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Thursday, Dec. 25, 2003


Be good to your rice and your rice will be good

"Aaaaah. Nihonjin dana . . . (Ahh, isn't this what being Japanese is all about?)"

That's my brother sighing with sheer, heartfelt delight as he digs into his bowl of "gohan (rice)" cooked by our mother. My mom, who has been reading one too many health-focused cookbooks lately, has ditched her super high-tech, turbo-powered "suihanki (rice cooker)" for the trendy "donabe (clay pot)." Claiming that her handcrafted gohan has never tasted better, she has taken to inviting us over for Sunday dinner. My brother, who 10 years ago would have scoffed at such an uncool gathering, now refuses to miss even one occasion. From the corner of my eye I watch his growing, intimate relationship with mom's rice. Really, the older Japanese guys get, the more they resort to Japanese cliches.

Foremost is the gohan obsession, followed by the "ofuro (bath)" obsession. Scratch the surface of a seemingly modern, completely Westernized Japanese guy (you know, the one who listens to Radiohead and mixes his own martinis), and you'll inevitably hear the clank of the shovel against the hard, metal surface of the "shin no Nipponjin (a genuine Japanese)" -- the one who believes in the twin virtues of well-cooked rice and a long soak in a hot tub.

The rice thing is drummed into us from an early age -- in almost all homes, rice is served in individually designated "gohan jawan (reverent rice bowls)" and partaken with the designated pair of chopsticks. It's unthinkable to share one's rice bowl with any other member of the family since it connotes the special and sacred connection between that person and his or her gohan.

In my own household, none of the kids were allowed to leave the table if there were any "gohan-tsubu (cooked rice grains)" still visible on the sides of the bowls. My grandmother never tired of repeating her favorite maxim: "Okome hitotsubu ni wa 88 no hitode ga kakatteiru (One grain of rice requires 88 hands to make it)" and how it was sacrilege to waste the tiniest grain.

The rice issue also has a tinge of nationalism to it: The average Japanese feels their homegrown rice is the best and anything from overseas is bound to disappoint. The more discerning will insist on differentiating between various rice brands and the regions where they're grown. Some will swear by the Tohoku harvest while others will stick to Kyushu or Shikoku. It's said that good rice is linked to the quality of local sake and the beauty of the local women.

Women, by the way, are more likely to be interested in the cosmetic effects of rice over actually eating it. Most drug stores carry "okome sopu (rice soap)," which is said to work wonders for the skin and many older will women rub down their faces with sachets of "nuka (fermented rice hulls)." These same women are likely to be the ones cooking rice for their husbands every night, in the firm belief that nonrice meals will only create discontent in the Japanese male. Again, I refer to my grandmother who held firmly: "Otoko wa gohan ga tabetainoyo (Men prefer to eat rice)" and tut-tutted my mother on the nights she served stuff like hamburgers or pasta.

Speaking of hamburgers, this is a country that has turned the all-American fast food on its, uh, bun. With the invention of the "raisu baga (rice burgers -- hard-packed, teriyaki-flavored pads of rice sandwiched between two burger buns)," the Japanese have discovered they can have rice both ways: slow and national, or fast and American. But then the seeds had already been planted. For the past 70 years, Japan's "yoshokuya (Western-style restaurants)" have always offered the option of having rice, whether you ordered spaghetti with meatballs or potato croquettes. Grandma shouldn't have worried. You couldn't keep Japanese from rice if Joel Robuchon decided to open 500 more French restaurants in Tokyo.

The exalted name of Monsieur Robuchon has no effect on my brother, who declares: "Okomeshiwa kutta ki ga shinai (authentic Western meals aren't filling enough)" and will revel in a meal at a "teishokuya (prix-fixe joints)," with extra portions of rice. Once, his secret requirement for a bride was marvelous ankles. Now he's interested in whether she can cook gohan and miso soup the way he likes 'em. Oh dear, I fear for him, and thousands of other thirtysomething single males whose rice DNA has taken over. There's no bringing them back.

NOTICE: The Bilingual and Education pages will not appear on New Year's Day. These pages will resume on Jan. 8, 2004.

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