Rice as Self: Japanese Identities Throughout Time Review

Updated on July 3, 2018

A large amount of what we associate with Japan includes rice. Rice fields and patties, sushi, farmers, simply a bowl of rice itself, all have connection to Japan and rice. Rice continues to be influential in Japan today, politically, culturally, and economically, and it has fascinating and complex cultural connotations, just like bread does in Europe and its settler colonies, although perhaps even more so. This makes a book like "Rice as Self: Japanese Identities through Time" by Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney, an intriguing and useful book. It claims that rice, while not always in physical and material terms, important or even dominant in Japanese life, has nevertheless developed an important cultural connotation which has become central to the Japanese identity.

Chapter 1 "Food as a Metaphor of Self: An Exercise in Historical Anthropology" is devoted to the topic of analyzing the ways in which food become representatives of culture, especially in the present globalized and globalizing world, and discussing the link between Japan and its rice-based identity. This linkage was one which was created and influenced as part of a dynamic between Japan and other nations, and we cannot see Japan as simply isolated from other cultures.

Chapter 2 "Rice and Rice Agriculture Today" continues to discuss how rice politics exist in contemporary times, starting with its general role in world food production. Following this tells about how the Japanese rice regulation and subsidy system came to exist and the motivations behind it, via historical analysis of Japanese rice regulations. It then delves into contemporary concerns over rice farmers and their lives (who are mostly kept solvent by government aid but still have a hard lot, in an economic sector with seemingly few social prospects), and then and specifically the issue of rice imports, which are increasing. Although rice prices are very high in Japan, this is not a serious issue to the majority of Japanese people since they consume relatively little rice. Thus the opposition on the part of many consumers, and especially female consumers, to rice imports is not as illogical as it would seem, but it does show that there are important non-economic elements at play concerning rice.

Still a major user of land and heavily subsidized and protected by the government, rice has declined in material importance in Japan since its immediate post-war peak.
Still a major user of land and heavily subsidized and protected by the government, rice has declined in material importance in Japan since its immediate post-war peak.

Chapter 3, "Rice as a Staple Food" starts with a history of rice and its introduction and origins in Japan, and the historical debate over the role of rice in Japanese history. There is both a school of thought holding that rice has been the majority food product throughout Japanese history, but also the miscellaneous grains school, claiming that rice consumption varied by region, such as with millet or tubers being utilized instead. Rice only seems to have become the principal, universal food source during the Meiji period, and possibly as late as the Second World War, even if it was a food of reference previously and gained this status during the Early Modern period. Post-war, rice consumption has fallen as the Japanese have grown more affluent, although it still constitutes the staple of the diet.

Chapter 4, "Rice in Cosmogony and Cosmology concerns the cultural significance of rice in Japan. The imperial ceremonies which are associated with rice (niinamesai, onamesai (daijosai), and kannamesai.), with the book principally being interested in onamesai, which is the ceremony of the transfer of kingship from one emperor to another upon the death of the new emperor's predecessor. The rest of the chapter discussions the ramifications and the relationship of the Japanese system to ideas such as divine kingship.

Chapter 5, "Rice as Wealth, Power, and Aesthetics", covers various institutions associated with rice, in particular money, such as gift exchange, commodity exchange, origins of money in Japan, religious connection, and rice's role throughout. There is particular focus on the idea of rice being a symbol of purity as compared to money which could often be dirty : rice thus maintains religious and cosmological intrinsic meaning as compared to money which is plagued with moral doubt. Rice in Japan has a long history of aesthetic representation.

Chapter 6 "Rice as Self, Rice Paddies as Our Land" concerns the historical development of an agrarian image of Japan. This extends from the Joman period but especially covers the period of the Early Modern time such as under the Tokugawa, and Meiji, leading to the continued relevance and influence of rice such as in even innocuous things such as the way in which rice is presented at dinner. Over time rice was mobilized as an image by various groups, including both leaders and peasants, and in a way which cemented the image of Japan and of its agrarianism as being one and the same.

Chapter 7, " Rice in the Discourse of Selves and Others", covers the topic of the utilization of rice throughout history as an instrument of the assertion of the unique Japanese identity, and how Japanese identity has interacted with and been shaped in its interaction with others - principally China and the West. Today, rice still fulfills this role despite having lost the reasons behind its previous spiritual and mystical importance.

Chapter 8, "Foods as Selves and Others in Cross-cultural Perspective", concerns taste and the social vectors of food, such as gender roles associated with foods or its role in social classes. It also talks about the construction of nature and the countryside in Japan, in line with industrialization across the world, and the particular ideologies of the Japanese case.

Chapter 9, "Symbolic Practice through Time: Self, Ethnicity, and Nationalism", serves as a brief conclusion. As the title implies it devotes itself to a wide range of subjects, but mostly upon identity and nationalism, in the sense of theoretical construction and examples of how they have been utilized and impacted, with the occasional relationship of food to it and as well the important concepts of purity which the book has discussed at length.

Rice plants.
Rice plants.

At the same time the book seems to make uncritical conflations of "culture" and "material" existence. For example, on page 70, it makes the claim that the Japanese, who during most historical periods, did not have enough to export and refused for the most part to accept other peoples' rice precisely because Japanese rice serves as a metaphor for the collective self of the Japanese" - without mentioning any other reason behind a cultural explanation. Conversely, often these cultural explanations are devices for material reality, created as justifications for them - perhaps in this case as a mercantilism type structure which aimed to reduce imports. This was an ideology oft mentioned in 19th century pre-Meiji economic debates, and one which seems much more fitting as a real source. This occurs at other times throughout the book, and in addition at times the book feels light on such details and alternate reasoning, relying purely upon cultural explanations either as a simple way to prove the author's points or due to lack of time and energy.

Still, the book is useful for deconstructing a narrative of rice being always at the center of the Japanese experience - and conversely showing the ways in which it actually was ideologically constructed, its influence, and the ways it was mobilized as a symbol. The various aspects which she covers makes the book useful for quite a broad range of people. Historians and anthropologists who have an interest in the actual physical reality of rice consumption in Japan are there - but also the same group could be equally intrigued about its relationship to fiscal and economic developments in Japan, or its cultural aspects. Economists would find it intriguing for some of these historical economic elements, but also the ample description of the modern Japanese government-managed system of rice and the rapport with trade politics and commerce. If one is studying Japanese culture, there is again quite a lot which is demonstrated by the book and how rice is both in the present perceived, as well as the origins in the past. As a result of all of this, it makes for a book which is easily accessible, being well written and easily organized, and which is still capable of providing useful knowledge on the subject to the expert. I wish that there was a greater length with the book so that it would be able to examine in greater detail the various concepts which it brought up. But nevertheless, it is a fascinating and interesting book which is highly useful to a wide range of people studying Japan.

5 stars for Rice as Self: Japanese Identity through Time

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    © 2018 Ryan Thomas


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