Washing rice before it is cooked has long been a daily ritual in Japan.

This improves the taste by removing bran remnants that cling to the surface of the grains even after they have been polished.

But the emergence of “musenmai” — prewashed rice that does not need to be rinsed again — may eventually bring an end to this long-standing kitchen chore.

Musenmai, which can be cooked straight from the package, has been especially popular with busy urbanites since its market debut in 1991.

Although exact figures are not available, the Musenmai Association of Japan, a nonprofit organization, claims that the musenmai yield was expected to hit 600,000 tons in fiscal 2002, an increase of 40 percent from the previous year. This figure is equivalent to roughly 6.7 percent of the country’s rice output in 2002, which stood at about 8.88 million tons.

But will there ever come a time when the rice-washing ritual disappears completely from Japanese homes?

The key to this lies in whether the touted benefits of prewashed rice win over the more reluctant consumers.

“Prewashed rice was first developed to protect the environment,” said Keiji Saika, president of Wakayama-based Toyo Rice Cleaning Machine Co. and the man who came up with the idea for musenmai.

Saika thought up developing rice that doesn’t need washing when he saw dirty seawater during a trip to Awaji Island in Hyogo Prefecture in 1976.

When he had first visited the island in 1956, the same stretch of water had been clear.

Working for a manufacturer of rice-polishing machines, Saika said, made him aware that the rice-washing process ultimately pollutes rivers and seas; the bran residue does not dissolve and instead accumulates as sludge.

This sludge contains organic matter, including phosphorus and nitrogen, two main water pollutants.

Indeed, some authorities, including the Tokyo Metropolitan Government and the Shimane Prefectural Government, are encouraging people not to drain water that has been used to wash rice. Instead, they say it should be used to water plants because it enriches the soil.

After 15 years, Saika finally achieved his dream with the development of a rice polisher that can remove bran residue from the surface of rice grains without having to rely on water. The process uses the adhesiveness of the bran itself to remove it.

Although there are other ways to remove the bran from rice, 70 percent of the prewashed rice market uses Saika’s “bran-grind” process, according to his firm.

When musenmai was introduced on the market, the main clients were cafeterias serving hospitals, companies and homes for the elderly, Saika said.

This is because it is more cost-effective when used on a large scale, with reductions in water usage and improved kitchen efficiency more pronounced.

A nationwide campaign held by the musenmai association between autumn 2000 and last spring has helped to raise consumer awareness. A variety of prewashed rice is now available at many large-scale retail stores, including all 170 Ito-Yokado Co. outlets that sell food.

The popularity of musenmai is having a wider effect, especially in the electric rice cooker industry. Almost all cookers now manufactured by Zojirushi Co. feature a function designed for prewashed rice, a company spokesman said.

The rice industry meanwhile hopes the popularity of prewashed rice will boost consumption of the Japanese staple, which has declined amid the rising popularity of Western foods.

But as people in the rinse-free rice business admit, there are still hurdles to overcome before the product is truly embraced by the masses.

Despite wide recognition, musenmai enjoys a mixed reputation, with most consumers apparently reluctant to make the switch from ordinary polished rice.

According to a survey conducted on 2,064 consumers nationwide in August 2001 by the government-affiliated National Consumer Affairs Center of Japan, 95.5 percent of the respondents said they had heard of musenmai — but 66.4 percent said they had never bought it.

Topping the list of reasons why not is the feeling that failing to wash rice seems unsanitary.

“That is the biggest obstacle that we are up against when promoting prewashed rice,” Saika said, adding that it is hard to change people’s habits, especially one so deeply rooted in the Japanese way of life.

Meanwhile, the consumer center said it has received an increasing number of inquiries about the safety of prewashed rice over the past few years.

The center’s survey also revealed that many people still believe they have not been given sufficient information on musenmai, including the cleaning process.

It would seem that the term “musenmai” is being tossed around without consumers really understanding what it is all about. Saika said his firm will continue to promote prewashed rice by emphasizing the environmental protection concerns that led to its birth.

His company will further expand its current efforts to sell a byproduct of prewashed rice — bran residue that has been separated from the rice — as organic fertilizer.

In explaining how carbon dioxide emissions at processing factories for prewashed rice are kept to a minimum, as well as how the separated bran is fully utilized, Saika said that the manufacturing process for musenmai involves an almost complete recycling pattern.

“I am convinced that the day will come when rinse-free rice becomes so common that people will look back and laugh at the old practice,” he said.

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