Exploring Japanese Tableware Culture Piece by Piece

Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Japanese ceramic dishes, created since the Edo Period (1603-1868), are decorated with a variety of designs. Most of these designs feature natural motifs, such as plants and animals. The artists whose names were lost to history painted the changing of the seasons, as well as the beauty and happiness experienced in the seasonal changes, on tiny, ceramic canvases. Even the same motif can be painted with a variety of expressions, and the more you look, the more intriguing it becomes.

Japanese Dishes: Spring, 2019, Original Source: SANSHIN KAKO Co,. Ltd.
Let’s look at some seasonal motifs. For spring, sparrows and horsetails are often used. Another spring-like scene is of logs being transported down the river when water levels are high from the melting snow.
Japanese Dishes: Summer, 2019, Original Source: SANSHIN KAKO Co,. Ltd.
In summer, we often see refreshing motifs, such as morning glory flowers, goldfish, and other fish.
Japanese Dishes: Fall, 2019, Original Source: SANSHIN KAKO Co,. Ltd.
For autumn, designs with rabbits and autumn leaves floating in water, as well as dewy grass designs representing the evening dew, are used. The round shape of the dish featuring the rabbit can itself be interpreted as a full moon, referencing the fact that a rabbit is said to live on the moon according to Japanese folklore.
Japanese Dishes: Winter, 2019, Original Source: SANSHIN KAKO Co,. Ltd.
For winter, you can see a variety of interpretations of snow in the middle of the dishes. The shape of one of the dishes represents the form of a snowflake, and another common winter motif is the sight of bamboo leaves covered in snow.
Japanese Dish with Bamboo Motif, 2019, Original Source: SANSHIN KAKO Co,. Ltd.
A design made from the pairing of pine, bamboo, and plum, representing the joy of the long-awaited spring amidst the background of a long, harsh winter, is said to be the most common pattern used for celebratory dishes.
Japanese Dish with Plum Flower Motif, 2019, Original Source: SANSHIN KAKO Co,. Ltd.
The leaves of pine trees and bamboo plants remain green throughout the winter. It is said that during the dark winter, people long ago found encouragement in these green leaves, as they were the only ones found in winter. The plum flower is a symbol of spring. Nowadays, many people think of cherry blossoms when thinking of spring in Japan, but there are few examples of cherry blossoms painted on dishes from the past. Rather, the plum blossom was surely loved as it offered signs of spring sooner than cherry blossoms and gloriously painted the landscape with vivid colors. The technique of painting pine, bamboo, and plum together on a single dish is a unique one. It is quite fun to search for where the plum blossom may be painted or where the bamboo may be hiding. 
Japanese Dish with Eggplant Pattern, 2019, Original Source: SANSHIN KAKO Co,. Ltd.
Animism lives on in Japanese tableware
Eggplant patterns are often seen as a design element. Eggplant, or nasu in Japanese, is seen as a good omen, helping certain matters in life to “nasu” (“come to fruition”), and the eggplant has come to be a well-liked design, regardless of the season. There are many examples of Japanese ceramic dishes with these kinds of motifs that have become familiar through their implied meanings. Similar to eggplant (nasu), many cases of word play using the same pronunciation with different meanings are well-known in Japan, for example, sea bream (tai) paired with celebrations (medetai), and happiness (tako) with octopus (tako). 
Japanese Dish with Bamboo Motif, 2019, Original Source: SANSHIN KAKO Co,. Ltd.
Dishes painted with two pine needles are loved for their meaning of togetherness, and shrimp can be symbols of longevity and growth.
Chopstick Rest, 2019, Original Source: SANSHIN KAKO Co,. Ltd.
Japanese people have attached meaning to scenery and casual objects around them, and have had fun with those meanings or used them to express hospitality. This can be seen even in the custom of osechi ryori, foods eaten during the New Year’s holidays. The Japanese aesthetic becomes very appealing when you understand the imagination, strong sensibilities, sense of humor, and playful nature present in Japanese culture.  This may be related to the idea of animism, an idea that took root in Japan in ancient times, and is part of a culture of sensing meaning in a variety of objects in one’s life and placing importance on those feelings. Animism refers to the idea that spirits reside in all manner of things in the natural world. It is thought that this idea is deeply rooted in the custom of placing one’s hands together before a meal to say, “Itadakimasu,” meaning, “I humbly receive (this meal)”. Spirits reside in the trees, flowers, animals, and even insects, and some gods are revered by humans as protectors, and this can be understand as part of the idea of gods existing within each and every thing. A god is by your side at all times. It is from this deeply-rooted concept in Japanese culture that special festive chopsticks, known as iwai-bashi, came to be. 
