Japanese Cuisine: Rice, Sex and the Japanese

One of the highlights of Spring in Japan is the famous penis festival at Tagata Shrine in Komaki, a little non-descript town outside Nagoya. Komaki residents celebrate each coming Spring with the Festival of the Bountiful Harvest or Hounen Matsuri, which features a massive hand carved cypress penis (2.5m long) that is paraded through the town before it’s finally enshrined at Tagata Shrine, a Shinto shrine. Big penis, symbol of fertility, good harvest, lots to eat…you get the picture.

These days, the festival seems to ensure bountiful tourism for Komaki rather than a good harvest, but its significance in Japanese food culture should not be underestimated. Sex, food and Shinto, the religion of the Japanese imperial family is a persistent, if not a troubling theme.

In fact, sex, rice and Shinto seem to come together (excuse the pun) most persistently in Japanese history/mythology. A Shinto ritual more auspicious than the penis festival is the onamesai, the Autumn imperial ceremony in which the Emperor thanks the gods for an abundant harvest by making an offering of the first grains of the season. There is a secret part of this ritual in which the Emperor apparently lies in a secret bed while “two ladies”, sometimes referred to as “maidens” perform a ritual to “receive the Emperor’s soul that is departing from his body and renew it” (source: Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney’s book “Rice as Self”, p. 48).

If you think there is a sexual connotation, you’re not wrong. In ancient Japan, production and reproduction were one. Reproduction was seen as a means to rejuvenate the soul and agricultural production was contingent upon soul rejuvenation. Yes, it sounds a little spacey, and exactly how Japanese agricultural cosmology developed so that rice grains were seen to have souls that are symbolically linked to the gods is a matter for historical debate.

But the soul, rice, essence of life scenario explains why the Japanese are so obsessed with rice. The Japanese word for rice is gohan, but the word also means meal, so if someone asks you if you’ve eaten gohan, it can mean “have you eaten rice?” but also “have you eaten?” Ask any Japanese (including Kei) and they will tell you how Japanese grown rice is different from Australian grown rice-it tastes, smells, shines different, even congeals differently.

Given that the Japanese rice market has been closed until a little over a decade ago, it is hard to imagine how the Japanese could have developed such expertise on comparative tastes of the domestic vs. the imported. And as Ohnuki-Tierney has also pointed out, Japanese consumption of rice historically has not been as high, and it has certainly been falling in recent years thanks to increased consumption of noodles, bread, pizza etc.

Nonetheless, rice is a big deal in Japan’s food culture. It’s rude to leave even a grain of rice in your bowl. Even when you are washing rice, don’t let any grains disappear down the sink. Lose one grain, and you’ll go blind…

by Masako Fukui, Copyright Kei’s Kitchen