Monday, 2 July 2012

Rice: Japan's Staple Food and Important Cultural Symbol

Rice, of course, is Japan's staple food and forms the base of the national cuisine. However, rice is also an essential and important symbol within Japanese culture, heritage and religion.

Photos (clockwise from top left): Washoku, 日本へよこそう, Foohta & Wikipedia

Rice is served in many different ways and its subtle flavour makes it a suitable accompaniment for a wide variety of dishes. Its most famous incarnations is perhaps as the basis of sushi but is also seen shaped into onigiri rice balls, topped with meat or fish as a donburi dish, submerged in green tea or simply with raw egg and shoyu.

Photos (clockwise from top left): All About, Nikki-no-Blog, Michiko-san! & Net-q

Rice is also used as the base of Western-style yōshoku dishes such as omurice and doria or served with hamburgers or the ever popular Japanese curry. In fact the suitability of imported Western dishes to be served with rice played a major part in their popularity and eventual integration into modern Japanese cuisine.

Photos (clockwise from top left): Watashi to Tokyo, Sumiko Wannabe-san, Maruhans & Japan Dish

Rice is also used in Japanese food in the form of flour made from sweet glutenous rice. Many traditional Japanese wagashi sweets such as dango and mochi are made with this flour. Traditionally rice is considered sacred in Japan and thought to have the ability to imbue a physical and sacred energy into the eater. As mochi are made from condensed, pounded rice flour they are thought to give even more power to the eater and therefore hold a special significance. On New Year's Day, Japan's most important holiday, a special soup named ozōni which contains mochi is served for this reason.

Photo: Itsumo Japan

Rice is also used to make Japan's national drink, sake, which is often drunk during Shintō rituals, offered at shrines during festivals and believed to be drunk by the gods. Just like rice in its original form sake or nihonshu is consumed in both everyday situations and on occasions with special religious significance.

Photos: World Kigo Database (top left) &  Yes I Can Use Chopsticks (rest)

The cultivation of rice is closely linked to the seasons: in spring the earth in the rice fields is prepared and fertilized, early in summer the fields are flooded and the seedlings are planted, the heavy rainfall of the rainy season encourages the plants to grow while the heat of late summer allows the rice to flourish. In autumn the rice is ready to be harvested. As rice is such an essential crop and foodstuff in Japan the success of the harvest was of the utmost importance throughout history. Religious songs would be sung as the rice was planted and rituals and prayers would be carried out to protect the crop and wish for a good harvest. It is from these practices that many matsuri still celebrated today originate and it is from the connection to the seasons that the importance of observing seasonal changes in Japanese culture comes from. The traditional sport of sumo also has its origins in ancient rituals used to pray for a good harvest. Rice is so important in Japan that it has influenced culture, heritage, religion, politics and economics and has permeated every aspect of Japanese life.

Further Reading:
Modern Japanese Cuisine: Food, Power and National Identity by Katarzyna J Cwiertka
The Cambridge Companion to Modern Japanese Culture by Yoshio Sugimoto (ed)
NHK World's Begin Japanology: Rice





This article is part of my A Pillow Book of Japan project.

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