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Rice Bowl
 

In the West we equate bread with food, as shown in such phrases as “breaking bread” and “daily bread.” However, we do not normally identify with bread on a cultural level. In Japan, the cultural association of rice with food in general goes deep. Japanese people rest a great deal of who they are as a nation on the quality of their homegrown rice, the grain given by Amaterasu to the imperial family as food. Observation of this divine link endures; Emperor Hirohito tended a rice plot on the Imperial grounds and Emperor Akihito continues to bless the national rice crop (Wotjan 1). Moreover, the word for meal – gohan – is simply “cooked rice” with an attached honorific. In this linguistic peculiarity, we glimpse how utterly important this grain is to the Japanese people, for without it, meals seem impossible. How can you have a gohan without the han?

It is interesting to note that this is a relatively modern characteristic of the Japanese diet, one that continues to change and evolve with the introduction of many Western eating habits. For instance, during the Tokugawa period, “rice was the preferred grain, but was not eaten in great quantities as part of the everyday diet. Poor people could afford to eat very little [rice]” and the households with the lowest incomes only had it for special occasions and holidays (Latham, 114). The bakufu, or shogunate government of this period, “enjoined peasants to eat the ‘lesser’ grains of wheat, millet, and barley, saving the rice for their social betters” (Perez, 73). But Eriko Ohnuki-Tierney reminds us that, in spite of its restriction to an upper class diet for much of Japanese history, rice “has always been the most important food for ritual occasions for most Japanese people” (228). As might be expected, these factors led to a conception of rice as a desired foodstuff. Dr. Penelope Francks says that rice came to symbolize “urban sophistication and civilized living” (154). We might hypothesize that this contributed to its rise in popularity until it became an indispensible part of Japanese self-definition. Daily consumption was something one strove to attain for one’s household and, having attained it, one felt pride and happiness. It is easy to conceive that the feeling of an elite food might eventually fall away, without removing the sense of satisfaction that comes with consumption.

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It makes sense that a way of appearing cultured would be the ability to distinguish the exact locale from which a bowl of rice came, in the same way that Westerners get that feeling from someone who sips a glass of wine and correctly recites the vintage. Someone unfamiliar with this aspect of Japanese food culture might not fully appreciate the significance of the millionaire Kyōgoku Mantarō-shi’s precise knowledge of the rice he eats in Oishinbo A la Carte: The Joy of Rice. Even if we understand that the others at the meal are impressed, we are not necessarily going to connect that with affluence and refinement in the same way that a Japanese reader will. Kyōgoku goes on to describe the way his bowl of rice must have been prepared, milled on the premises “just before washing” and cooked over a wood fire (Kariya, 24). Since the episode – titled “A Remarkable Mediocrity” – appeared fairly early in the series, which began in 1983, the millionaire’s taste is even more telling; “White rice did not become a central staple for most of the population until the 1960s” (Rath, 19), although Tokyoites had disdained mixing rice with other grains since the turn of the century and the 1918 Rice Riots are evidence that the grain was considered essential to many well before World War II (Francks, 155). Connoisseurs today often have a favorite rice and may even travel to sample “new rice” – shinmai – during the harvest season (Ashkenazi and Jacob, 69).

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Modern Japan has seen its rice consumption decrease somewhat dramatically. Writing in the early 20th century, Takamura Kōtarō mentions the satiety from a “poor” meal in his poem “Dinner” (106). The list of items that make up this meal begins with the most important: three pints of rice. A survey of housewives of all ages conducted in 1991 confirmed that rice was still “central to a proper meal” (Ashkenazi and Jacob, 77). Many Japanese today still assert that gastronomic satisfaction is not possible without it. However, by 2007 per capita rice consumption had fallen to half its peak in the 1960s and even rice farmers groused about their own families choosing other foods for convenience’s sake (Aratani). For some, this may lead to a certain amount of nostalgia, increasing the perceived importance of rice to Japanese cuisine.

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In Oishinbo: The Joy of Rice the position that Japanese rice is the best and essential to being Japanese is stated outright many times, no surprise given the focus of the volume. Directing our attention to the uniqueness of rice consumption in Japan, the final three “courses” (or chapters) present varieties of rice ball – onigiri – in the setting of a competition between rival newspapers to produce the best example of the rice ball as “the epitome of the Japanese diet” (202). Oishinbo goes out of its way to remind the reader of how much various foods mean to Japan, and so the foreign reader has few problems understanding. But if we take that sense of the rice ball as an embodiment of Japanese cuisine into other literature, we might get a deeper meaning. In the novel Kamome Diner by Yōko Mure (also a film directed by Naoko Ogigami), the main character, Sachie, loves rice balls, primarily because she has fond memories of the ones her father made for her as a child. Though they were too large and not as neatly made as the ones the other children brought for lunch, they represented the love her father bore for her. She is living in Helsinki, Finland, and although she seems happy with that decision, she cherishes her memories of home. In one scene, she attempts to create fusion onigiri, blending in Finnish foods. The experiment is unsuccessful. Looking at these scenes with Oishinbo in the back of our minds, the rice balls can become a representation of Japan. Sachie, although she has moved, has not rejected her home. She still loves it, even with its flaws. And crudely trying to make a patchwork of Finland and Japan simply won’t work, any more than shoving Finnish ingredients into the onigiri does. An organic relationship must be grown, the two things existing side-by-side: Sachie’s traditional Japanese food in her Finnish diner just like Sachie in Finland. A foreign reader can hardly help but notice the importance of the rice balls, but the subtler shades of meaning might escape notice.

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Rice goes into many types of Japanese food. One popular item, especially for celebrations, is mochi, cakes made by pounding the rice into a sticky, glutinous mass. Served in a soup called zouni it is one of the symbolic dishes traditionally eaten for New Year festivities. This food makes an appearance in Natsume Sōseki’s I Am a Cat. The titular character, an unnamed cat who narrates the tale, sneaks into the kitchen to eat the leftover mochi at the bottom of a forgotten bowl of zouni. He is hesitant, actually hoping that someone will interrupt and give him an excuse to abandon the theft. When no one does, he bites, only to get the gluey mass stuck in his jaws. “Too late I realize that the rice-cake is a fiend,” he laments (Natsume, 30). The following scene, with his painful attempts to rid himself of the mochi and his humiliation when the family comes to laugh at his antics, is funny in a schadenfreude sort of way. However, looking at the food as symbolic of the coming year alters the passage. Suddenly, the hesitation to proceed, the inability to retreat, and the disgrace evoke a fear of what each new year brings, belying the joy and expectations normally present in festivities.

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Even as modernization and Westernization erode some aspects of Japan’s sense of self, many cling to traditions that they believe are the heart of their society. Yamaguchi Tetsuhiro, owner and operator of Kokoromai (Heart of Rice), a restaurant dedicated to the preservation of rice as a necessary art says that “Japanese bodies are made from rice” (“Rice”). Without rice, then, the Japanese people cease to be.

             
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Food and Kitsune-chan Copyright © Dirk Macorol 2011 || All Other Content Copyright © Elizabeth Bennett 2011