Japanese Rice: A Taste of Culture and History

Japanese rice for sushi.

Japanese rice for sushi. (Image: Ostancov Vladislav via Dreamstime)

Japanese rice is a vital aspect of Japanese food culture. Not only the Japanese diet but the entire country. Aside from being a staple food source for ages, the significance of this essential grain has been firmly imprinted in Japanese society for generations.

This article will examine rice’s cultural significance in Japanese society.

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Japanese rice culture 

Rice is an indispensable component of Japanese culture, connecting mythology, deities, and the Japanese people from the third century.  

Its significance may be seen in Japanese households. Its widespread presence in local and regional festivals, personal milestones, marriages, and festive occasions, ranges from rice offerings to the ancestral alcove and cemeteries.

To fend off evil spirits and bring health and good fortune to the family, a spiced sake (rice wine) called Otoso (meaning “evil-slaughtering” or “soul-reviving”) is sipped during the Japanese New Year feast. This is only one of many rice-related practices in Shintoism, Japan’s polytheistic indigenous religion.

Japanese rice farming is also significant in Japanese culture, as represented prominently in Ukiyo-e woodblock prints by foremost painters such as Katsushika Hokusai and Utagawa Hiroshige. In addition, Japanese rice fields and rural landscapes are prominent motifs, representing the Japanese identity based on rice.

A Japanese rice harvest ceremony.
A Japanese rice harvest ceremony. (Image: Kobby Dagan via Dreamstime)

Rice mythology 

Rice frequently appears in the Japanese mythology of Kojiki (A.D. 712) and Nihon Shoki (A.D. 720).

The mythology of rice begins with Amaterasu, Japan’s first ruler, sending her descendant Jimmu to transform the land from a wilderness to a site of abundant rice harvests. Amaterasu-Omikami is the mother of a grain soul and is credited with establishing rice and wheat cultivation.

Emperor Jimmu was not only Japan’s conqueror and king but also a farmer and shaman who prayed to the gods for a fruitful crop.

The ancient name of Japan, as chronicled in the Nihon Shoki, is “Toyoashihara no Mizuho no Kuni,” which translates to “the nation where countless rice shoots blossom splendidly,” and was most likely given because the topography was conducive to rice production.

A taste of history 

Around the 1800s, people in Tokyo were suffering from the Edo ailment, a mysterious illness. Those who moved to the city from rural areas fell ill, and the nobles seemed to be the most hit. It was common practice for rural samurai to labor in the city in shifts. As a result, they would grow unwell.

Doctors assumed at the time that it was attributable to the city’s atmosphere and urbanization. As machine processing grew more accessible, more humans were infected. Nobody could find out what was causing the problem for years.

It was not a mysterious sickness attacking the affluent but a vitamin B-1 deficiency produced by the processing. Even though it was a minor oversight, it caused significant problems in Japan for decades.

The idea of eating nothing but pure white rice has given way to an emphasis on a well-balanced diet in modern Japan. Nonetheless, some of the cultural beliefs of the time remain.

While eating exclusively, white rice may and has caused severe issues, including a fair amount of Japanese rice in a modern diet is not bad. What would Japanese food look like if rice didn’t exist? Japanese cuisine and its staple meal are intricately intertwined to being “like white on rice.”

Various flavors of Japanese rice onigiri sold at a convenience store.
Various flavors of Japanese rice onigiri are sold at convenience stores. (Image: Ahmad Faizal Yahya via Dreamstime)

Everyday usage of rice 

Rice not only satisfies the hungry stomach and spirit, but the entire plant is utilized with little waste.

After the grains are removed, the straw may be utilized to thatch roofs, reinforce mud walls, or be woven into bags, sandals, mats, and raincoats. Making sandals from leftover straws, among other side chores, was a secondary source of revenue for lower-class samurai (when not summoned into war, notably during the 400-year calm of the Edo era).

Shintoism commonly makes use of a straw. Straw is used to make the New Year’s decorations that hang outside Japanese homes, as well as the holy ropes strung at Shinto shrines, torii gates, and sacred spots known as Shime Nawa. In addition, the yarns are thought to ward off evil spirits and keep the surroundings clean.

The rice water may also be utilized in the kitchen. When cooked, it may be used to eliminate the astringency of vegetables, including daikon, bamboo shoots, burdock roots, and carrots. The water may also irrigate plants and clean unclean dishes by removing odors and grime.

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