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Rice: at the heart of Japanese culture

June 23, 2016

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Tasty taxes

The impact of rice on Japanese culture extends further still, beyond religion to celebrated aspects of the arts (rice paste is used for the filigree line work of yuzen silk dyeing, and many ornaments and artifacts have been woven from rice straw for centuries), and even sport. Japan's iconic national sport of sumo wrestling traces its origins back to fertility rituals at the imperial court during the Heian period (794–1185).

Considering this all-pervading significance, it should come as little surprise to learn that rice has also long been a driving force in Japan's economy, and even its politics.

In samurai times, under the great military leader Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536–98) a system of taxation was introduced that required landowners to pay a levy of rice to the governing authorities, and the influence of many regional warlords was directly related to the amount of rice collected in their domain.

This fiscal significance has continued into modern times, and despite growing imports of other crops due to the limited availability of land suitable for agriculture, Japan still manages to produce almost all of its own rice.

While industrial farming techniques have obviously been key in boosting yields, ancient innovations such as tanada (rice terraces) that enable rice to be grown even on steep slopes also remain important.

Though 2011 saw Japan spend more on bread than on rice for the first time, people are also finding new ways to enjoy rice. Brown rice, sometimes shunned by older generations as a reminder of less prosperous days, is winning fans among the health conscious, while rice flour is used to make bread or pasta suitable for those with gluten allergies.

Rice is a staple not just of the Japanese diet, but also its religion, culture, and economy. What better excuse, then, to raise a cup of sake to the land of the "rice and" sun?

Text: David McMahon

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