Iwai-bashi, 2019, Original Source: SANSHIN KAKO Co,. Ltd.
These chopsticks are used during New Year’s celebrations, with a length of approximately 242 cm, which traditionally represents good luck and prosperity. A distinctive feature of these chopsticks is the tapered ends. It is thought that one side is for a person to use, and the other for a god to use, and meaning that the eating osechi ryori is done together with the god of the new year, Toshigami, in order to receive favor from him. There is a tradition where the head of a household writes a family member’s name on a chopstick wrapper for each family member on New Year’s Eve, places the chopsticks in the wrapper, and then places all of them on the family altar as a sacrifice. It is then considered good luck to use these same chopsticks from New Year’s Day until January 7.
和食器で食べる給食, Original Source: Savor Japan
Accepting diversity: the culture of ceramics
On a Japanese table, you’ll find porcelain plates, glass cups, lacquered soup bowls, rice bowls for each person, chopsticks in sizes perfect for each person, and more. A variety of tableware of varying materials, shapes, and sizes are spread out on a single table. In most cases, rice bowls and chopsticks are used by only a single person, with one set for the father, mother, and each child. According to Seiji Ebihara, an advisor at Sanshin Kako Co., this custom, unquestioned and normal for Japanese people, is actually a very “Japanese” custom.  “For a long time, Japan had a culture of ceramics, where dishes were originally made from mud. Because the shape of ceramic items are made by human hands, it is incredibly difficult to create two identical items. No matter what, two similar items will differ, even if only slightly. A kind of ‘diversity’ was nurtured within Japanese people, living among this culture of ceramics for so long, and it is thought that this is why it has become normal for a variety of things to exist together.”
Japanese Dishes, 2019, Original Source: SANSHIN KAKO Co,. Ltd.
 This culture of using separate dishes that match each person is strongly related to the culture of eating with chopsticks. Because dishes were placed low to the ground on low tables or even on wooden floors in the past, dishes had to be held when eating soup with chopsticks. It seems that this is why the custom of using dishes and chopsticks that fit one’s body and hand size developed.
Cracked Ceramic Dishes Repaired with Gold, 2019, Original Source: SANSHIN KAKO Co,. Ltd.
This diversity fostered through Japanese history also led to the development of a culture of repairs. A variety of methods exist to repair ceramics: kintsugi, where broken dishes are held together with clamps, missing pieces are filled in with lacquer, and the outer layer is decorated with gold; tomotsugi, where parts of similar dishes are put together; yobitsugi, where parts of completely different dishes are put together; and many more.
Cracked Cup Repaired with Gold, 2019, Original Source: SANSHIN KAKO Co,. Ltd.
Iron Clamps, 2019, Original Source: SANSHIN KAKO Co,. Ltd.
Iron Clamps, 2019, Original Source: SANSHIN KAKO Co,. Ltd.
Cracked Sake Cup Repaired with Gold, 2019, Original Source: SANSHIN KAKO Co,. Ltd.
 In the Edo Period, a culture developed where beauty was found in the patched up areas of dishes, seen as a sort of wound, accepted as “experiences”, and referred to as “scenes”. I think that this is just one example that greatly expresses some of the characteristics nurtured within each Japanese person: the feeling of taking care of objects, a generosity in accepting a variety of things, and an aesthetic sense that values imperfections as originality.
Pine Needle Pattern Bowl, 2019, Original Source: SANSHIN KAKO Co,. Ltd.
When you unravel the still-thriving Japanese tableware culture piece by piece, you can’t help but get a sense of a consideration for mealtime guests, a zest for life that attempts to understand the world in a fun and positive way, and a rich sensitivity that finds beauty in even the most mundane. If you have a chance to go to a Japanese restaurant, paying attention to the dishes themselves may offer a richer experience of the “Japanese” quality of the food.
Credits: Story

Cooperation with:
SANSHIN KAKO Co., Ltd
Chief Advisor Mr. Seiji Ebihara

Photos:Misa Nakagaki
Text:Orika Uchiumi
Edit: Saori Hayashida
Production: Skyrocket Corporation

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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