Japanese American Traditions

The Culture of Rice: Gohan and Japanese American Traditions

“If I haven’t eaten rice in a while, I just don’t feel right.”
“Don’t leave your chopsticks stuck straight up in your rice!”
“I use the ‘finger method’ for measuring water for the rice cooker.”
“Got rice?”

If you’re Japanese American, chances are good that you’re familiar with at least one these expressions. In many cultures, food is an integral part of ethnic or cultural identity—and the preparation and consumption of food creates traditions that make each culture distinctive.

For Japanese Americans, rice may be the most frequent common denominator for a group that is growing increasingly diverse with each generation. Rice’s central role comes from its significance in Japan, where the harvest of rice—the main dietary staple—was once essential to survival and inspired both culinary practices and societal rituals that remain highly influential today.

Rice and rice products, such as mochi and rice vinegar, are pervasive throughout Japanese American traditions, such as mochitsuki, Oshogatsu, and obon festivals. Sacks of rice are a common gift or door prize at community events.

Anthropologist Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney of the University of Wisconsin-Madison examined the powerful role of rice in the 1990s in her book, Rice as Self: Japanese Identities Through Time. Her studies found that a culture’s principal food can become an important aspect of what distinguishes one cultural group from another.

The old saying, “You are what you eat” may have some hidden truths for Japanese Americans, even though they are often multiple generations removed from their ancestry in Japan.

Mainstream brands of American rice, for example, have long emphasized the virtues of rice that is not sticky. Yet it is precisely the sticky quality of Japanese rice that typically makes it desirable to Japanese Americans—and usable for making the dishes that have defined Japanese American cuisine, such as spam musubi and various forms of fried rice.

Rice, many Japanese Americans declare, is supposed to be sticky. And the rice cooker, sometimes considered an exotic device by non-Asians, is frequently a standard household appliance in Japanese American homes.

Some Asian Americans have embraced rice as a symbol of cultural pride. In response to the popular “Got milk?” advertising campaign of the American dairy industry, the slogan “Got rice?” became both a humorous parody and a statement about ethnic identity and its relationship to food.

Whether rice will remain as iconic to Japanese American life as it is today is anyone’s guess. The rise of low-carb diets in recent years has led some to stop eating rice—a practice that has occasionally sparked debates. Yet rice continues to be a staple for billions of people around the world—in an age when globalization is accelerating the sharing of cultural traditions.

For Japanese Americans and other Asian Americans, rice is still the ultimate soul food.

October 2008

Image: Rice cooker graphic is from the Got Rice? t-shirt.

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