Rice – Japan’s Elixir

What you should also know about rice – perhaps
Or: Japanese rice – to give an understanding by modern means

The Battle of Confectionary and Sake (Kome - The Art of Rice)

The Battle of Confectionary and Sake (Kome – The Art of Rice)

A German version of this posting you can find here.
Eine deutsche Version dieses Artikels finden Sie hier.

If I was floating the opinion that Japan was a “land of rice”, I wouldn’t evoke too much of an opposition, I suppose. There might be some of those who know Japan and its language a bit better. And they will counter that with the statement that the Japanese themselves call the United States of America the “rice country”, because the Sino-Japanese letters for the USA (米国 / べいこく) have just that meaning. But I would counter that with: Japanese are surely not of the opinion Germans were of particular solitude, only because the letter for Germany (独 / どく) could imply that.

Be that as it may, the fact remains: Japan ranked 11th in the world rice production (as of 2011) – hence outranking the USA who were on the 12th rank – neverless, both are rather small fries compared with the rice giants China and India.

Kome - The Art of Rice

Kome – The Art of Rice

However, only a few countries on this globe have been shaped as much by the cultivation of rice, have their mythology, religion and culture enmeshed with rice, as Japan has. The more serious are implications that result from a multitudes of threads attacking the Japanese rice culture. For example:

  • The per capita consumption of rice is declining, because the young people seem to fancy hamburgers and pasta much more (one could be nasty and say: and it shows! – “love handles”, previously unknown in Japan, are one the rise).
  • The Japanese rice farmer is aging rapidly (the average age is 67), and younger people have little interest in taking over.
  • Treaties for free trade in the Pacific Rim may additionally undermine an adequate income of Japanese farmers.

Nevertheless: While in olden days the country had its hands full with providing ample food to its inhabitants, breeding success and modern cultivation techniques (although mostly on comparatively small plots) – comibined with a dwindling domestic demand – put Japan in the position to be able to even export its “white gold”. One could add: It “could” export its rice. On the world market Japanese rice may very well be just a niche product for connoisseurs (which it is in fact), as it is everything but a cheap product, despite (or because of) heavy domestic subsidy.

Kome - The Art of Rice

Kome – The Art of Rice

There is also a tendency of creating (or rather: re-creating) a new awareness for rice as a staple and allround nutrition, in order to boost the domestic demand for it. All those who have made themselves familiar with the savouriness, the fine aroma and the stunning scent of freshly cooked Japanese rice, know about the great difference to rice from other provenances. They might think that teaching Japanese to love rice sounds a bit like carrying coals to Newcastle, because especially Japanese should know about the extraordinary qualities of their rice.

Kome - The Art of Rice

Kome – The Art of Rice

In this conjunction a rather striking exhibition should be mentioned that is still open until June 15th 2014 themed “Kome – The Art of Rice” (米展 / こめてん) and is housed in the “21_21 Design Sight” in Tōkyō Midtown (the exihibition is – among others – supported by the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry and the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries).

Kome - The Art of Rice

Kome – The Art of Rice

This exhibition analyses rice as a foundation for nutrition, its cultivation, the utilisation of its various components and puts it all in an artistic an most appealing ambiance. The museum’s building for itself is worth a look: built by star architect Tadao Andō based on an idea by star fashion designer Issey Miyake.

One of the main aspects of the exhibition, however, to raise consciousness for the deep imact of rice on the Japanese culture, its religion and even its landscape and climate (parts of this exhibition shall be introduced in this posting).

Kome - The Art of Rice

Kome – The Art of Rice

Since ancient times the mountainous archipelago of Japan was haunted by droughts as well as devastating floodings. The great masses of rain that pour out during the course of a year couldn’t find a natural flood control in rivers and streams, as there is hardly any navigable river in the country – the way the water has to take from the mountains to the sea is usually extremely short and steep. Over the centuries (one could say: over the millennia, as the cultivation of rice can be traced back to the end of the Jomon period in the second half of the pre-Christian millennium) the cultivation of the country has led to a steady banking of the land. And that, in return, has not only stabilised the flow of the water, but also eased the impacts of the climate (parts of the exhibition also suggest that even the challenges imposed by the change of the world’s climate could be tackled by means of clever cultivation of rice).

