Exploring Japan through Rice

Linda S. Wojtan

Little grain of rice

Tell me about those countries

So far away

Haiku by Pauline Mangeant, age 9

(translated from the French in Haiku by Children.

Tokyo: JAL Foundation, 1997)

Learning about the world from a humble grain of rice may seem a lofty goal. Yet the global significance of rice affords a lens for examining a multitude of countries and cultures. Rice, boasting at least 120,000 varieties, provides between 25 to 80 percent of daily calories for over 2.7 billion Asians, or one half of the world's population. Rice is the world's number one food crop for human use; although wheat and corn production exceeds that of rice, substantial percentages of each are used for animal feed.

A highly adaptable grain, rice grows in the hot Australian and Egyptian deserts, cool Himalayan foothills of Nepal, and slash-and-burn forest slopes in Southeast Asia. During flooding season in Bangladesh, rice can thrive in eight feet of water, due to the passage of air from minute openings in the shoots to the roots. These "floating" rice plants can elongate eight inches a day, to ten or more feet, in order to accommodate rising flood waters.

Although American students usually learn about rice during their study of Japan, the coverage is often quite limited. Typical textbook treatment focuses on rice as food, on rice growing as an occupation, and on terracing as a geographic accommodation. However, little mention is made of the concept of rice in the Japanese cultural context.

Across the Curriculum with Rice

Rice holds such hegemony in Japanese culture that some have identified it as the essence of the culture itself. Even a superficial examination of Japanese culture reveals the complex connection rice has to many cultural forms and expressions in both historical and contemporary settings.

Understanding the role of rice in contemporary Japanese culture calls for a multi-faceted exploration. Indeed, rice is an ideal vehicle for an across-the-curriculum approach to Japanese culture. The categories and activities suggested below afford some examples of this approach.


Usually, the language of a culture provides clues to important concepts and values. This is true in Japanese culture. The primacy of rice as a diet staple is echoed in the Japanese language. One example is the early indigenous name for Japan, mizu ho no kuni (the land of the water stalk plant).

Another is the word gohan, which has the dual meanings of "cooked rice" and a "meaquot; (such dual meanings exist in other Asian languages/cultures where rice is the main dietary staple).

Activity. Ask students to hypothesize about the significance of the two meanings of gohan. Continue the language lesson by explaining that 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 is almost impossible for most Japanese to think of a meal without rice.

Next, tell students that in Chinese the word for "rice" is also the word for "meal," and that a common greeting among Chinese during meal periods of the day is literally "Have you had your rice?" Ask the students if they can think of any word(s) in English or another language that function in this way.


Many believe that important aspects of Japanese social behavior, including the notion of wa or harmony (seeking consensus and always assessing the context of actions) originates from wet rice cultivation. Historically, wet rice cultivation was a labor-intensive task that could not be accomplished easily. As a result, families pooled their labor. More importantly, they also shared their water resources and irrigation facilities.

Typically, irrigation arrangements called for water to run downhill, linking all the surrounding families in their shared destiny of communal resource usage. The people lived in houses clustered together and depended heavily upon each other, since they usually planted rice on the same day, after several days of watering. This necessitated an emphasis on group interests, the enhancement of skills in group decision making, and the avoidance of friction between families who would be neighbors and work mates for generations.

This historic commitment to group harmony has led some observers to suggest that the original culture of rice continues to shape group consciousness in Japan today. Despite the fact that only a small number of people actually grow rice, 125 million people still try to sustain group harmony in a relatively confined space by seeking daily accommodation.

Activity. To help students explore this concept, ask them to research rice-growing in Japan in both historic and modern times. Help them to analyze the labor-intensive job of growing rice in terms of the forms of cooperation needed. Reinforce this learning by asking the children to analyze cooperative tasks in the classroom and the efforts at accommodation that are needed to ensure success. How do cooperation and accommodation change their behavior? What happens when some do not cooperate?


The Japanese emperor has historically been a "priest-king" of the Shinto religion. Many of his priestly functions have revolved around aspects of rice-growing throughout the year. Shinto rituals encompass the use of both rice and such rice products as sake (rice wine) and mochi (rice cakes). Rice stalks fashioned into braids or ropes are called shimenawa and used to denote a sacred place.

The function of the Japanese emperor as guardian of the rice crop endures. Indeed, former Emperor Hirohito tended a rice plot on the Imperial grounds in Tokyo up to the time when he was taken seriously ill. Even during the last months of his life, Emperor Hirohito inquired about the weather and actively worried about the crop. The tradition continues as today's Emperor Akihito blesses the rice crop each year (his many coronation ceremonies also involved rice and its products).

