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Thoughts of rice and Japanese men

by Kaori Shoji

Special To The Japan Times

If you’re like me or the men in my life, you probably broke down and wept for joy on June 4, when Japanese midfielder Keisuke Honda scored the goal that bagged Japan’s slot in the FIFA World Cup next year. At such sports events, one or another of my brothers turn up at my place, hauling their boozy, hulking frames from the corner of some sports bar (Ueno, not Shibuya) and blubbering incoherently about how wonderful it is to be Japanese. “Tokorode (ところで, by the way) is there any kome (米, rice)?”

In our family, the shime (締め, finale) to any joyous occasion, from weddings to soccer victories — is the shiromeshi (白メシ, white rice). Not ramen or the recently popular udon, but a piping hot bowl of rice. My father grew up in a komedokoro (米所, rice growing) region, and he used to talked about ta-ue no kisetsu (田植えの季節, the season of rice planting), which is right about now, and how the boys in his neighborhood took off from school to help out in the paddies. He could tell the taste of different rice varieties — (Koshihikari from Uonuma in Niigata prefecture was his choice for No. 1), and got annoyed when my mother served non-rice dinners. “Kome wo tabenaito tabeta ki ga shinai” (「米を食べないと食べた気がしない」 “I don’t feel like I’ve eaten unless I’ve eaten rice”) was an oft-heard paternal complaint.

My brothers were the same way and consequently, my mother cooked up to issho (一升, 10 cups) of rice a day to keep the peace. The isshodaki (一升炊き) rice cooker dominated our tiny kitchen and I privately seethed with resentment that brownies and purin (プリン, puddings) never came forth from its quarters. The refrigerator was primarily stocked with gohan no otomo (ご飯のおとも, rice companions) such as tsukudani (佃煮, veggies or fish simmered in soy sauce, sake and sugar) and furikake (ふりかけ, dried fish and vegetable flakes). As a matter of course, the brothers all hung out by the isshōdaki clutching rice bowls and panting like wild dogs.

Keisuke Honda by the way, is reputed to be a dedicated rice-lover, along with most of his teammates. The story going around among soccer fans is that the Nihon Daihyou (日本代表, Japan national team) only really started performing well after getting a Japanese chef on board to feed them komeshoku (米食, rice meals) and cut down on eiyō dorinku (栄養ドリンク, energy drinks). It also seems to be the jōshiki (常識, common practice) in the Japanese sports world for athletes to marry young, so they could have someone at home to cook proper rice meals.

Interestingly (and tellingly), the word for rice (ご飯, gohan) is the same for as “gohan” — meaning meal. The holy trinity of a Japanese meal consists of rice, misoshiru (みそ汁, miso soup) and otsukemono (お漬け物, pickled vegetables). The combo was once held in contempt, mainly in the decade following WWII as shabby and under-nourishing. It is now, however, being minaosareta (見直された, re-examined) as one of the most sustainable and healthy fares in the world.

On the other hand, Japanese women, tired of cooking rice for their men, are likely to turn to kashipan (菓子パン, processed bread products) for snacks and solo-meals. Nutrionists have warned that this is the fast-track to ill-health and declining looks. And get this: Many Japanese men profess that the sight of a woman using her ohashi (お箸, chopsticks) properly and eating happily from a bowl of rice is a huge turn-on. As rice is a metaphor for hōjō (豊穣, bountiful rice crops, or the state of fertility and prosperity), this seems to make sense.

You’ve probably caught on that rice goes above and beyond its function of mere food. Consider the traditional meshi mori onna (飯盛り女, rice-serving women) who worked in rural inns well into the 20th century. On the surface, their job was to ladle the rice and pour out the tea. If during this brief interlude the woman and the traveler guest were to hit it off, she would sneak into his room at night. It wasn’t outright prostitution but an exchange that involved rice along with cash and sex. The first factor neutralized the other factors and made it less cold and business-like. Which leads me to a personal conviction that most Japanese relationships involve a bowl of rice somewhere.

