keegan Paul, 2001, p. 67.

(2) Kikkoman Corporation.  Chopsticks (O-hashi).  http://kikkoman.com/cookbook/glossarygs4.shtml (downloaded March 2011), p. 1.

(3) Rath, Eric C.  Food and Fantasy in Early Modern Japan.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010, Plate 5.

(4) Dunn, Charles J.  Everyday Life in Traditional Japan.  North Clarendon, Vermont:  Tuttle Publishing, 1969, p. 136.

(5) McClure, H. Elliott.  Hashioki: Art of the Chopstick Rest.  Orientations, June 1979, p. 45.

(6) Tamari, Tomoko.  “Rise of the Department Store and the Aestheticization of Everyday Life in 20th. Century Japan.”  International Journal of Japanese Sociology.  2006 (November: Number 15), p.100.

(7) Creighton, Millie. “Pre-industrial dreaming in post-industrial Japan:  department stores and the commoditization of community traditions.” Japan Forum 1998, 10 (2), p. 127.

(8) Sand, Jordan. House and Home in Modern Japan:  Architecture, Domestic Space and Bourgeois Culture 1880-1930.  Cambridge:  Harvard University Press, 2003, p. 33.

(9) Ibid., p. 34.

(10) Ishige, Naomichi.  “Food Culture,” in Sugimoto, Yoshio (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Modern Japanese Culture.  Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2009, p. 310.

(11) Sparke, Penny.  Japanese Design.  New York:  Museum of Modern Art, 2009, p. 13.

 

 

Making more out of less

Even the diminutive size of hashioki seem to link them to Japan.

For example, this hashioki is nothing more than a small lump of clay that has been shapedIMG_1486  by hand, had some features carved with a simple pointed tool, and then splashed with two colors of glaze before being fired. Yet it is instantly recognizable as a tanuki, or native Japanese raccoon dog, and appreciated as a delightful folk art rendering of a tanuki at that. Donald Richie, who wrote extensively about Japanese culture and film, once suggested that Japan’s historical historical experience of having to make more out of less space and fewer natural resources has made it the master of tiny items. “Traditionally, Japan learned to transform its poverty…. The art of the small, the minimal, the enormous economy of the spatial assumptions, this was due to not having much,”(1)  Richie noted.

Hashioki makers know how to get a lot of bang out of their buck.

During the pre-modern Tokugawa period the Japanese government also levied consumption taxes as a means to restrict displays of wealth among the then newly-IMG_1372emerging middle class. These measures “forced craftsmen to lavish their skills on small private objects, like tiny ivory clasps or exquisite lacquer boxes… [thereby producing a Japanese] tradition of great craftsmanship in detail and miniature.”(2)  This tradition, and the Japanese population’s appreciation for detailed small objects like this lovely hand painted fan with gold embellishment, undoubtedly apaved the way for the promulgation of hashioki in the twentieth century, and for their endurance today.

(1) Richie, Donald.  “Patterns of Japanese Leisure,” October 1994 address at Harvard University.  Partial Views:  Essays on Contemporary Japan.  Tokyo: The Japan Times, Ltd., 1995, p.30.

(2) Darmon, Reed.  Made in Japan.  San Francisco:  Chronicle Books, 2006, p. 7.

For more information on tanuki see my January 2016 post “Bad boys.”

 

A hashi for your hashi

The word hashi, which is the first part of the compound word hashioki, is (as I explained in my post What’s in a name? ) the pronunciation for the Japanese kanji or ideograph for “chopsticks.”  This kanji is shown below on the left.

IMG_2346

Hashi is also one pronunciation for a different Japanese kanji which means “bridge”.  The kanji for bridge is shown to the right of the kanji for chopsticks.

Since the two kanji are homonyms, you could think of a hashioki as a hashi (bridge) for your hashi (chopsticks).  The coincidence has inspired hashioki in the shape of bridges, as well as hashioki that rest on little feet in the form of bridges.

Merrily Baird writes that thanks to the preponderance of rivers, streams, and canals, bridges are everywhere in Japan. She notes that bridges have always been a popular theme in Japanese art, particularly when they IMG_1360allude to Japanese legends or literature classics.(1) This blue and white example, where the image of a bridge is displayed beside some cursive or Japanese grass style writing, alludes to that connection.

IMG_1361

 

 

 

 

The homophonic hashi connection also reinforces the idea that in the same way that hashioki function as bridges between food and mouth or table and mouth, they also serve function as symbolic bridges between the people who use them and Japanese culture.

 

This hashi is a reproduction of the famous meganebashi bridge in Nagasaki.  When the arches of the bridge are reflected in the Nakashima River it spans, it is said to img_2766 megane or eyeglasses with round lenses.  This piece must be authentic;  I purchased it at the Nagasaki Museum of History and Culture gift shop.  I wish there were more hashioki that were genuine souvenirs, functioning as bridges between famous sites and dining room tables.

