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.