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Rice: at the heart of Japanese culture

June 23, 2016

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Soul food

To the Japanese, rice is more than mere food. This nation's way of life has long been tied to the six-month cycle of rice cultivation, from the preparation of paddy fields in spring to the harvest in autumn.

A host of religious rituals that are still practiced today to offer prayers and thanks for a bountiful crop are thought to have their roots in the rites of Japan's earliest cultures. Such ties to the passing seasons underlie the respect for nature that remains such a hallmark of the Japanese outlook.

Although some postulate an even longer heritage, most experts agree that rice has been eaten in Japan for somewhere in the vicinity of 2,500 years. And as Yayoi culture (c. 300 BC–c. 300 AD) spread from Kyushu to northern Honshu, long-term settlements became established around intensively farmed rice paddies.

With rice so central to the Yayoi way of life, it was important to pray for good harvests. This reverence for nature was carried through into the development of Japan's indigenous Shinto religion and its pantheon of kami, the spirits embodied in the world around us.

Key Shinto observances tied to rice production include the Otaue Matsuri held annually between April and June, depending on location. At this festival, communities mark the planting of rice and pray for its successful growth, and in some locations the very planting is still conducted in ceremonial fashion.

November's harvest rituals range from the personal –– families offering rice from the first crop of the year at the household kamidana altar –– to the regal, with a representative of the emperor dedicating the new harvest to the gods at Mie Prefecture's Ise Shrine, one of Shinto's holiest sites.

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