(1) Baird, Merrily.  Symbols of Japan:  Thematic Motifs in Art and Design.  New York:  Rizzoli International Publications, 2001, pp. 224-245.

What’s in a name?

 

In the Japanese language hashioki is commonly written using kanji as shown in the photo on the left below.

The first kanji or Chinese character is the symbol for chopsticks (hashi), the second kanji is the base of the Japanese verb meaning “to place or put” (o from oku), and the third element (ki) expresses the verb inflection in hiragana, the Japanese syllabary for native words.  Therefore in Japanese a hashioki is an object “to place chopsticks on.”  The noun is both singular and plural.

When written entirely in hiragana hashioki looks like the photo above on the right.

IMG_2345The Chinese linguistical roots for chopstick rests are somewhat different.  In Chinese chopstick rests are known as kuaizi zuo, which is written in the photo on the left.  In this case the first character represents the Chinese word for chopsticks (kuai), the second character is the Chinese term for little (zi), and the third character is the Chinese symbol for seat (zuo).  therefore a kuaizi zuo is a “little seat for chopsticks.”

In English hashioki are sometimes referred to as chopstick holders, although this term more properly describes a container that holds a number of chopsticks upright on a table or counter, or a carrying case for chopsticks.

IMG_1356

 

 

Sometimes the term chopstick pillow, which is the way this bird-shaped piece was described by the vendor in Kobe who sold it on Etsy.com.

Hashioki are also occasionally called chopstick hanger, which was what the packing for this IMG_1488mother-of-pearl example from the gift shop of the Taiwan National Museum in Taipei described it as.

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While chopstick rests were obviously created to use with chopsticks, in the West there is a similar item that is used as a resting place for knives or dessert forks.  Western producers like the venerable English china firm Wedgewood have marketed items like this streamlined white example as a chopstick/knife rest.  I suppose we could consider that dual name to be a comment on the global impact of Asian culture.

 

 

What are hashioki?

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Hashioki are small objects made from ceramics, wood, metal, or other materials that are used as tableware in Japan and other parts of Asia.  Generally measuring less than two inches in length, they appear in a wide variety of shapes and forms.  Often called chopstick rests in English, diners use them to rest the tips of their chopsticks upon when they’re not using them during a meal.

Hashioki are popular throughout Asia, and increasingly seen in the United States and Europe today.  But while they may have originated elsewhere in Asia, I believe chopstick rests are predominantly a Japanese phenomenon.  Their considerable presence throughout Japan in restaurants, gift shops, department store, and other venues supports this view, as does the Japanese cultural themes and indigenous flora and fauna they habitually depict.  Many hashioki also resonate with the same aesthetic and design principles that are expressed in the fine arts of Japan.  Therefore, chopstick rests will be called hashioki, their Japanese name, throughout this blog.

IMG_1323Hashioki perform several functions.  They are a sanitation device because they prevent the tips of chopsticks — the part that touches a person’s mouth — from touching a tabletop and collecting germs.  From a practical standpoint they protect a tabletop or tablecloth from becoming soiled with food particles or residues during a meal.

But for hashioki collectors they are much more.  More than 100 years ago the eminent Japanologist Basil Hall Chamberlain wrote, “In the Japanese view of life the tritest articles of daily use should, if possible, rejoice the eye and feed the mind.” (1)

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Whether they are mass-produced or handmade, hashioki are often miniature works of art, and objects that have the power to evoke emotional responses.  They are routinely made in the shape of cultural icons, decorated in a manner that suggests traditional Japanese values and practices, or made from materials infused with allusions.  They often suggest a season or a holiday, and frequently communicate something about the people using them.

IMG_1318The role of hashioki as symbols is part of what makes chopstick rests Japanese.  Contemporary scholar Merrily Baird has observed that, “It is the nature of man to both think and express himself symbolically.  Moreover, the power of symbols is magnified when a society has broadly shaped experience, a deep knowledge of its cultural traditions and common sentiments about those experiences and traditions.  The fact that these conditions exist in Japan to a striking degree has ensured that the country continues to enjoy a cultural life meaningfully enriched by the use of symbols.”(2)

The simple truth that hashioki resonate with the essence of Japan has drawn me to them for over twenty years.

(1) Chamberlain, Basil Hall.  Things Japanese:  Being Notes on Various Subjects Connected with Japan.  Berkeley:  Stone Bridge Press, 2007 (reprint of 1905 edition), p. 57.

(2) Baird, Merrily.  Symbols of Japan:  Thematic Motifs in Art and Design.  New York:  Rizzoli International Publications, 2001, p. 9.