Rice: representations and reality

Author: Knecht, Peter
COPYRIGHT 2007 Asian Folklore Studies

EVEN if most Japanese today may no longer eat rice at every meal, rice is still not only their staple food (shushoku), it is also the food par excellence. Unless they have eaten a bowl of rice, Japanese may not feel they have eaten to satisfaction even after having savored all the delicacies a Japanese meal can offer. Yet not every variety of rice suits the Japanese palate. Only the Japonica variety, it seems, is really considered tasty.

During the acute rice shortage following the crop failure of 1993 the Government imported rice from overseas, but consumers' reactions made it clear to everybody that even in such an emergency people were not prepared to do without their favorite brand as long as they could get hold of even a limited amount. News that mice were found in a shipment created a considerable uproar; also, people were convinced that eating foreign rice was hazardous to their health because, so the rumor went, foreign farmers made heavy, indiscriminate use of insecticides, and shipments were treated with strong chemicals to prevent deterioration of the merchandise. To a non-Japanese observer, such hysterical reactions may be difficult to appreciate; but if anything they demonstrate that, for many Japanese, rice is not any rice, and rice is not mere food. Many who argued that importing rice was an attack on the very foundations of Japanese culture as a "culture of rice" (inasaku bunka) were supported by the mass media, agricultural organizations, and scholars.

Since rice is an important crop in the ritual life of Shinto, it is quite natural that it comes up in discussions about that religion. It can also be expected that rice cultivation would be discussed when the relation or contribution of Shinto to ecology is considered. For many years Tomiyama Kazuko has been campaigning for a reconsideration of how much traditional rice cultivation has shaped and contributed to the Japanese landscape (see, for example, Tomiyama 1993). In her paper she again emphasized the beauty of paddy fields. The conclusion would be that their maintenance per se is a vital contribution to ecology. If we further accept Kohori Kunio's statement that "Shinto is essentially in accord with Japanese life, work, and culture" (Kohori 1997, 4), we may be inclined to assume that Shinto in fact provides a strong stimulus for rice farmers to care for the environment.

However, does rice and its cultivation really stand for all of Japanese culture? And is its production just by itself a contribution to a healthy ecology today? As Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney mentioned in her paper at the conference, arguments for other constitutive aspects of Japanese culture have appeared in recent years. These arguments do not deny the importance of rice for an understanding of Japanese culture, but they make it increasingly apparent that the singular emphasis given to rice presents only a partial, and for that reason a biased, picture of Japanese culture. In the course of my fieldwork in a rice-producing mountain village of northern Japan, a number of questions occurred to me concerning the role of rice and the significance of the concept of "culture of rice" in the life of the villagers and in Japanese culture in general. In fact, I believe that the singular insistence on the importance of rice diverts our attention not only from certain social factors but also from ecological ones.

In what follows I intend to make three points. First, I will outline some of the historical background to symbolic representations of rice, both religious and secular, and their significance in relation to political power and social difference. Second, I briefly consider the situation in a particular village in order to delineate some problems that the connection of rice with political power creates today for the environment and farmers. And third, I will indicate the possible significance of the fact that farmers today see rice mainly as a commodity.

Representations: The Symbolic Significance Of Rice
Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney said in her paper that, for the Japanese, on a cosmological level nature is synonymous with the "country [i.e., Japan] of succulent ears of rice plants" (mizuho no kuni), and furthermore that rice is the symbol of self and nation, as well as of purity and the force of life.

Undoubtedly, rice is a powerful religious and social symbol. Among the food gifts offered to deities, rice is, along with sake and salt, a supremely representative offering, with its whiteness itself serving as an image of the deity and divine purity. Furthermore, when people offer cooked rice at the ancestor shelf, the butsudan, it is taken from the family's prepared food as a sign that those partaking of the same food share a common bond, one that binds together both the living and the dead, this world and the otherworld.

I remember having been deeply impressed years ago by this double symbolic function of rice in a ritual, okonai, performed towards the end of winter in a mountain village north of Lake Biwa. The head of one of the households functioned as the priest for that year in charge of performing the ritual, but all the other households were represented by their heads, who, together, were as much part of the ritual as the one chosen as that year's priest. The ritual's main part began with the pounding of steaming rice in the entrance hall of the house that served as the temporary resting place (yado) for the participants, both deity and humans. When the young men had finished their pounding, they suddenly lifted the sticky lump of rice with their pestles and rushed to deposit it in a large wooden tray, where some of the household heads formed it with utmost reverence. They made it into a large mochi (round cake of steamed rice), and then carried it on the tray to the tokonoma (alcove) in that house's main room. Then all the household heads present gathered in front of the tokonoma for a formal meal. The mochi, adorned with flowers made of paper, had become the material representation, the goshintai, of the deity. People stayed up late, and the priest slept in specially prepared quarters in the house until, before daybreak, the mochi was carried to the village shrine in a formal procession. There, after a rite, it was divided among the villagers, and later in the day, the head who would be priest the following year was chosen.

It is difficult to describe the intense atmosphere of the moment, but it was as if one could almost touch the divine presence that drew the household heads together into a single community, the village. The focal point where the community met with the divine was the mochi, i.e., the pounded rice. It represented the divine, and also the community, who first prepared and later shared it. In a similar, albeit less intense, manner, mochi is prepared for the New Year to be offered to the deity of the new year and later to be consumed by the family.

In some areas New Year rites exhibit features that seem to point away from rice to other products. At Hanayama, a mountain village in Miyagi Prefecture of northern Japan, where I do fieldwork, people prepare two kinds of decoration besides the usual two-layered mochi used as an offering. On one of the last days of the year they decorate some branches of mizuki, dogwood, by sticking a great number of small bits of soft mochi onto them, and offer these to the kami of the new year (toshitokujin) and other deities of the house. These branches are called mayudama, "cocoons." Although these richly decorated branches recall the image of a flowering tree and are, in fact, also explained as representing flowering rice plants and a good harvest, their name reminds us of a quite different product, namely the cocoons of the silkworm that feeds on the leaves of the mulberry tree, a once-important dry-field plant. A few days later, for the fifteenth of January, the so-called "Little New Year," people prepare other branches, this time of the chestnut tree, by pressing large, flat, oblong cakes of soft mochi onto their twigs. This decoration is called awabo (ears of awa). Under the weight of the heavy mochi the twigs bend and so resemble ears of rice, heavy with fruit. In fact, people say that these twigs symbolize the ripe and heavy ears of rice. However, again, their name does not refer to rice, but to millet (awa), a dry-field (hatake) cereal. It therefore seems to me that these decorations, whose names recall dry-field plants, are of interest in several ways. On the one hand they are made of rice and are said to symbolize an abundance of rice flowers and rice grains. On the other hand, their names refer to dry-field products that now have fallen out of use, but are still remembered by older villagers as having been an...