The story of Japan and its history can in many ways be told through its food. Japanese food culture is extremely rich and ingrained in society because of its prevalence in both historic and modern religious beliefs as well as the nation’s meticulous and precise nature. Specifically, rice is the essence of all Japanese food culture and its importance in Japan’s daily life is perennial.
Rice has played an important and defining role in Japanese culture for centuries. Shintoism, for example, revolves around rice growing and rice products such as mochi and sake. Historically, rice was also used as currency in trading, as payment for samurais, and the wealth of a lord or family was often represented by how much rice they had.
Japanese culture is closely linked to nature which is also how rice fits into defining the morals and structure of society, family, and community. In Japanese food culture, everything has a specific meaning, feeling, and symbolism. Like the changing seasons, Japan’s food culture relies heavily on shun, or the seasonality of ingredients.
The word “gohan” in Japanese means cooked rice or meal. Just as bread is a staple of Western cuisine, no traditional Japanese meal is complete without a bowl of rice, pickles, and soup. Rice is required to round out other flavors and to provide a blank but fragrant canvas for accompanying dishes. Local Japanese rice is usually short grained and fatter, making it easier to stick together. And although Japan also imports rice, there are many regions that produce top quality rice that’s also used to brew sake. Planting rice and harvesting season are celebrated events in Japan. During New Years, pounding mochigome (a special kind of rice for making sake) is widely popular.
Japan’s current food culture is more globalized with the prevalence and convenience of fast food and Western cuisine, but rice remains constant. In addition to the popularity of rice snacks in Japan, rice is still a large part of everyday life from obento to kaiseki. And with Japan’s emphasis on heritage and tradition, it will likely remain a staple in Japanese identity.