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Rice Article: Japan

Ears of Rice Bow Deeply as They Ripen
By Toshiko Sunada

Rice is Japan’s cultural superfood, with vast social meanings. To many Japanese, rice is much more than just the mainstay of their diet. Even in modern industrialized Japan, where a tremendous array of food products is consumed, at table anything other than rice is called a side dish. Rice is always the staple, and any vegetable, fish, or meat is considered secondary. Throughout history, this grain has sustained the nation as an indispensable economic unit and provider. Rice has influenced many aspects of the people’s economic, social, and religious activities.

In fact, old Japan revolved around rice cultivation, and the development of agricultural society centered on rice. The people’s lives were governed and regulated by the seasonal rhythms of rice growing: sowing, planting, fertilizing, weeding flooding, harvesting, threshing, hulling, polishing – and cooking and eating rice three times a day. Their lives from birth to death were bound to rice. Rice was the staff of life, the symbol of fertility, and an integral part of festive occasions. Innumerable superstitions and proverbs surrounded the growth, use, and consumption of rice, dictating people’s customs, manners, habits, and ways of doing things.

Not all of this belongs to bygone days. On the surface, Japan today is one of the most urbanized, high-technology countries of the world. But the way the Japanese in this island society run their businesses and manage their gigantic organizations retains much of the traditional values developed in rice-farming villages over the centuries. A good example is the very popular saying "Ears of rice bow deeply as they ripen." The old samurai ruling class used to draw a moral from the mature stalks of rice in autumn, bent over from the weight of their ripe, heavy ears. The message behind the proverb is, "The higher you rise in social position, the more humble and polite you should be."

Bowing is still a way of life even among busy city folk. In the business community, the depth of a bow is often watched most carefully. It is taken for granted that everyone knows how to bow properly every time he or she meets someone. Certainly form is important, and quite a number of Japanese put emphasis on formalities. In corporate life, where the much-publicized lifetime employment and seniority systems prevail, a businessman must bow deeper than an associate who is higher in the pecking order.

Those working in stores should bow lower than customers to promote sales. Two years ago a department store in the merchant city, of Osaka introduced an electronic gadget to teach its employees how to bow, part of the store’s personnel training program. The "bowing machine" was created as a new weapon in the war with rival stores, with the aim of maintaining the emporium’s appeal to customers by placing a premium on good service and atmosphere.

For these reasons, the rice metaphor is frequently used when parents want to teach children the subtle rules of bowing.

The widely discussed Japanese style of management, know for instilling company loyalty and strong teamwork, also has its roots in the old agricultural society. The fundamental belief that the group takes precedence over the individual derives from the country’s tradition of wet-rice farming. Land was limited and precious. So was water. Irrigation called for cooperation. In the old days rice paddies were often built on terraced mud dams in the narrow plains hedged in by mountain and sea. Thus, labor was intensive, unremitting, and arduous. Eventually people in the vicinity devised a common system to channel water to every rice field with the consent of the whole village. They began to work together whenever many hands were needed. Such occasions included water crises, the work of planting the young rice shoots and transplanting them at the right time each year, roof thatching, annual festivals at the village shrine, weddings, and funerals.

The Nihon shoki (Chronicles of Japan), compiled in A.D. 720, depicts Japan as "the land of abundant reed plains and rice fields." The eight-century Man’yoshu, the nation’s oldest poetry anthology, contains many verses on rice farming. The grand shrine of Ise, the most venerated Shinto shrine in the country, is closely related to rice. The stately shrine is composed of two main buildings, the inner shrine and the outer. The former is dedicated to Amaterasu Omikami, the Sun Goddess, and the latter to Toyoukehime, the goddess of the five cereals and of sericulture. The five cereals are rice, barley, wheat, millet, and beans. But rice ranks above all the rest.

