Saturday, September 25, 2021

Anthropology: Rice as Self

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.(

Was the Japanese Emperor a god? This turns out to be a fascinating question, because in Japanese belief, gods were quite different from gods in Western traditions. To understand the emperor's divinity, it's interesting to know that in former times in Japan, every grain of rice was also believed to be a god. The Emperor himself acted as a shaman: he played a role in various ceremonies and rituals to ensure successful rice harvests. While the Emperor is no longer seen as closely linked to the rice crop, rice remains a key to Japanese identity.
Rice as Self: Japanese Identities through Time by Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney is a challenging technical/anthropological  account of the many meanings and uses of rice in Japan over more than 2000 years. Here are some of the fascinating aspects of Japanese historical culture that I learned from this book.

Rice as Self. Published 1994.
In some parts of Japan, rice was the major source of nutrition, and elsewhere in Japan other grains like millet were more nutritionally important, as well as other foods. However, rice had a major role in the way everyone thought about food, no matter what their actual diet included. Even in modern Japan, where many other foods -- for example, toast and eggs for breakfast and KFC or American burgers for lunch -- are a major part of people's diets, rice has a significance that elevates it from ordinary food. Moreover, rice that is grown in Japan is vastly preferred, and the Japanese rice paddies are envisioned as a key feature of the Japanese landscape.

In fact, the word for rice is the word in Japanese for food. A serious meal, like a formal dinner, that doesn't end with at least a small portion of rice (or more) doesn't seem complete to traditional Japanese people. The importance of rice was diminishing in the years after World War II; in the 30 years since the research for this book was completed, its importance may have diminished even more, but the material in the book shows how significant it has been.

For most of Japanese history, until the industrialization of the 20th century, a large majority of Japanese people worked as farmers, growing many types of foods. The rice they grew was identified as the source of all wealth, both symbolically through folk tales and religious beliefs, and literally. Farmers paid their taxes in set quantities of rice. At the end of this time, as money, like coins, was in the process of being invented, oblong gold coins called koban were created with a value equal to a standard measure of rice. There was a belief that rice was always a pure currency, while money was often impure. Some circulating Japanese coins still have images of rice on them, recalling the connection of rice and wealth.

A Japanese 5-yen coin, mid-20th century,
showing a sheaf of rice.

Rice was beautiful to look at, in the aesthetic sense of Japan. Appreciation of this beauty was expressed in poetry and in art such as the poem illustrated in the woodblock print at the top of this blog post. Eating pure, white rice is the ideal, and the sight of rice being cultivated, gathered, and threshed is also appreciated: "Ripe heads of rice grain are described as having a golden luster." (p. 75) 
"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

 ... and a silly comparison 

Anthropology interests me, so I really enjoyed Rice as Self despite the dense technical and sometimes jargon-filled style and too-frequent, awkwardly inserted references to the author's sources. Ohnuki-Tierney, a real anthropologist, isn't anything like the fictional Ruth Galloway, the forensic anthropologist at the center of the easy-reading detective stories by Elly Griffiths. I'm reading them fast:  I reviewed The Outcast Dead last week, and read another in the series a few days ago. I bet Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney, unlike Ruth Galloway, is never threatened by strange old men with antique guns, and never chases down kidnappers or identifies murder victims the way that Ruth Galloway does. It's fun to do a lot of reading at very different levels.

Blog post © 2021 mae sander.


My name is Erika. said...

Reading all kinds of things has to be good for the brain. It is interesting reading about rice being considered (at one time) holy. If holy is the right word for Japanese gods. It is an interesting system, the little I know about it. When I visited Japan, our tour guide (a Buddhist) said Japanese gods are really just about wanting luck in which ever one you prayed to. Not sure how true that is. And I love Elly Griffiths books. I've read all the Dr. Ruth Gallowway series to date. They are fun and informative and not all life needs to be serious learning. Maybe? Happy weekend Mae. Hugs-Erika

Gretchen said...

The rice book sound fascinating! It is so interesting to learn about different cultures.

I think reading books of different levels is the best way to read. Sometimes your brain needs something dense and other times something not so dense.

Have a good weekend!

Iris Flavia said...

Rice comes in so many varieties, it must be "holy".
Interesting background - I´ll enjoy it even more.
Just had beet-root-rice (looked good, the water, the rice was but rice ...)

Tandy | Lavender and Lime ( said...

This blog post was such an interesting read Mae. Thank you for sharing it with us.

Girl Who Reads said...

Sounds like an interesting book. I had an Asian friend who said that it didn't matter what was being served her mother always had a bowl of rice on the table.

Bleubeard and Elizabeth said...

I was enthralled by this take on rice and as self. I identify Japan with rice, so I can see the idea behind rice as self. It was a great review and I also enjoyed the silly comparison, too!

Nan said...

Very interesting that rice has diminished in stature now. Being an old hippie, I never understood the use of white rice. It was and is always brown rice for me.
In the couple of Japanese books I've read this year, rice isn't mentioned that much.

Deb Nance at Readerbuzz said...

Rice is a huge part of the culture of South Texas. There's a very successful small rice company here in my town, and I can honestly say I've never eaten better-tasting rice than Texmati's basmati.

I often read a serious book with a not-serious book. I usually draw out the reading of the serious book. It's a good system, I think.

Beth F said...

I enjoy reading food history.

(Diane) bookchickdi said...

You always have such interesting posts, I learn alot from them.

Deb in Hawaii said...

It sounds like an interesting book although maybe too academic for my reading mood right now. I agree about different levels and genres of books keep life fun and interesting. ;-)

Marg said...

Sounds like an interesting book. One thing about rice is that can it be the simplest of dishes by itself but can also be complicated. It is an ingredient that translates well in many cultures to. Very interesting.

Divers and Sundry said...

I'm a fan of sumo wrestling, and sometimes the cultural aspects of being in Japan in a sport that dates back so far in history escape me. I'd bet this book would help.