Japanese Culture and Daily Life

People in every part of the world eat rice in different ways: the Chinese chaofan, the Indonesian nasi-goreng, the Korean kukpap, the Mexican chili con carne, the Spanish paella, and Japanese onigiri. In Japan rice is not only one of many foods, but the most important staple of the diet and the centerpiece of almost every meal.

Where did rice come from?
Rice is eaten not only in Japan but is the staple of people's diets throughout Asia. Nine thousand years ago it was already being cultivated from India to the region of present-day Yunnan Province in China. Rice agriculture subsequently spread in all directions, and was introduced to Japan about 4,000 years ago.

What kind of rice is eaten where you live?
Rice can be broadly divided into two varieties; japonica and indica. The rice consumed in Japan is almost always of the short-grained japonica variety, which is more glutinous and sticky when cooked. Indica strains of rice are generally long-grained and drier and lighter when cooked. There is also a category of rice native to Africa. One popular way of eating rice in Japan is as onigiri, balls or triangles of rice packed firmly by hand or in a mold, and this is possible because of the sticky quality of the japonica variety. Ways of cooking and serving rice clearly vary for each variety of rice.

What types of grain are eaten where you live?
How are they related to the climate in your area?
Japan's climate is characterized by hot summers and abundant rainfall. This provides an ideal environment for cultivating rice or, as the Japanese call it kome. Kome is grown in paddies in Japan and some parts of East Asia, and archaeological evidence indicates that the Japanese first began to live in fixed settlements after they acquired the techniques of wet-rice cultivation.
Population naturally concentrated in areas suited to this type of farming,villages were created, and a society gradually developed that centered on the cycle of rice cultivation. Until the mid-nineteenth century the size of a local lord's estate was measured by the amount of rice it yielded, and the stipends of government officials and samurai as well as the taxes levied on farmers were paid in rice. In that sense,kome was as precious as money.
Most of the festivals that Japanese celebrate today began long ago when people gathered in the fields to pray for a bountiful harvest. Shoogatsu , or New Year's, was actually a ritual to honor the rice god. Even today, all forty-seven prefectures in Japan grow rice. The country's total annual rice production for 1995 was approximately 11 million tons, which represents 30 percent of total agricultural production. Rice-growing is a key Japanese industry, and until recently a government license was required to sell rice.

What food is important to you?
If you take a close look at daily life in Japan, you will find that a great many commodities are made from kome, ranging from breakfast foods, ready-to-eat bentoo (box lunches), and onigiri to frozen prepared fried rice, pilaff and casseroles, snacks like rice crackers(senbei) and rice cakes (mochi), sake (rice wine), seasonings, and even soap. Institutionally served school lunches are sometimes rice based. Gift coupons for rice are one way of expressing gratitude for favors done. An electric rice cooker is an essential appliance of the Japanese home.
onigiri bentoo sembei
suihanki sake

The traditional chooshoku (breakfast), also called asa gohan, generally features gohan (rice), miso shiru (miso soup), yakizakana (grilled fish), tamago (eggs), and tsukemono (pickled vegetables), offering a fairly balanced and nutritional complement of carbohydrates and protein, without much fat. With so much attention being paid to healthy eating habits lately, traditional Japanese fare has been gaining favor in other parts of the world. Meanwhile, millions of Japanese people, especially those of the younger generations, wake up to toast, cereal, yogurt, and coffee instead.
Typical breackfast fare Breakfast with bread and coffee

Even some of the offerings at fast food outlets, such as those of a domestic Japanese burger chain, appeal directly to the public's appetite for rice. The rice burger (raisu baagaa) is a variation on the hamburger, with a grilled, circular cake of rice substituting for each half of the bun.
raisu baagaa mochi

In addition to ordinary rice (kome), which is cooked and served, there is also mochi rice, which is steamed, pounded into a paste with long-handled wooden pestles, and then formed into cakes, or mochi. Mochi is often eaten, after first being grilled and then flavored with soy sauce, wrapped in a sheet of dried seaweed (nori); it can also be eaten powdered with soybean flour. Mochi form a standard component of the customary New Year's fare, when they are served, in a form called ozooni, boiled in a vegetable broth.

The Japanese adult consumes mostly at least one bowl of gohan, or cooked rice, a day on the average. Japanese rice-based provisions went to outer space with the first Japanese female astronaut, Mukai Chiaki, when she joined the crew of the Space Shuttle in 1994. When the Great Hanshin Earthquake caused Japan's greatest postwar domestic crisis in 1995, volunteers distributed onigiri as emergency rations for the victims. And almost every Japanese has memories of being nursed by their mothers while suffering one illness or another with nutritious, easily digestible okayu or rice porridge. Okayu is also the first solid food fed to babies. Since the end of World War II, consumption of bread and other starches in Japan has increased while that of kome has decreased, but recently young people have begun to recognize that rice is a nutritionally well-balanced food that can be included as part of a healthy diet.

For Japanese, moreover, kome is not merely a food; it affects their daily lives in various ways. The word furusato (home) conjures up images of a rice-paddy dotted rural landscape even for people who were raised in the city. Its culture and traditions deeply embedded in four millennia of life on the Japanese archipelago, kome in many ways represents the heartland of the Japanese spirit.