Activity. Ask students to look for (or provide them with) illustrations of Shinto ceremonies that include the use of rice or rice products. How is rice being used in these rituals? What do these different uses suggest about the importance of rice in Japanese culture?


Over time, control or guarding of the rice crop became a political function, confirming its importance in Japanese society. Indeed, the amount of rice possessed--measured in shos--signaled the wealth of a daimyo (lord) and provided payment for his samurai (warriors). Thus rice undergirded the political system, functioning as currency and an instrument of trade.

Activity. Have students investigate items used by various cultures throughout history to represent money. Why were these things chosen? What did they signify? How was their value protected? How was this important to the stability of the society?

Contemporary Politics

In recent times, Japanese farmers have wielded great political influence due to a previously skewed system of legislative apportionment that favors their interests. This is due to the fact that political representation was allotted decades ago when Japan did not have its present urban concentrations. While recent reforms have somewhat ameliorated this situation, rice farmers continue to use the power of their votes to express displeasure over reductions in price subsidies and changes in the rice import policy. In Japan, rice has been a controlled commodity, with the government regulating the amount of land used for its cultivation and overseeing its distribution, usually through designated stores. In late 1997, Japan's first spot market for direct rice sales (operating outside government-controlled distribution channels) was initiated.

Activity. Ask students to debate who should set the price for important food commodities such as grains. Should the price be set by government or the food producers? What about years when the weather is bad and causes crop shortages?

Literature and the Arts

The importance of rice is manifest in numerous aspects of Japanese cultural life, ranging from folklore, festivals, and family rituals to arts, crafts, and cooking. Historically, all parts of the rice plant have been fully used. For example, over 70 pounds of stalks are recycled into each tatami mat; rice bran provides a face scrub; and rice paste is employed in book-binding and the resist-dye technique for fabrics, especially silk for kimonos.

Rice is so enmeshed in the culture that, whereas people in the United States refer to the "man in the moon," Japanese see a rabbit pounding rice cakes--as memorialized in the popular folktale, "The Rabbit in the Moon." Other folktales, such as "The Old Man Who Made Dead Trees Bloom," also feature rice in some significant fashion.

Activity. Ask students to read and record the use of rice in a variety of folktales. Have them analyze the symbolism behind the use of rice in each instance by deciding whether it is positive or negative. Next, ask them to write a paragraph explaining their findings or a story underscoring the importance of rice.

Modern Cuisine

Needless to say, rice is nourishment with many cultural and historical nuances that are deeply woven into Japanese culture. But what of rice in the modern-day diet? Japan is no longer a country where 90 percent of the population is engaged in rice cultivation. Will rice retain its hegemony?

Statistics regarding Japanese household consumption of rice provide only part of the picture. Although Food Agency surveys reveal a decline in household consumption, rice continues to be popular in such mainstays of modern life as 24-hour convenience stores and restaurant chains geared to families. Indeed, in some cases, fast food sales figures show rice snacks outpacing bread snacks.

As mentioned earlier, there are thousands of varieties of rice. In recent decades, media advertisements for rice in the U.S. have extolled the virtues of long-grain, fluffy rice that does not stick together. In contrast, Japanese palates prefer short-grained, sticky rice that will accommodate the demands of sushi making and other aspects of Japanese cuisine. Although some sticky rice is grown in the U.S. (notably Kokuho Rose), many of the estimated 11,000 American rice growers prefer producing long-grained rice. This is because of the greater risks involved in cultivating sticky rice, which typically requires 160 days to mature, versus 130 for other rice crops.

Activity. If possible, arrange for students to try both sticky and non-sticky rice. While tasting, ask them to analyze the characteristics of the different kinds of rice and to hypothesize about their suitability in different cuisines and recipes. For example, which type of rice would be most successful in making sushi?

Using the book Everybody Cooks Rice (see Teaching Resources), have the class explore how rice is used in the cuisines of many different cultures. Since the inspiration for the book was a potluck that resulted in many different rice dishes, ask students to reprise this by collecting a rice recipe reflective of their own family and or ethnic group. To what extent is rice truly a global grain?