My grandmother, who was on rice duty from the day she was old enough to stand at the kitchen sink to a week before her death, used to say “Otoko ni wa okome wo takusan tabesasenakereba ikenai” (「男にはお米をたくさん食べさせなければいけない」”Men must be fed a lot of rice)” — for any marriage to work. The younger women in the family scoffed at such gender inequality. But I will say this: My grandfather adored and worshipped her.

  • medallist

    Gawd, more nihonjinron. Processed white rice has virtually no nutritional value, and the processed/high sodium tsukemono that virtually all Japanese now eat have been linked to the high incidence of stomach cancer in the country. Perhaps if the Japanese football team want to improve, they should eat nutritionally correct foods, like the rest of the human race, and not stay hidebound to nationalist pet theories.

    • riceman

      I was going to say that “I don’t think this is quite nihonjinron,” but then last night, my stepson tried to tell me how “people like you” (I honestly like how he found a way to avoid the word “gaijin”) like to put sauce on our rice. “But we eat it plain in Japan.” He was talking about a TV segment he saw the morning before. My wife chimed in and said, “That’s because Japanese rice is more delicious.”

      Um…well…not exactly. Japanese rice is not universally taken as “the best” in rice-eating countries (India, for example), and eating rice plain isn’t even the norm in such countries (again, India, where rice is regularly mixed with curries). I explained that, no, actually, the rice tastes good to you because you eat it your entire life. It’s less that Japanese rice is special and more that Japanese culture TREATS it as special. “It fits our mouths well,” my stepson said, and I was like, not really. You’re human like me. “You’re just used to it. You’re not genetically predisposed to eat rice or anything like that.”

      I didn’t go much further, but it really ought to be pointed out that the Japanese method of eating rice is anomalous, not the other way around. But I think the attitude my stepson came to me with is absolutely rooted in nihonjinron-type thinking – that Japan and Japanese people are special, when, no, really, they just have a slightly different culture, that they are used to different and unique things. It’s nothing simple anthropology can’t dispel. It’s pretty typical for him to come to me with some kind of explanation or excuse about how “Japanese people are just different.” (My wife tried to kick him yesterday, and he said, “You can’t reach me because Japanese people have such short legs!” Um…)

      I do kind of wish my step son had come to me and instead of pointing out how weird my way of eating rice was, said something more like, “Japanese people are the ONLY ones who do this! Isn’t that neat?” I’d love for him to have pride in who he is, and his biological family is a rice-growing family, but I’d like to teach him to do it by building himself up instead of tearing others down first.

      The fact that he got all of this from a TV show tells me that he won’t be unique in this belief. Undoubtedly, children all across Japan had similar conversations with their parents last night about how they saw a thing on TV about how strangely foreigners eat rice.

  • Paul Smith

    With regard to the word for rice (ご飯, gohan) being the same as the word for meal, it should be noted that the English word “meal” (in the sense of breakfast, lunch, or dinner) can also mean “coarsely ground grain”, such as corn meal, oatmeal, etc. In other words, the custom of dining that is centered around the consumption of grain is a worldwide one, and presumably dates from the time when agriculture was invented. It is by no means unique to Japan.

    • Riceman

      Also worth mentioning that they do the same thing in Chinese (Cantonese, at least). And in Cantonese, rice/dinner is “fan,” which would naturally have become “han” in Japanese, so this may very well not even be a native Japanese tradition, but a Chinese one.

      • Masa Chekov

        It’s not a native Chinese tradition either, it’s tradition everywhere.

    • Ian Maitland

      A better parallel is “breaking bread” or “give us our daily bread” not to be confused with having a lot of bread.

  • suloza

    “blubbering incoherently about how wonderful it is to be Japanese”. As compared to what? How many of these “brothers” have been anything else?

