Rice culture, c. 1910.



1910sImperial HouseholdReligious
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Children with bowls of rice, c. 1910.

“Rice is so important in Japanese society that it has been called the essence of the culture. Even a superficial examination of Japanese culture reveals the complex connection rice has to many of its forms and expressions, in both historical and contemporary settings.

“The language of a culture provides clues to important concepts and values. This is true in the Japanese culture. The primacy of rice as a diet staple is echoed in the Japanese language. ‘Gohan’ is both the word for ‘cooked rice’ as well as ‘meal’. This is also true in other Asian cultures where rice is the main dietary staple. The use of gohan in Japanese is extended with prefixes to give us asagohan (breakfast), hirugohan (lunch), and bangohan (dinner). These multiple terms signal that it was almost impossible for most Japanese to think of a meal without rice.

“Rice has many links to various aspects of Japanese culture. For example, the Emperor became a ‘priest-king’ early in Japanese history. Many of his priestly functions under the Shinto religion revolved around rice-growing and included rice products such as sake (rice wine) and mochi (rice cakes), as well as the actual grain and its stalks.

“Indeed, the previous Emperor Hirohito, right up to the time when he became seriously ill, tended a rice plot, as had previous emperors, on the Imperial grounds in Tokyo. Further, during the last September of his life, Emperor Hirohito inquired about the weather and actively worried about the crop. Tradition continues as Emperor Akihito blesses the rice crop, and his many coronation ceremonies involving rice and rice products underscore links to the emperor and to Shinto.”

Rice: It’s More Than Just a Food, by Linda S. Wojtan, Indiana University, 1993

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