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    Photogravure etchings at https://kamprint.com/ & https://kamprint.com/xpress/

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Nothing conjures up Asia more evocatively than rice-paddies. In flatlands, or mountain-contoured terraces channeling water from one level to the next, wet-rice agriculture feeds more than four billion people, more than any other grain. Asia produces more than 700 million tons of rice per year on 150 million hectares, more than 90 percent of the rice in the world. Rice provides more than one-fifth of the calories consumed by humankind, more than any other agricultural product. Originating in the Yangtze Valley and introduced into Japan in the fourth century BC, wet-rice agriculture transformed the Japanese from the nomadic hunter-gatherers of the Jomon period — which had lasted 15,000 years — into settled villagers and eventually city-dwellers. A glance at a Jomon-era ceramic will show these were very different people from those who followed.

Jomon ceramic, ca 2500 BC

A grain fundamental to family and clan survival, rice naturally acquired a supernatural aura. From the necessity of cooperating for the labor-intensive tasks of irrigation, planting and harvesting, to the daily experience of the landscape that made life possible, rice set the tone and style of all activities in its domain. Rice-harvest festivals feature dances that are stylized versions of these activities. In every way, rice taps into the deepest wellsprings of human life, materially and spiritually as one.

Japanese legend portrays the sun as Amaterasu the sun-goddess who founded Japan, and the ripening golden grain of rice as her descendant. From that grain arose the legendary first Emperor Jimmu, from whom all subsequent Emperors are said to descend, in an unbroken line of succession that is the longest of any monarchy in the world. The rice-grain itself is thus both deity and nourishment, rejuvenating both both body and soul, uniting people, land, and history. Despite or perhaps because of its sacred status, rice has also served as a commodity and medium of exchange in Japan. During the Tokugawa Era (1603 – 1868), large landholdings of rice-fields in the Kanto region helped Ieyasu Tokugawa consolidate political power as the chief warlord, or Shogun.

Japan’s Self-image

The self-image of Japan, cultivated by the Japanese themselves and taken up by overseas observers, is that of an isolated country lacking natural resources seeking food self-sufficiency as a matter of survival. Yet Japan today is the world’s largest consumer of foreign agricultural products, importing $30 billion of food annually. ‘More land in the United States is devoted to growing food and fiber for Japan than is cultivated in Japan itself’. (Reich, Michael R., Yasuo Endo, and C. Peter Timmer 1986 Agriculture: The Political Economy of Structural Change. In America versus Japan, Thomas K. McCraw, ed., 151-192, 417-420. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.)

Textbooks (and self-image) portray Japan as an agrarian society with a few industries like consumer electronics and cars that have somehow found favor in America and other markets. In fact, Japan is one of the most highly urbanized countries in the world, and an industrial colossus with a diversified economy larger than that of Britain, France, and Italy combined. Even in agrarian communities where people overwhelmingly identify themselves as farmers, as far back as 1840 more than half their income derived from nonagrarian activities. Industry, transport, fishing, wage remittance, and central government expenditures supplied most of their income.

Ohno Bakufu, Planting Rice

Another perception — and self-perception — is that rice has always been the staple food of Japan, consumed by everyone. But the Japanese people lived as hunter-gatherers for 15,000 years during the Jomon period before taking up wet-rice agriculture. And while rice-growing for subsistence prevailed in its early days, large landholdings coming under the control of warlords made it hard for rice-growers to keep enough rice from the tax-collectors to consume it. Of what was left, much was sold to buy other grains such as millet. It was only in the Meiji era, late 19th-century, when yields improved, that rice-growers began to have enough rice to eat, as indicated by records of tax collection and peasant rebellions.

Rice planting, 19th century

After rice became abundant, ordinary folks could easily consume three bowls of it at a sitting, while the affluent chose to have less, making up the nutritional difference with a variety of side dishes. This custom grew into the famous kaiseki cuisine which features 20 or 30 different dishes during the course of a meal. NOT having a main course became a mark of culinary distinction. Upscale ryokans still maintain networks of nearby farmers, fishermen, vegetable, condiment, and sake suppliers. Serving something from all of them acts as both a display of wealth and as a service to guests. The meal is never complete, however, without rice, no matter how little of it is actually consumed. And at the best ryokans and in the best homes, it must be from Tohoku, preferably Yamagata or Akita, now known to produce the highest-quality, tastiest rice with an unmatched luster and consistency.

Rice sheaves drying in Iwate Prefecture

All the while, rice remained a sacrament and even a deity itself according to legend, by whom soul as well as body are renewed. The evocative power of rice rests in its simultaneous role as collective food and as metaphor for Japanese land. Rice paddies formed the classic Japanese landscape, just as Gothic churches created the French landscape. This multi-layered linkage of body, soul, and land gives rice its enduringly sacred status. Regardless of the actual quantity consumed, domestic Japanese rice remains a sacrament. While the Japanese consumed 88 kilograms of rice per capita per year in 1961, by 2011 it was only 43 kilograms per capita per year. Every grain of this reduced amount remained sacrosanct.