    I suspect the JT publishes these articles as subtle ridicule… However, hidden in the text there is a gem that deserves careful thought:
    “It wasn’t outright prostitution but an exchange that involved rice along with cash and sex. The first factor neutralized the other factors, and made it less cold and business-like. Which leads me to a personal conviction that most Japanese relationships involve a bowl of rice somewhere.”

    I read it several times, trying to understand meaning: Please cast your vote:
    a) rice is a powerful sex-inducing food (forget the famous control condom surveys…)
    b) prostitution is not what we think it is (a favorite topic)
    c) most Japanese relationships involve rice for sex
    d) when grammar is too complex, meaning is lost

    • kyushuphil

      Answer is e) all male-female relationships involve a girl who smiles more, promises more, asks more, or gives more — of anything.

  • David Foley

    Not to mention. The real Japanese word for meal is “meshi” that is the Yamato word for a meal, and it doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with rice. “Gohan” is a word of Chinese origin as is rice cultivation.

  • Steven Morris

    I really dislike white rice and find it ridiculous that people are trying to push it. If rice is going to be pushed, and I’m all for Japan pushing its domestically produced rice, let’s try brown rice instead. Brown rice gets a lot of hate from older Japanese (let’s say 50+). I think white rice lacks a lot of the good vitamins that brown rice contains– especially varieties of vitamin B. Don’t athletes need vitamin B?

    Eating a heaping bowl of white rice doesn’t taste good to me, but I will admit it gives a certain kind of high- and I think that’s what a lot of guys talk about. I think it’s the feeling of a quick and intense insulin spike. Combine that with beer or sake and salty side dishes and you have an unhealthy lifestyle.

    And yes, a lot of “tsukemono” contain unhealthy amounts of sodium and the same crazy food coloring that gets used in soft/sports/energy drinks.

    Also, comparing white rice to kashipan is a joke. You might as well compare white rice to cookies or cake. Of course the white rice is healthier than desserts and snacks. How about comparing white rice to foods with a little more nutritional merit?

    At any rate, I’m just happy and thankful that some of the koshihikari that we grow gets left as genmai (brown rice) every year.

  • David B. Pecchia

    When I was stationed in Japan in the Marine Corps, I spent a weekend at a UNICEF English language camp for Japanese school kids. We ate three meals per day at a cafeteria and what I remember most about the diet was the rice. They would serve (to my American sensibility) a huge amount of white rice in a plastic bowl with every meal. Really, the rice was the meal since the other items were given in only tiny quantities, so you had to fill-up on rice. Early on, it was tough to satisfy my hunger since I could only take a small amount of plain rice before I got sick of it. By the end of the weekend, I could eat a lot more and even kind of enjoyed it. Still, I wasn’t close to what the Japanese men could put-away, I managed about the same as what the 13 year-old girls ate.

  • mike smitka

    Rice was a status food — “traditional” (= actual history) food was a variety of gruels, including “coarse” grains such as barley and buckwheat (soba) and now seldom-eaten forms of millet (hie, kibi…). Katarzyna Cwiertka’s Modern Japanese Cuisine has good material on the reaction of army recruits in the early 20th century to having rice 3x a day. As colonies Korea and Taiwan were partly about making rice more widely available.

    Now cooking is time intensive, and so even in the 1950s families moved away from rice as a breakfast food (Donald Keene has a nice vignette in his autobiography). In addition, as societies in Europe, Asia and North American prospered, families moved away from eating unprocessed starch – who in Ireland now eats boiled potatoes on a daily basis? or in other areas, a big hunk of bread with a little something to add flavor? It’s not that we don’t eat starch, but we eat it in noodles, casseroles, French fries, or sandwiches in which bread is reduced to a container of the contents. So too in Japan; just in the last dozen years (2000-2012) the better off quintile of the population reduced their expenditures on rice by 1/3rd [partially offset by a 10% drop in price]. Between 1970-85 rice consumption in quantity fell by 1/3. Add them up and Japanese eat half as much rice today as they did 40-odd years ago.