Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Japanese Rice Culture

The Brillat-Savarin quote “Tell me what you eat, and I’ll tell you who you are,” speaks of the cultural significance of food. Food in most cultures is not merely consumption, it is also a deeply rooted part of their culture. In Japan rice is a food item that takes on cultural significance. Not only is the rice sustaining, but it has also become a deep rooted sense of the Japanese self and culture as a whole. For one to identify themselves as Japanese, is to identify themselves with Japan’s rice.

Rice existed in Japan reaching back into the 1st century. Rice was not only relegated to consumption, it had become a symbol to the Japanese people. Rice took on a religious significance in Japan. Specific farming patterns and rituals became important to please the deities of rice. The farming practice itself was an exchange of one’s self to the land to gain rice back. Offers of rice and wine made from rice were “sacrificed” to the deities of Japan. Each grain of rice itself was important as well, as each took on the symbolism of divinity, so to consume rice was to be one with their divinity. Rice was even used as a form of “pure” currency for those who thought other forms of currency were “impure.”

Rice as a staple in the Japanese diet in comparison to the age of its people is a recent phenomenon. Consumption of rice as the predominant staple began in the 17th century, when it became part of each of the three daily meals. Into the 19th century the majority of Japanese were eating rice with the larger yields produced in the Japanese rice patties. With the military eventually adopting the rice as the major sustaining staple for its troops, the grain became fully “ingrained” into Japanese culture on the personal level and the national level.

The Japanese rice itself gave the Japanese a sense of nationality. They used rice not only to differentiate themselves from Western ways, but to also differentiate themselves from other Asian cultures. As the Japanese rice is a short-grained rice, and distinctly different from long-grained rice found across much of the rest of Asia, they could feel a pride in their individuality in Asian culture. When short-grained rice was farmed in California and an attempt was made to import it into Japan, a backlash occurred based upon the Western culture that had created this in their soil. Even though the rice was identical based upon Japanese seed, the fact that it was not grown in Japanese soil was an insult to the Japanese people.

In Western cultures one person may make an “authentic” culinary dish, but the neighbor next door could make the same “authentic” dish and it can be completely different. Japanese rice growing evolved in the same way to bring this individual sense of self a step further. Each home would potentially plant their own rice, but would evolve the grain into a rice that was distinctly different from their neighbor’s rice. So rice became not only a sense of Japanese nationality, but also became a complete sense of individuality in the culture.

Many cultures take on items as part of their national pride. Most times we see dishes or multiple ingredients as part of the national pride however. The intense spirituality that encompasses many Asian cultures can be seen as a reason for grasping onto a single staple which can be an all encompassing symbol for everything in their culture. Japanese people have entrenched rice into their spiritual culture, monetary system of the past, national pride compared to both Western and other Asian cultures, and even the individual within Japanese culture compared to other Japanese people. It is this single grain that has helped to identify Japan as an independent nation that consumes rice because they are one with the rice.

Currently reading :
Rice as Self: Japanese Identities through Time (Princeton Paperbacks)
By Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney
Release date: 14 November, 1994

1 comment:

Katherina said...

Very good blog! I have just started one on a bit of the same subject- I call it gastrophilosophy. I want to try to examine how our food experiences shape our identity- also cross-culturaly..Rice is an interesting example in that regard. You are welcome to check out my blog as well on


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