As a food item becomes more of a commodity, where selection is based primarily on price, the less desirable it becomes for those who have discretionary income or wealth. Domestic Japanese rice being more expensive than imported rice thus makes it more, not less desirable — provided there is a qualitative difference. Japanese consumers report in repeated surveys that they prefer the taste, appearance, and texture of domestic rice. Paying seven times the average world price, they have become connoisseur-type buyers rather than commodity-type buyers.

Rice cutting

After contentious trade disputes during the 1980s, the Japanese Government, still concerned about westernization, redirected its efforts into a successful campaign to establish 和食 (washoku, traditional Japanese cuisine) as an intangible element of World Heritage. In 2013, UNESCO registered washoku as an intangible cultural heritage. Lest there be any confusion about the practical consequences of this registration, the Japanese Government issued the following statement:

‘As lifestyles have been westernized, young Japanese have increasingly tended to move away from washoku, with the result that it is now in a critical state in Japan. Registration of an intangible cultural heritage requires that continued measures be taken to preserve it. We are truly happy’, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said at the time, ‘as Japan’s food self-sufficiency ratio is only 40 percent in terms of calories, with the spread of Western eating habits. We would like to continue passing on Japanese food culture to the generations to come.’

Hamaya, rice planting in Toyama Prefecture

Japanese Emperors as Rice-Shamans

Emperor Naruhito acceded to the Chrysanthemum Throne in Japan on May 1, 2019, following the abdication of his father Emperor Akihito a day earlier. Both ceremonies were low-key, as if seeking to fit the rituals and the monarchy into modern life. Honoring ancestors and contemporary norms, Emperor Naruhito’s first speech evoked the blessings of peace, to pacify those who remember his grandfather Emperor Hirohito’s wartime role. It was said that Hirohito had ‘renounced his divinity’, but this misconstrues the Japanese notion of divinity, in which rocks and trees as well as Emperors take part. An Emperor could no more renounce divinity than Mt Fuji could. Japan is inhabited by thousands of kami-sama living in rocks, trees, rivers, waterfalls, mountains, Shinto shrines, and wherever nature inspires affection.

The most important of these deities is rice. In legend and history, rice is intimately bound up with the Imperial family, at once a gift of Amaterasu the Sun Goddess, and the progenitor of the legendary first Emperor Jimmu from whom all subsequent Emperors are descended. They all inherit the sacred responsibility of cultivating these seeds, uniting the practical and spiritual duties of leadership. Producing food to sustain life is at once a sacrament and a ritual of daily renewal. The early Emperors were, as Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney writes in Rice as Self (I am grateful to Leanne Martin for recommending this book), rice-shamans, endowed with quasi-magical powers to ensure the peoples’ survival. These rituals have continued to the present day Imperial investiture ceremony, which is adapted from ancient folk rice-harvest festivals.

Such rituals were needed not only to invoke the gods of the rice-harvest, but also to mark this rice as distinctively Japanese. As rice-paddies coalesced into large landholdings, wet-rice agriculture formed the foundation of the emerging Yamato state, and of the Emperor/Shogun system. By officiating at rice-planting and rice-harvest ceremonies, Emperors enact the life-renewing properties of rice, and what it means to be Japanese. As Ohnuki-Tierney puts it, ‘Humans and their communities must rejuvenate themselves… by performing a ritual, or by eating rice. Through the consumption of rice, the Japanese internalize the divine power which then becomes part of the human body and its growth…. Whether a food represents an individual self, a social group, or a people as a whole, this symbolic process renders foods powerful symbols not only conceptually but also, we might say, at the gut level.’ Here then in 2019, in one of his first official acts, is Emperor Naruhito planting rice, in fulfillment of his ancient rice-shaman responsibility.

Emperor Naruhito planting rice

The worship of rice as a deity is akin to Shinto practices honoring elements of the natural world. There being no essential difference over the long course of time between animate and inanimate elements, rocks and trees can be worshiped as ancestors in the same way as people. Your great-great-grandfather could be that owl hooting in the trees, and you could turn into a fossil. Shinto, 神道 (the way of the gods) focuses on our relation to nature, as beings whose existence is entirely subsumed by nature. Buddhism is about humankind in society, based on the teachings of individuals who attained great wisdom, like Buddha and his followers, giving practical guidance for relief of suffering. Japanese people worship their ancestors to get along with each other in daily life, to reinforce their sense of Japanese identity, and to be at peace with their natural surroundings.