The politheistic religion of Japan, the Shintō, knows a large number of ceremonies and rituals that are connected to rice. Rice is (in various forms) donated to the gods or spirits (e.g. in the shape of the “kagami mochi” – see below – which is offered to the gods and spirits at New Year).

But the rice itself can be “divine” just as well. While every German child knows (I don’t know about children in English speaking countries) that there is a wondrous causual connection between emptying one’s plate and the following day’s weather, Japanese children know that they have to carefully eat their rice up to the last grain, because – potentially – any of those grains could be home to a divine spirit, that can only be appeased by diligent consumtion.

Kagami Mochi (Kome - The Art of Rice)

Kagami Mochi (Kome – The Art of Rice)

Various spots at the exhibition pay tribute to the fact that a bowl of rice (well, at least a Japanese standard bowl of rice) contains about 3,000 grains of rice which have (at least statistically) grown from just three single rice grains. For example, there is a small table lamp that emitts its light in a most effectful way through 3,000 rice grains. Also you’ll find a work of art that could be described as “a bowl for every grain of rice”.

3.000 Reiskörner (Kome - The Art of Rice)

3,000 grains of rice (Kome – The Art of Rice)

3.000 Reiskörner (Kome - The Art of Rice)

3,000 grains of rice – one bowl for every grain (Kome – The Art of Rice)

In a country that is so much governed by its prime source of nutrition, it comes as no surprise that rice has also become “the measure of all things”. The sizes of rice packages set various standards. In the old days, the wealth of a person or region was expressed by crops of rice. The value of tenures was measured in loads of rice packed in rice-straw that would be deemed enough to support an adult for a year. This unit was (and still is) called “koku” (石 / こく) and represents an equivalent of a volume of 180 litres. The income of the family of the Tokugawa Shōgune, for example, was reported to be 4 millionen “koku”. Based on this standard may other measurements derive: e.g. the standard bottle for Japanese rice wine (sake) contains 1.8 litres, a standard serving of sake contains 180 ml. But also for uncooked rice the 180 ml are the “measure of all things” (so to speak). Even modern electronic rice cookers have to be filled using measure cups with a capacity of 180 ml – the rice cooked then “converts” them into two small cups of fragrant rice.

Maßeinheit "Reis" (Kome - The Art of Rice)

Measurement by “rice” (Kome – The Art of Rice)

That rice has a particular cultural status in the land of the rising sun can also be recognised from the fact that there is not only a multitude of different words for the different kinds of “appearances” of rice, but also that quite a large number of words derive from the world of rice (the Sino-Japanese characters used for the Japanese language demonstrate this in a most impressive fashion).

Schriftzeichenkunde "Reis" (Kome - The Art of Rice)

Impact of the “rice-world” on Japanese writing (Kome – The Art of Rice)

The various stages a grain of rice as to go through before it is deemed suitable for consumation are distinquished by giving the grain a distinct name for every stage.

  • The natural grain in its husk and the chrystalline hair (which is inedible) is called “籾”(もみ / momi).
  • The unpolished, brown rice grain is called “玄米” (げんまい / genmai).
  • The letter for the polished, uncooked white rice, “米” (こめ / kome) is said to have derived from the Sino-Japanese letter for the number 88 (八十八), representing the 88 steps of work it takes to make rice. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to obtain a list of those 88 steps…
  • Once the rice has been cooked, it is turning into “御飯” (ごはん / gohan) or “飯” (めし / meshi) respectively. Both are synonymous for a “meal” or what would be called “one’s daily bread” in Western countries as a symbol for any kind of nurishment we consume.

Latest by the time one learns about the laborious process of cooking rice propely (something which cannot be learned in the twinkling of an eye), one is grateful for an invention of the electric rice cooker. The various steps of heating the rice up and let it cool down again on the stove are something not everybody has the spirit (and time) for. An electronic rice cooker may do all that not in a proper traditional style, but it will do it in much more reliable ways. The fact that such a rice cooker can set you back for quite some hundred pounds or dollars also indicates the status such a “contraption” has in a Japanese household.

