Katsushika Hokusai: woodblock illustration of a poem by the Emperor Tenchi Tenno (628-681).|
The poem describes a sudden storm that forced the Emperor to shelter in a common rice farmer's hut.(source)
|Rice as Self. Published 1994.|
A Japanese 5-yen coin, mid-20th century,
showing a sheaf of rice.
"As for the beauty of cooked rice, the most important characteristics are the related qualities of luster, purity and whiteness." According to the author Tanizaki Junichirō: "When cooked rice is in a lacquer container placed in the dark, shining with black luster, it is more aesthetic to look at, and it is more appetizing. When you lift the lid... you see pure white rice with vapor rising. Each grain is a pearl." (p. 76-77)
Rice fields also became the emblem of the changing seasons in Japanese art and literature, such as the autumn scene in the woodblock above, and many other such works by Hiroshige, Hokusai, and others. The author's discussion of rice in art before the westernization of Japan in the Meiji era (beginning in 1868) is especially fascinating:
"The recurrent motifs of rice and rice agriculture in these woodblock prints represent not rice and rice agriculture per se but something far more abstract. At the most obvious level, they signal seasons of the year. Flooded rice fields... are the most familiar sign of spring or early summer... .Rice harvesting scenes, including sheaves of rice stalks... represent fall and its joyful harvest but also the end of the growing season.
"What is striking ... is that these cycles of rice growth have become markers of the seasons for all Japanese. For urbanites, fishermen, and all other nonagrarian people, life became marked by rice and its growth.
"At an even more abstract level, travelers are often depicted agains these agricultural scenes, suggesting that the scenes of rice and rice agriculture are a backdrop for an unchanging Japan, in contrast to the transient and changing Japan epitomized by Edo (Tokyo)." (p. 90)
Although Japan was not predominantly agricultural, and definitely not predominantly populated by rice farmers, rice culture became very intertwined with Japanese identity, "just as rice has been important for practically all Japanese, whether or not it was a staple food."
There's much more to ponder in Rice as Self. I read it a long time ago, and I'm glad I finally managed to get back to it and read it again.
UPDATE: for a modern version of rice in art see this: Japan’s Rice Art Festivals of 2021