The Culture and History Behind Japanese Rice
History of Japanese Rice
The earliest recorded history of rice in Japan dates back to the Jomon period (400 BC), although it is possible that it has been around for even longer. It is believed to have been introduced to Japan from Korea or China at some point, eventually making its way to its first entry point, Kyushu island, located on the southern coast of Japan.
Although rice naturally grows in forest clearings, over the centuries, the crop has been adapted to prosper in damp shallow fields and mountains, which is what a large majority of Japan’s landscape is comprised of. In fact, Japan’s landscape ecology has been acutely defined by rice cultivation through what is known as “paddy agriculture”, or the creation of level, flooded fields, often along a hillside. Paddy fields are an innovative agricultural technique that allows a relatively small piece of land to feed large populations. The caloric density of rice played a huge role in nourishing and empowering the people of Japan to sustainably grow their population for centuries to come.
The Agrarian Rice Lifestyle
The introduction of rice to Japan sparked a shift from hunter-gatherer lifestyles to agrarian ones that centered around the cultivation of rice. As a crop with high labor demand, rice also ignited a shift towards communal agriculture, resulting in community groups called Yui. These groups continue to be a crucial part of Japanese culture, infusing it with a strong sense of unity and harmony.
Rice as Currency
Over time, rice even took its place as a major form of currency in Japan. Around the 7th century, rice became the form in which lower classes paid taxes to lords, the measurement for valuing land, and a salary for samurais. In this way, it pioneered the modern banking system in Japan.
Rice as a Daily Staple
In Japanese, there are more words for “rice” than for “love”; that is a perfect symbol of how significant a role rice plays in Japanese life. With an annual consumption of 9 million tons per year, it is by far the most consumed food staple in the country today.
Rice as the Foundation of Japanese Diets
Surprisingly, up until the late 19th century, white rice was the least common form of rice produced and consumed by the masses in Japan. Brown rice, as it is in its natural form, was the most common type of rice consumed, and white rice, requiring additional processing to remove the bran, was reserved for the elite and upper classes. Industrialization eventually made white rice more available across all classes and continues to be the most popular form in Japanese cuisine today.
Today, amidst growing health concerns and higher instances of diabetes, there is a resurgence of brown rice, as well as other whole grain varieties, such as red and even black rice. This is because the rice bran or germ provides more nutrients and protein that provide more sustenance, reduce blood sugar spikes, and require fewer calories for satiation.
As a calorie-dense carbohydrate, it has served as a staple during economic hardship, especially for lower classes. It is traditionally combined with meat, vegetables, and condiments. Some of the most common everyday dishes that include rice today are ichi-juu san-sai, or “one soup three sides”, rice being one of the sides, sushi, onigiri, donburi, mixed rice dishes, and sweets.
Rice and Japanese Spirituality
Aside from being a dietary staple, it also has strong roots in Japanese spirituality, where dishes and beverages made from rice serve as offerings to the gods. In Shinto culture, two of the most common ceremonial offerings to ancestors during rituals and weddings are rice and sake (rice-based alcohol). In addition, certain rice-based dishes, such as sekihan (rice and adzuki bean dish) and mochi (dessert rice dough cake with red bean paste) are traditional dishes served at birthdays, weddings, and New Year’s festivities. A popular decoration made from mochi, kagami mochi, is also common during these special times of the year. Another significant meaning of these delicious treats is the red color of the bean paste inside the mochi, which is thought to deter evil spirits and invoke good health for the coming year.
Background of rice production areas in various regions of Japan
Japan has several different rice production areas throughout the country, each resulting in a unique grain based on its specific climate and geography. These are some of the most popular and well-known varieties or brands:
Koshihikari is by far the most popular and high-demand rice variety produced throughout Japan, but it’s most commonly known from Niigata Prefecture.
This short-grain variety was first cultivated in 1956 in Fukui Prefecture and literally translates as “light of Koshi”, Koshi being an ancient province in which Fukui was located. Characterized by its rich taste, stickiness, and firm texture, it is best suited for heartier meals with abundant flavor, such as karaage (japanese breaded fried chicken). Its sticky texture also makes this the preferred rice brand for sushi.
This more modern style of rice was developed in 1975 as a cross between Koshikari and other local varieties in Akita Prefecture. Locals realized that by cross-breeding, they were able to enhance its resistance to weather and disease. Named after Ono-no-komachi, a Hein period singer from the region known for her beauty, this variety has a luster and shine which translates to a chewy texture. Its round and plump qualities deem it a perfect base for lunch boxes and onigiri.
First produced in Miyagi prefecture in 1963, this variety is known for the soft texture and shine visible on each individual grain. It is the preferred variety for cold uses, as it maintains its taste even when served cold. This, along with its glossy, wet finish and sweet flavor, makes it an ideal candidate for sushi.
Aside from these, there are several other varieties, such as hitomebore, tsuyahime, yumepirika, hino-hikari, nanatsuboshi, haenuki, and kinu-hikari. Each variety is characterized by the people, landscapes, and cultivation techniques used in the region.
Immerse yourself in the world of rice!
By examining the role that rice plays in Japanese culture and history, it is clear that what the Western world sees of rice is just a fraction of the whole story. Each grain of rice holds a lifetime of tradition, spirituality, and evolution. High quality rice, such as rice factory NEW YORK’s, is a wonderful way to immerse yourself in this history.