How’s your relationship with rice been of late? For people outside Japan, it’s probably not an issue. But many of us in the archipelago — consciously or not — gauge how we’re doing in life by how we’re doing with our okome (お米, reverent rice). At this time of year Japanese rice is at the peak of tastiness. When the shinmai (新米, new rice crop) comes out, it’s somewhat of a status symbol to be able to afford it, cook it for family and friends, and distribute small bagfuls as osusowake (お裾分け, sharing out) to neighbors. Having shinmai in the house endows the inhabitants with a deep, satisfying sense of security and prosperity — another minori no aki (実りの秋, bountiful autumn) is here to be enjoyed and all is right with the world!

Japan has an ingrained love of rice, but it’s only in the last decade or so that the steadydownhill slide in rice consumption here has slowed. Before World War II, the average Japanese adult reportedly consumed four to six bowls of rice every day, but by 1975 portions had halved. Almost every kateiyō suihanki
(家庭用炊飯器, household rice cooker) that came out after that can fit no more than four (合, approximately 180cc, or just under one Japan-size cup), which provides 1.5 zen (膳, rice-bowl helping) each for a family of four. The reason for such small rice cookers? Rice is packed with nutrients including proteins and glucose — it just didn’t suit modern diets. As more women joined the work force, no one had time to wash rice and set the cooker in the morning. It’s much easier to toast bread or boil a batch of noodles.

But, truth be told, the Japanese and rice go back so far and share so much history, anguish and love that they’re bound to get back together. To the Japanese, rice is not just a staple of life: it’s life itself. For 4,000 years, rice adorned altars at religious ceremonies and festivals, financed war campaigns and made and broke lords and warriors. It even served as the nation’s major currency for close to three centuries.

The character for “kome” can be broken into three separate parts: hachi
(八, eight), jyū (十, 10), and hachi (八, eight). Join them together and you get hachijyūhachi (八十八, 88), said to be the number of people required to toil and sweat to produce even one handful of rice. For centuries before the Meiji Restoration, the nation’s hyakushō (百姓, farmers) hardly ever sampled their own rice crops, since the government took almost everything they grew as nengu (年貢, taxation) — which in turn was used to pay samurai bureaucrats. From soil to hand to mouth, the cycle continued, and a dry summer or a wet winter meant disaster for a region. The kanji characters that form the term hyakusho mean “one hundred tasks of servants” — which is probably putting it very, very mildly. Growing rice was a raw deal, but it was the only deal around for most people.

It’s no wonder, then, with all this history, that one of the first lessons a Japanese child learns is to properly hold rice with chopsticks and to finish every last grain of rice in his or her bowl. The Japanese word for ‘‘meal” is exactly the same as the one for cooked rice — gohan (ご飯, reverent cooked rice). It suffices for everything except dessert, and many people refer to restaurants as “gohanya-san (ご飯やさん, the house of reverent cooked rice),” even though the establishment might be Italian, French or a Hawaiian burger place. In the home, one of the biggest sins against God and nature is to leave mouthfuls of rice in the bowl or plate — by doing so, one insults the work of 88 people.

These days, rice as an issue has shifted from the heavily economical and political to the more personal. New acquaintances will ask each other what kind of rice they eat (there are many different brands from different regions) and how they cook it. This is especially important for couples beginning a relationship. Many men are turned off by women who can’t, or won’t, cook their own rice and instead opt to buy onigiri (おにぎり, rice balls) from the local konbini (コンビニ, convenience store) or resort to the worst offense of all: buying those precooked plastic tubs of rice that people suspect are a blend of foreign grain and jikomai (事故米, accident rice, or rice with mold on it or excessively high levels of pesticide).

One of the most ideal accomplishments for young women is the ability to cook rice in a cast-iron pot or a bunka nabe (文化鍋, cultural pot, or a small steel pot with a deep lid) and not need to rely on a rice cooker. In our own crowded family, my mother used a jyūgōdaki (十合炊き, 10-cup rice cooker) purchased from a restaurant supply company, and she used it day in and day out to feed us. To this day, the smell of “takitate gohan (炊きたてご飯, newly cooked rice)” is synonymous with childhood nostalgia and a sense of utter well-being.

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