Tanbo, a paddy field where rice is grown by the wet rice cultivation method.

A Day in the Life
The family is gathered for the Saturday evening meal, even Father, who usually has to work overtime and rarely gets home in time for dinner with the family on weekdays. Tonight's menu consists of rice, miso soup, grilled fish, deep-fried chicken, and salad. The container marked furikake contains a bonito-flake-flavored seasoning for sprinkling on rice. There are several varieties of furikake, made with nori (seaweed), salmon flakes, and other ingredients. Shooyu, another important seasoning, is on the table to be added before eating. Each place is set with individual servings in separate bowls and plates. Each member of the family has his or her own chopsticks and rice bowl. The eldest child has just come home late from juku (cram school). In a hurry to sit down and eat, he doesn't forget his "itadakimasu!" The customary words spoken before starting to eat, it expresses gratitude for the meal one is about to partake. Usually, everyone says "itadakimasu!" together after sitting down to eat. His sister, a few years younger, loves the deep-fried chicken on the menu tonight. In accordance with good Japanese manners, she holds her bowl in her left hand as she eats her rice. Mother serves up a bowlful of rice for her late-arriving son. Serving rice at the table is usually the mother's job. Father is in a good mood, enjoying sake, rice wine, with his dinner. As each person finishes, they say "gochisoosama," expressing appreciation and gratitude for the meal.

A Photo Montage: Rice
( Supplementary Explanations on the Photos )

Kome refers to rice in general, as a plant, as a grain crop, or as an uncooked foodstuff.

Gohan refers to cooked rice, usually served in a bowl (a standard serving is about 150 grams), and generally steamed rather than boiled. Used in another sense, the word gohan simply means "meal."

Raisu refers to cooked (generally steamed) rice served, usually on a plate rather than in a bowl, as a part of a meal considered to be non-Japanese fare. Thus, although the type of curry widely served in Japan is a distinctly Japanese preparation and while the rice served with it is prepared in the customary Japanese manner, the combination is referred to as karee raisu (curry and rice) because curry dishes did not originate in Japan.

The term onigiri, which denotes a hand-packed cake or ball of rice, is derived from the verb nigiru (to grip or grasp). The term omusubi, sometimes used instead, is derived in a similar way from the verb musubu (to tie). The preparation of onigiri involves shaping a handful of cooked rice into a spherical, triangular, or cylindrical cake, usually with some type of filling at its center: umeboshi (pickled plum), tsukudani (shellfish and tiny fish stewed in soy sauce), sake (salmon, usually grilled), katsuobushi (dried bonito, a type of fish), or some other variety. The cake thus formed is then lightly salted and, usually, wrapped in nori (a sheet of dried seaweed).
There are several facets to the enduring popularity of onigiri as a snack or as the centerpiece of a light meal. The primary ingredient is, of course, the national staple, presented in a form that is conveniently portable and can be consumed at one's leisure, since the salt in the onigiri preserves flavor and freshness for a relatively long time. In recent years, onigiri containing such non-traditional filings as tuna salad and crabmeat have attained popularity, the result of innovations thought to originate outside Japan.

The word bentoo denotes a portable meal that was traditionally carried in a wooden box but is far more commonly enclosed in a multi-section plastic tray these days. The bentoo (politely referred to as obento, with the honorific prefix o- attached) is not only standard lunch fare for students and working people in Japan but is also frequently taken along and consumed on train trips and other excursions, such as cherry blossom viewing outings. There are bentoo stands on train station platforms, ubiquitous bentoo shops, and a bentoo section in virtually every convenience store, but despite the wide availability of commercially prepared versions, many maintain that the homemade bentoo reigns supreme.
The largest component of the standard bentoo consists of a serving of plain cooked rice (gohan), along with which several side dishes (okazu) are included to enhance nutrition and augment the presentation, as well as to add variety or suit personal tastes. The bentoo is prepared and sealed so as to keep for hours without refrigeration and designed to remain perfectly palatable long after its various components have cooled off.

Rice is the primary ingredient in the snack food known as sembei, which, although often shaped like a cookie, is usually translated as "rice cracker." Sembei (politely referred to as osembei, with the honorific prefix o- attached), of which there are any number of varieties, may be served as a traditional complement to green tea (ocha) or other beverages when family members are relaxing together or when a guest drops in.

Dango is a traditional Japanese confectionery whose primary ingredient is mochi. The dango shown here are served on bamboo skewers, coated with anko, a sweet bean paste(right), and with a brown sauce made from sugar and soy sauce(left).

Sake, of which rice is a principal ingredient, is usually translated as "rice wine." As a beverage that is produced by brewing, however, it is actually closer to beer than wine. Sake can be served either hot or cold and is often poured from a decanter (tokkuri) and drunk from small ceramic cups (ochoko), such as those shown here.

Suihanki (Rice cooker)
Rice was once cooked over an open fire in iron pots, but these days virtually every Japanese household is equipped with an automatic rice cooker that will produce perfectly cooked rice at the touch of a button. This modern convenience has made life considerably easier for housewives, mothers, and others who frequently prepare meals.

Original text : The Japan Forum Newsletter no9 "A day in The Life" June 1997.

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