Today, Japan is the world's largest consumer of foreign agricultural products. Yearly agricultural imports total over $50 billion. Increasingly, the term "food security" is used to note Japanese concern over their food dependency. Indeed, more than one-half of the daily Japanese caloric intake comes from imported foodstuffs. Despite this, rice continues to serve as a psychological, if not actual, staple of the Japanese diet. Self-sufficiency in growing rice, therefore, has important mental as well as material ramifications-- especially for those who lived through the privations of the post-WWII era.

Another psychological factor involving rice is its association with the furusato (hometown). The nostalgic attachment of many Japanese to their ancestral homes--where, typically, rice was or is grown--has been demonstrated in recent polls showing a concern for the livelihood of Japan's shrinking population of rice farmers.

Activity. Underscore the importance of these aspects of Japanese culture by asking students to name their favorite food, its origin, and its ingredients. Is their favorite food a domestic or imported creation? How would they feel if they were no longer able to obtain this food?

Extending the Lesson with Cross-Cultural Comparisons

The study of rice in Japan can easily be extended to a broader look at the role of rice in other countries, especially those of Asia. The Indonesian folktale "The Story of Rice," with origins in Hindu beliefs, chronicles the initiation of rice cultivation by humans. In Bali, rice is the embodiment of Dewi Sri, the rice mother, goddess of life and fertility. For many in Bali, affixing uncooked kernels of rice to their foreheads is a symbolic way to absorb the life force of Dewi Sri. Literature, folktales, and cultural practices in these and other Asian countries afford rich examples for illustrating the deeply meaning of rice in those cultures.

Study of United States history reveals the important role of rice in shaping the plantation system. For example, a teaching unit titled "When Rice Was King" explores the labor-intensive nature of rice growing in the United States and its implications for the rise of slavery (see Teaching Resources).

Another good subject for cross-cultural comparisons is corn. Today, corn is the largest and most important crop in the United States. Indeed, few Americans realize that--beyond its importance as a staple crop for both people and animals--corn is also a component of our paints, soft drinks, toothpaste, insecticides and lipstick.

Corn has played--and continues to play--a powerful role in cultures of the western hemisphere. Corn was divine in the religions and myths of American Indian groups from Mexico, Honduras, and Guatemala, to the Southwestern and Great Plains regions of the United States. According to the Mayan, Incan, Aztec, and Southwestern American Indian belief systems, humans descended from corn. Furthermore, recent scholarship centered on a contemporary Aztec Indian village shows that corn continues to be an absolute necessity of life and nourishment; many confirm that "corn is our blood" and to have a meal without it remains unthinkable (see Teaching Resources).

By exploring the role of corn in the western hemisphere, your students will soon realize that a wealth of cultural knowledge is contained in the humble kernel of corn--just as it is in a grain of rice.

Teaching Resources

Feeding a Hungry World: Focus on Rice in Asia and the Pacific. Stanford, CA: Stanford Program on International and Cross- Cultural Education (SPICE), 1995. (Middle School - Secondary)

Fussell, Betty. The Story of Corn: The Myths and History, the Culture and Agriculture, the Art and Science of America's Quintessential Crop. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992.

Metcalf, Fay. "When Rice Was King." Teaching with Historic Places. Social Education 56, No.7 (November/ December, 1992).

Ohnuki-Tierney, Emiko. Rice as Self: Japanese Identities Through Time. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1993.

Sandstrom, Alan R. Corn Is our Blood: Culture and Ethnic Identity in a Contemporary Aztec Indian Village. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991.

Symbolism in Japanese Language and Culture: Activities for the Elementary Classroom. Stanford, CA: Stanford Program on International and Cross-Cultural Education (SPICE), 1991. (Elementary - Middle School)

White, Peter T. "Rice, the Essential Harvest" National Geographic, 185, No. 5 (May 1994): 48-79.

Wojtan, Linda S. "Rice: It's More Than Food in Japan." Japan Digest. Bloomington, Ind.: National Clearinghouse for U.S. - Japan Studies, 1993.

Children's Literature

Dooley, Norah. Everybody Cooks Rice. Minneapolis: Carolrhoda Books, Inc. 1991.

Kartahadimadja, Ati K. "The Story of Rice." Folk Tales From Asia for Children Everywhere. New York: Weatherhill, 1976.

Rabbit in the Moon: Folktales from China and Japan. Stanford, CA: Stanford Program on International and Cross-Cultural Education (SPICE). (Elementary)

About the Author

Linda S. Wojtan is the program coordinator for the Keizai Koho Center Fellowships Program. She is author of Introduction to Japan: A Workbook and co-editor of Teaching about Japan: Lessons and Resources and Internationalizing the U.S. Classroom: Japan as a Model.