It was almost 5,000 years ago when a Chinese emperor proclaimed there would forever be 5 sacred grains. With China being the dominant superpower for centuries, all other nations were left in the dust playing catch up.
For anyone who has studied about Japan, you will undoubtedly know how much Japan borrowed from China, often via Korea, to build and enhance their own empire. Although wheat, barley, soybeans, and millet were important to Japan, rice was the game changer.
Agriculture changed to accommodate rice paddies. Rice was consumed with nearly every meal. In fact, the word for rice in Japanese, "gohan" or "meshi" translates as both rice and meal. Rice is food for the poor and the rich. Ground up up rice flour could be made into crackers or noodles, and fermented rice will produce the tasty rice wine saké. But rice is so much more than a foodstuff in Japan.
Rice has cemented itself into Japanese religion in both Shintoism and Buddhism. Inari is the god of rice and is still honored today through Kagura. This ancient form of Japanese theater involves a slow dance bound with symbolic clothes and hats made of rice straw. Sweeping feet and movements that mimic dropping seeds into the ground praise Inari for his help with past harvests and show that humans still recognize we need to be one with nature and the natural gods in order to live our own lives in harmony.
Rice or saké are common offerings at Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines, or for relatives who have passed away. Perhaps it was the near living gods of the Tokugawa period that solidified rice into Japan’s history.
The shogun and daimyo of feudal Japan were the rulers of kingdoms large and small. Each maintained their own armies, paying the soldiers in rice. In fact, rice was the currency of the day. Taxes were in rice, payment was in rice, and wealth was calculated by how many sacks of rice you owned; assets were noted in the number of rice fields under your control. And today, the government still holds rice as sacred.
The Japanese government subsidizes rice, paying farmers to ensure that their aging population cranks out more rice. Akita Prefecture even produces its own special rice because of a unique mix of soil, clean water, and coastal location. It is quite tasty and once you have had the “komachi” brand, you’ll never be satisfied with regular rice.
In reality, though, with rice eaten on a daily basis by the majority of the population, the Japanese cannot produce enough rice for themselves. Even my home California exports rice to Japan. And the rice diet is not likely to change, though more imports may be necessary as fewer generations are willing to take up the risky business of rice farming.
So enjoy your rice in Japan. It takes a while to learn to eat with chopsticks, but you’ll get the hang of it. You’ll see rice referenced in festivals, in art, and on your dinner plate. And if you have some time, be sure to check out Hirosaki’s (Aomori Prefecture) rice field art (pictured above) which has new designs every year.© Japan Today