In a country as proud of tradition and of appreciation for detail as Japan is, it won’t come as a surprise that it is not only the single grain of rice that is blessed with particular attention. Also the straw of the rice plant isn’t carelessly disposed of. It doesn’t only find treasured use in such profane things as the lower stuffing of the traditional Japanese flooring, the Tatami (畳 / たたみ), but also when it comes to creating thick braided ropes for mostly ritual/religious ceremonies and decoration of which the pictures below shall give you an impression.

Of course, Japan wouldn’t be Japan, if there wasn’t a way to create a whole world of miniatures from rice. Right at the entrance of the exhibition you will find the so called “Kome tsubu moji moji”-gallery that consists of small, black, wooden boxes on the wall that – at a first glace – look like just some fancy way to decorate a wall. Each of these black boxes contains a single grain of rice in its middle that looks even less intriguing, if not inspected with greater care. Take one of the magnifiying glasses at each of the boxes and realise: Something is written on each grain! Hand-written, by the way! Every visitor of the exhibition is being encouraged to venture in the art of “writing on a grain of rice” (the necessary tools are being provided). And that is not just some sort of fun (which it is, nevertheless), but refers to the old Buddhist tradition of writing the “Heart Sutra” (The Heart of the Perfection of Transcendent Wisdom) onto grains of rice. Hence, this exercise is not just fun, but also a truly ruminant action. The example below shows the Japanese character for “travel”.

At another corner of the exhibition, you’ll find something which you may regard as just a gag first, but look closer and you’ll realise that great craftsmanship went into the sushi platter shown below – the foundation of each of these “bites of sushi” is just a single grain of rice (click on the pictures to enlarge them).

As kind of “extra” one can also create one’s own “rice-oracle” at the exhibition. There is a long row of square shaped wooden stamps with Sino-Japanese characters containing components for the word “rice”. You may need some advanced knowledge of the Japanese language to be able to read what you create – but you can also just see it as a decorative souvenir (like the one below – which shows a pretty but, unfortunately, a rather negative result of the oracle).

The exhibition „Kome – The Art of Rice“:


28th February 2014 to 15th June 2014
Daily, except Tuesdays (also closed on 29th April and 6th May)
11:00 am to 8:00 pm (last entry: 7:30 pm)
On 19th April 2014 open until midnight (in conjunction with the “Roppongi Art Night”).

How much?

General: ¥1,000
University Students: ¥800
Middle- and High School Students: ¥500
Children of 12 years of age or less: free

There is discount of ¥200 per person for groups of at least 15 persons.
For disabled persons and a person aiding them admission is free.


Tōkyō Midtown
21_21 Design Sight
9-7-6 Akasaka, Minato-ku, Tokyo


21_21 Design Sight

21_21 Design Sight

How to get there:

  • About 5 minutes walk from exits no. 7 or 8 of the subway station Roppongi (六本木 / ろっぽんぎ) of the Toei Ōedo line (都営大江戸線 / とえいおおえどせん), directly beneath the Tōkyō Midtown complex.
  • Roughly 10 minutes walk from exit no. 6 of the subway station Roppongi (六本木 / ろっぽんぎ) of the Tōkyō Metro Hibiya liine (東京メトロ日比谷線 / とうきょうメトロひびやせん).
  • About 10 minutes walk from exit no. 3 of the subway station Nogizaka (乃木坂 / のぎざか) of the Tōkyō Metro Chiyoda line (東京メトロ千代田線 / とうきょうメトロちよだせん).



Also have a look at:

Tōkyō Midtown – 東京ミッドタウン
– Ein Höhepunkt in Tōkyōs Hochhauslandschaft
– A highlight in Tōkyō’s landscape of highrise buildings

Weihnachtliche Erleuchtung – Christmas Illumination
– Weihnachtsdekoration ohne Weihnachten
– Christmas Decoration without Christmas

One Response to Rice – Japan’s Elixir

  1. […] englischsprachige Version dieses Artikels finden Sie hier. An English version of this posting you can […]

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