It is fascinating to note that early Shinto was quite positive toward women. In mythological Japan, women held high positions. On the thanksgiving day of Ise Shrine, many ears of rice are placed in bundles on the fence of the inner shrine as an offering to the Sun Goddess. On New Year’s Day women in kimono decorate their traditional hairdos with ears of rice.

The architectural design of Ise Shrine resembles that of the rice warehouses with raised floors that were built during the Yayoi period (the third century B.C. through the third century A.D.) It was probably in the early Yayoi period that rice was introduced to Japan through many different routes, relayed on the Rice Road from farmer to farmer. So far, exactly how rice found its way to Japan has not been established. According to Professor Tadayo Watabe, director of Kyoto University’s Southeast Asian Research Institute, who has been trying to trace the Rice Road for the last 20 years, the original home of the variety of rice now grown in Japan could be the region extending from China’s Yunnan Province to Assam in northeastern India. He claims that more than 10,000 varieties of rice originated in this extensive region. They spread along the Yangtze, Red, and Makong rivers to China, India, and Indonesia and reached their eastern terminal in Japan.

Rice cultivation seems to have traveled along this long zigzag course by the sweat of farmers’ brows. As rice farming progressed and rural communities were formed, familial power shifted from the mother to the father, who transferred the family property to the eldest son. A tentative theory is that it was in the middle Yayoi period, about 2,000 years ago, that men became the central figure of the family. Prior to that, husbands were "outsiders" who commuted to their wives’ homes.

Until some 20 years ago, every element of Japan’s rice cycle was fully used without any waste. Foods from rice including gohan (cooked rice) as the staple, mochi (rice cakes), senbei (rice crackers), sake (rice wine), dango (rice-power dumplings), and many other confections. Rice-starch adhesive is used for book binding and for papier-mache’ dolls, paper fans, sliding doors, and scrolls. It is also an effective dye-resistant, used in the dyeing of patterned fabrics to leave part of the design free of color.

Rice bran from the outer skin of brown rice is processed into rice oil and used for cooking. Rice bran is also good as a pickling ingredient and as livestock feed. Before the turn of the century, when there was no such thing as beauty soap for the masses, women used it for skin care. Every woman had a small pouch filled with rice bran, and she washed her face and body with it when she took a bath. Rice bran is high in vegetable oil, protein, and vitamin B1. So it was indeed a wise and economical way to protect skin health.

Rice straw was an organic fertilizer and cooking fuel. Shredded and mixed with bran, it was used for chicken feed. When burned, it became ash for charcoal braziers and hearths. Rice straw was also woven into rope, containers, bags, hot pads, baskets, brooms, cradles, toys, sandals, snow boots, cushions, stools, various other handicrafts, and Shinto ceremonial ornaments.

Every Shinto shrine hangs a shimenawa, a heavy, elaborately braided straw rope, at its gate to welcome the New Year. This special rope is made with straw from newly harvested rice. Similar decorations much smaller in size are seen over the doorways of many homes during the New Year holidays. Rice Straw is the foundation of the tatami matting used to floor Japanese-style houses. Rice straw is also a versatile building material. Cut into small pieces and mixed with mud plaster, it strengthens walls of bamboo or wood laths, which are also tied with straw rope. In some Japanese tea houses, which give an impression of quite simplicity and rusticity, the walls are left without a finishing coating so that the straw, remaining exposed in the plaster, will present an interesting random patterns of its own.

Though it is a thing of the past now, Japanese farmers used to weave many tawara (straw sacks) and mushiro (straw mats) during the long cold winter of the offseason. Both were used to package rice and other foods. A great advantage of straw packing was that it provided good ventilation and prevented the food from spoiling. For centuries, tawara packed with white rice symbolized the happy feeling of a full stomach. Daikokuten, Japan’s god of wealth, is traditionally portrayed sitting a top straw rice sacks. Likewise, charms sold by Shinto shrines for good luck and fortune in the year to come are often made in the shape of straw rice sacks.


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