Ancestor-worship Around the World

Ancestor-worship is not unique to Japan. Ancient Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, Magyars, Celts, Hindus, Chinese, African tribes, and many others practiced it. All of them placed food, weapons, clothes, anything the deceased might need, in their tombs. Ancestor-worship wasn’t simply blind loyalty. This belief in the persistence of life after death — for otherwise why worship ancestors, if they would not be gratified by it? — survived unscathed for millennia across a wide swath of the globe. Descendants thought of the departed soul as living underground and really in need of sustenance. It was up to them to provide these offerings, in precise accordance with prescribed rituals. If they failed in this worship, bad things would happen. Thus generals who left their soldiers’ dead bodies on the field of battle (because of the danger of retrieving them) were legally assassinated even though they won the battle.

Why? Neglected spirits would arise and demand their due. These ghosts would haunt the living until they were properly appeased. Fear, more than filial devotion, kept it going. Few wished to risk the consequences of failing to appease or worship their ancestors. For the ancients, the risks and benefits were personal. You could only be helped or haunted by your own ancestors, not by anyone else’s. How much more fateful for a warlord, tribal elder, clan leader, Caesar or Emperor to worship or not worship his ancestors. He could hardly choose not to do so, because the fate of his whole tribe, clan, or nation hung in the balance. All the people in his extended family would suffer defeat in war, awful pestilence, crop failure and starvation, or some other horrible means of extermination if he failed to worship his ancestors in accordance with exactly prescribed rituals. His position and his very life depended on it.

This arrangement gave great power to the priests who prescribed the rituals. They could in effect de-throne or elevate a king or an Emperor by manipulating the arcane formulae that were their specialty. It didn’t take the priesthood long to discover this. Every Imperial Court — in Greece, Rome, India, China, Japan, Indochina, the Vatican, the Holy Roman Empire, Great Britain, you name it — became a hotbed of intrigue among competing ministers and priests. This discord among priesthoods was their undoing. Savvy monarchs learned the art of divida et impera (divide and conquer), to turn contending factions against each other, and thus discredit them all. This was the beginning of the end of religious belief in Europe, which incidentally propelled the founding of colonies in the New World, and their eventual independence. De-sacralization and de-mystification left little room for the machinations of priesthood.

Japanese rulers since at least early Tokugawa days adroitly played off the various Western religions against each other, the better to keep their own native Shinto and imported Buddhist practices. Never in its history occupied except for the postwar 1945 – 52 period, Japan kept its own practices sacrosanct by unconsciously incorporating them into daily life. Rituals such as saying itadakimasu before meals, though not usually considered religious, acknowledge receiving sustenance as a gift. Ringing bells and clapping to summon the gods is done routinely when visiting Shinto shrines, which are always placed in scenic locales of natural sanctuary. So, while Western religious institutions founded on faith-based belief systems crumbled before the onslaught of reductionist science, the Japanese way of life survived because, except for extreme versions such as occurred between occurred 1930 and 1945, beliefs are subservient to its way of life rather than the other way around.

Waking the Gods, 13 x 19 cm photogravure etching, Peter Miller (2004)

For millennia the Imperial family had lived in almost total seclusion, a tradition that postwar Emperor Hirohito determined not to pass on to his son Akihito. To accomplish this transformation, he brought in Mrs Elizabeth Vining, a young woman from an old Pennsylvania Quaker family, to teach English to Crown Prince Akihito. Mrs Vining writes of her four years (1946 – 1950) as the young prince’s tutor in Windows for the Crown Prince (Tuttle, 1950; I am grateful to Dianne Marshall of the Grass Valley (California) Friends Meeting for the gift of this book). Initially Mrs Vining had little or no idea what she was in for. Asked only to teach English, her responsibilities grew to imparting the freedom of association she had grown up with, mediating among contending factions regarding the prince’s education, and (with Imperial permission) briefing General MacArthur on her charge’s progress. Amid opposition from official traditionalists, Mrs Vining insisted on the Crown Prince’s having what by her lights was a normal boyhood, with school friends, sports, parties, excursions, and as much freedom as was possible within the confines of the Imperial Palace. Crown Prince Akihito took Mrs Vining’s instruction to heart, enjoyed the company of a wide range of people, married a commoner, Michiko, whom he’d met on the tennis court at Karuizawa, and performed his duties as Emperor in a way that won domestic affection and international respect. Their son, and now Emperor, Naruhito, has clearly inherited this new tradition of imperial accessibility, and looks set to extend it during his reign.

Crown Prince Akihito reading with Elizabeth Gray Vining

Ancestor-worship, trees and rocks and rice as deities, and arcane rituals of Imperial succession strike some critics as atavistic irrational beliefs. But the rituals of daily life don’t depend on scientific theory. And the record of supposedly rational models of economy, investment, climate, governance, consumer behavior, etc. against actual consequences is nothing to boast about. That hasn’t deterred the algorithm-purveyors from claiming omniscience, which in their case amounts to yet another faith-based belief system rigged from dubious or absurd premises. Perhaps a little humility in the face of the unknowable would be more realistic.

Our Gift, photogravure etching, Peter Miller (2014) The Kamakura Print Collection ・ kamprint.com/ & kamprint.com/xpress/
Printed from: https://kamprint.com/views/rice/ .
© Peter Miller 2024.

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