Rice is the staff of life for the Japanese, as well as many Asian countries. Learn about its long historical significance and impact on the Japanese.
Rice is an intrinsic part of Japanese culture, eaten every day in Japanese homes (traditionally, for every meal!) There are also religious customs and festivals deeply rooted in the cultivation of rice.
A glimpse into the history shows that rice is more than a mere foodstuff. Rice provides not only nourishment, but has played a vital role in the Japan’s development into the country known today. In this three part series on rice and Japan, let’s first delve into the history.
Meaning of Rice
Linguistically, rice is synonymous with the meal. ‘Cooked rice’ or gohan (ご飯) also refers to a meal. When your mom says, “It’s Gohan!” it means “It’s time to eat!”
Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are respectively Asa-gohan (朝ご飯), Hiru-gohan (昼ご飯), and Ban-gohan (晩ご飯), ingraining a bowl of rice at every meal.
The Early History of Rice Cultivation
Rice is believed to be first cultivated in southern China or somewhere in eastern Asia 10,000 years ago and introduced to Japan from China or Korea. The earliest record of rice cultivation in Japan dates back to the late Jomon era (around 400 BC) in the southern island of Kyushu.
Its cultivation gradually spread across the country, where hunter-gatherers transformed into agrarian societies formed around rice farming. The Itazuke archeological site (板付遺跡) in Fukuoka prefecture is the earliest settlements where excavations revealed rice paddies, irrigation channels for diverting river water and storages for rice.
Rice cultivation requires communal effort and cannot be done alone. It is a labor-intensive task involving many steps, where fellow farmers pooled their manpower to share water resources, ward off pests and helped each other with planting and harvesting the crops. This necessitated an emphasis on collective group interest and formed community groups called Yui (結), which became the foundation of Japanese society.
Despite the fact that only a tiny percentage of the Japanese population are rice farmers today, the Japanese continue to sustain group harmony in the relatively small island nation. Thus, group consciousness and consensus-seeking mindset of Japanese society can be traced back to rice cultivation.
Rice as the Life-Blood of Government and Society
Over time, rice became a tool of control and dominance. Rice signaled wealth and was used to rank one’s social status among the upper elites.
From the 7th century to the Edo era (1603-1868), the peasant class were forced to pay taxes to the feudal lords in the form of rice, and the samurai received their salary in rice, which they sold the excess for cash.
The feudal lords were taxed by the Tokugawa Shogunate based on the total economic yield and territories under their administration. Kokudaka (石高) is the annual yield value of land, which was measured in rice where 1 koku (一石) was the equivalent of enough rice to feed 1 adult man for a year (roughly 150kg of rice).
The historic city of Kanazawa, under the rule of the Maeda clan, was the richest clan in feudal Japan, second only to the Tokugawa Shogunate. The Maeda clan had an accumulated net worth of one million koku (百万石; 1 million koku = 5 million bushels/48 million gallons of rice), and rightfully earned the nickname Kaga Hyakumangoku (加賀百万石; Kaga was the name of the territory). The lavish and beautiful temples, castle, and historic buildings of Kanazawa are a testament to the Maeda clan’s vast economic power.
The Earliest Japanese Banking System
As mentioned previously, the samurai and feudal lords were paid in rice and not in cash. Since one cannot sustain on rice alone, the uneaten rest were exchanged for currency. This sparked the emergence of independent brokers, money changers and rice markets, which played a crucial role in establishing the early modern banking system and the advancement of a currency based economy.
While Edo (modern day Tokyo) was the political capital during the Edo era, Osaka was the trade and commercial epicenter due to its pivotal location as a port city smack in the middle of the country.
Rice as well as other foodstuffs and goods collected by feudal domains were shipped to Osaka, which were then sold to brokers through auctions in exchange for paper money. The rice and goods were shipped to feed the hungry Edo capital, which by 1700 had grown into the world’s largest city, boasting a population of over a million.
The Dojima Rice Exchange
The Dojima Rice Exchange (堂島米市場) in Osaka was established in 1697 and later officially authorized by the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1730. By 1710, the world’s first futures trading on rice transactions called Nobemai (延米) was born.
What set apart Dojima from other world markets was that the nation’s monetary transaction were handled through these powerful and independent merchants of Dojima. They managed the bank accounts and financial transactions for many feudal lords and samurai while the Shogunate struggled to regulate it.
Dojima flourished for over 300 years until it was reorganized, then dissolved by the Japanese government in 1939 and replaced by the Government Rice Agency.
White Rice for All?
As the process of removing the rice bran was labor-intensive, white rice was mostly reserved for the upper class. The lower classes subsisted on brown rice and other grains such as wheat, millet and starches such as potatoes.
It wasn’t until the Meiji era (1868-1912) when the industrialization of rice processing made white rice available and affordable to the masses. White rice was scarce again during the food shortages during and post WWII.
The circumstance was countered by the push for a wheat-based diet by the U.S. occupying forces. American aid (and also propaganda) in the form of wheat flooded Japan, where the rice dependent population grudgingly incorporated more wheat to their diet to offset the rice scarcity. School lunches served bread instead of rice to ultimately mold the dietary preferences of the younger generation. The soldiers and returnees from Manchuria (northern China) brought back wheat noodles and gyoza, which popularized among the hungry population (more on Chuka Ryori, Japanese-Chinese cuisine).
Fearing that the population would completely shift to a wheat-based diet, the Japanese government and various interest groups campaigned for the return to a rice diet in the 1970s. But rice consumption never returned to the prewar era.
In recent years, the per-capita consumption of rice has been declining due to the shrinking population. This can be contributed to the diverse side dishes currently served at a Japanese meal (一汁三菜) compared to the Edo era, the shift to a westernized diet, the availability of the other cuisines, improvement in economic conditions, and the surging popularity of a low carbohydrate diet, which has exacerbated the decline of the rice heavy meal.
Despite all these factors, rice cultivation remains heavily subsidized by the Japanese government. To protect the domestic rice industry and to support Japanese food security, the government implemented a rice tariffication scheme in 1999. The flood of cheap imported rice and lowered tariffs was a concern of national security interests and threatened a strong national identity ingrained in rice.
However, multiple attempts have been made by major rice growers such as the U.S., Thailand, and Australia to negotiate lower tariffs to make way for their rice exports. Thus, in 2017, Japan imported USD$358.3 million in rice, where 58% was from the U.S., 39% from Thailand, and 1.9% from Australia.
For the U.S. rice industry, Japan was the third largest export market that year. Japan also imports rice products such as rice flour, rice crackers and rice noodles from Thailand, China, the U.S., and Vietnam.
These days, you can purchase California-grown Calrose rice and other short-grain rice from Australia and China at Japanese supermarkets. The stigma against imported rice is gradually waning, although many Japanese consumers prefer domestic rice, even if the price is higher.
Part 2 will uncover how rice plays an essential role in Japanese culture, through religion, mythology, and customs.
Are you from a rice eating culture? How did rice play an essential part in your culture’s history? Please share in the comment box below!