Rice as rice and rice as discourse
I am in the midst of several months' fieldwork in Japan, as a result of which I am posting even less frequently than usual.
But today being Culture Day, I took the day to walk around the grounds of Meiji Jingu. While wandering in the inner gardens, thoughts regarding the place of rice in Japanese society came unbidden to my mind (probably right around lunchtime).
Many Japanese people regard Japanese rice as superior to rice grown elsewhere, so called gaimai or outside rice. The thought that occurred to me at Meiji Jingu is this: even though, in my experience, it is impossible to tell by taste alone where rice was grown, people who regard Japanese grown rice (naichimai) as richer than gaimai may have a point.
That is, we can make sense of this feeling if we consider Japanese rice to have two components, one material and one semiotic.
On one hand, Japanese rice is a material, an agricultural product with certain properties, including texture, flavor, nutrition, etc. At the same time layered atop this material existence is a tradition of socially situated discourses surrounding rice, agri-culture, and nationality (inter alia).
According to Ohnuki-Tierney (1995) Japanese grown rice is considered an index of Japanese identity, while foreign-grown is associated with non-Japanese Asian peoples. In particular the agricultural society of the late Edo era (1853-1867 and earlier) and the Meiji era (1868-1912) are imagined as a nostalgic era of the furusato (old village), and the domestic production of rice is seen as a tie to those "good old days."
Thus (I thought to myself this afternoon), while consuming naichimai, Japanese consumers enjoy not only the material element of the rice itself, but also the melancholic discourses of national nostalgia, imagined though they may be.
(In practice I have found that if I don't tell my guests that they are eating California-grown Oryza sativa japonica with their okazu they can provide the furusato on their own, and enjoy it just as much.)
Ohnuki-Tierney, Emiko. Structure, Event and Historical Metaphor: Rice and Identities in Japanese History. The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Vol. 1, No. 2. (Jun., 1995), pp. 227-253.