Monday, March 16, 2009

RICE: A Passageway to the Deities.

(This post is by Kelly. Kelly, thank you so much!)

It is difficult to learn about the culture of Japan without somehow hearing the powerful four-letter word: RICE. Rice acts as a powerful agent of purity within Japanese culture, a focal point of religious symbolism and social hierarchy throughout the island nation. As we have seen so far this semester, rice is often found in the form of deities. The Japanese were taught to value the significance of rice through a variety of influences, religion being one of the strongest forces. As we have seen in the Kojiki Tales, religion influenced strongly through the use of myths. In one specific myth of the Kojiki, Amaterasu, the mother of grain, sends her grandson the ‘first’ Emperor Jinmu to rule Earth. Upon his descent, Amaterasu gives Jinmu some original grains of rice that she grew herself in Heaven (Ohnuki-Tierney, p. 228). On Earth, Emperor Jinmu turned areas of vast wilderness into great lands of rice using the grains given to him by Amaterasu. This story is of great significance in Japan, for it illustrates the generative power held by Amaterasu, establishing a unique relationship between rice of this world and deities of the spiritual realm. As a result, the view has followed that humans must rejuvenate themselves and their communities by harnessing the power and energy of the deities (Knecht, p. 11). Thus, individuals can harness this power either by receiving purity from the deities through ritual or by internalizing the divine, becoming one with the deities through consumption.

Currently, rice is considered to be a staple of Japanese food. However, what many are unaware of is that this current understanding of rice in Japanese culture is not entirely accurate of its use historically. According to King, in the later half of the Taisho period, rice was in scarce supply, and it was used as a means of persuasion, promising workers rice three meals a day if they were to move to the city (p. 11). Nonetheless, although rice has been popular since the ancient Yayoi period, historically it was reserved for the deities and the upper class and not until recently did it become something for all to enjoy.

As a symbol of energy and life, rice has become a central pillar of commensality within Japanese culture, acting as a link between humans and deities. In celebration of this, rice comes in a number of different forms, namely as mochi (pounded rice) and as sake (rice wine) (Knecht, p. 7). Mochi comes in many different varieties but it is most famously associated with Japanese New Year celebrations where special mochi rice is pounded into cakes and adorned with paper flowers. These mochi cakes are believed to be material embodiments of the diety, they are often prepared as offerings for the New Year diety and later enjoyed by the family (Knecht, p. 8). Rice, in all its forms is paramount in bonding the people of Japan to the higher powers because it establishes a connection between the world of the living and the world of the dead, allowing people to share with the spirits in the intimacy of eating.

Now that we’ve covered some of the symbolism of rice in Japanese religion, check out this links to see rice in action!

A video of the Japanese making mochi:

~guest blogger, Kelly Quinn