Onigiri: Rice Balls

  • Peter Barakan

    Host

    Born in London in 1951, Peter earned a degree in Japanese from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). An expert on diverse forms of popular music, Peter is also a well-known TV and radio presenter. He has lived in Japan for 40 years and has a deep understanding of the language and culture.

  • Matt Alt

    Reporter

    Born in Washington D.C. in 1973, Matt's interest in Japan was kindled by robot toys in his childhood. He worked as a translator for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office before co-founding a company that produces English versions of Japanese comics and video games. He also writes extensively about cultural trends including yokai, ninja, emoji, and more.

  • Yusuke Nakamura

    Main guest

    In order to spread the wonders of Japanese onigiri throughout the world, Yusuke Nakamura founded the Onigiri Society in 2014. In Japan's section at the Milan Expo (Expo 2015, an international exposition), Nakamura ran a booth for the society. He also participated in an event where attendees could make their own onigiri and taste different types. Through lectures and various media appearances, he continues to promote his cause and expand the Onigiri Society's range of activities. Nakamura eats 3,600 onigiri a year!

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November 13, 2018

Onigiri: Rice Balls

*You will leave the NHK website.

What would you say is the most commonly eaten food in Japan? Ramen? Tempura? Sushi? While all good guesses, it’s not any of those. The answer is the humble onigiri, or rice ball. Their name comes from how they’re formed: “nigiru” in Japanese means to grasp, and onigiri (also referred to as omusubi) are individual portions of rice gently squeezed into various shapes. As we learned in a previous edition of Japanology Plus on rice cultivation, rice has played an integral part in shaping Japanese culture and society. How fitting then, that a simple food made of rice is one of Japan’s most popular dishes.

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Onigiri aficionado Yusuke Nakamura discusses the variety of options available these days, from the mundane to the surprising.

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A few add-ons are all you need to take a rice ball from a light snack to a healthy and filling meal.

Onigiri play a prominent place in daily life in everything from childhood stories to late-night snacks. One well-known folktale is “Omusubi kororin,” a story about a kind old man and his runaway lunch. After a hard morning’s work collecting wood, the main character sits down to eat the meal his wife prepared for him. But before he can take his first bite, he drops his rice ball. It rolls away down the mountainside, eventually falling into a deep hole. While investigating, the old man hears singing coming from the hole. Curious, he drops his remaining rice balls down, but accidentally falls in himself as well. He discovers a group of mice that thank him for his generosity. They treat him to a feast and then offer him a choice between two presents: a small one and a large one. The old man picks the smaller box and returns home to his wife. When they open it up, they discover that it’s full of gold coins and resolve to share their newfound fortune with their village.

A nosy neighbor decides to try and get a gift from the mice as well. He drops a rice ball down the hole and then jumps in. When the mice offer him a present, he acts like a cat and scares them, planning to run off with both boxes. What happens next varies by the version, but in the end the selfish man winds up empty handed and a bit worse for wear. “Omusubi kororin” teaches children the value of sharing with others and warns them of the dangers of greed, all using the familiar rice ball.

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While these are the most common onigiri shapes, there are even variations that look like a sandwich, but made with rice instead of bread.

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Guest and host swap stories over an izakaya snack.

Another example of onigiri in popular culture is one that many international viewers may already be familiar with. In Hayao Miyazaki’s movie Spirited Away, young Chihiro must save her parents after they are turned into pigs for eating food meant for the spirits. During a key turning point, Chihiro finds her parents in a pigpen and discovers that they haven’t retained any memories from when they were human. Distraught, she starts to give up hope of ever being able to help them. Just then, in her greatest moment of despair, her friend Haku shows up. He gives her some rice balls he made, along with a big hint as to how to finally save her parents. It’s telling that the food chosen for this particular scene was a plain onigiri—for many Japanese, rice balls symbolize home and connections to loved ones; they’re the ultimate comfort food.

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Making lasting childhood memories one onigiri at a time.

Expert guest Yusuke Nakamura mentions a similar concept near the end of the program when he shares a moving onigiri story. Having a special onigiri memory isn’t limited to just Nakamura. For some, the memories are sweet, such as the homemade onigiri shared with close friends during a seaside picnic. For others, the memory isn’t as pleasant, like the man who offended a girlfriend by calling her onigiri small because he was used to his grandmother’s unusually giant-sized ones. This American author still happily remembers a summer afternoon in high school when her Japanese host mother taught her how to make onigiri for the first time.

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Matt Alt probably won’t forget his eventful rice ball-shaping lesson any time soon!

At the end of the day, onigiri represent different things to different people. They can be a simple snack when you’re running low on time at work, a fun addition to a lunchtime bento, or a source of strength during a personal crisis. If you’re ever at a Japanese convenience store or supermarket, give a new-to-you onigiri flavor a chance. For those without access to pre-made rice balls or looking for something more hands-on, try making some onigiri to share with friends. Who knows—you could create some lasting memories of your own!

*You will leave the NHK website.