Rice 米 (Ko-mé)
Chinese character for rice is “米” which illustrates a spike with 6 rice seeds and is pronounced as ‘komé’.
Rice was introduced into Japan about 3000 years ago. At the beginning, the round japonica rice and the long indica rice were grown together. Yet the subtropical indica rice didn’t adapt itself to Japanese climate and then the japonica rice came to be widely cultivated. Although it’s quite demanding, the yield per hectare is very high and the more they spend the care, the more they can harvest.
In addition, threshing, polishing and preparation to eat are very easy. By using saddle quern, seeds can be easily beaten. By rubbing each seed, they can be easily polished. By cooking, they can be eaten directly without powdering it. Above all, the rice is delicious and Japanese people are never tired of eating it. That is why they have persevered in their efforts to cultivate rice even in the north of Japan such as Hokkaido.
Rice Terrace (“Tana-da”)
Look at the picture. This kind of rice paddies is called “Tana-da” which literally means “rice terrace”. As roughly 70% of the country is covered with mountains, Japanese people have to cultivate even mountain slopes or valleys. This “Tana-da” occupies about 220,000ha across the country, which means 8% of all the rice fields. “Tana-da” is a heritage that unites the wisdom and efforts of our predecessors.
The most important thing in rice cultivation is water. In April, rice is sown in the ordinary field, but a month later it is transplanted into rice fields which are filled with water. Rice remains in the water for about three months. Careful irrigation and weeding are inevitable. In the past, it was almost impossible for a family to push it through by themselves and so they belonged to a local community always trying to keep good relations with other members. Banishment meant death for them.
Even today this mentality has not changed so much. Being a part of a group is quite important for many. If someone has let down the others, he/she is greatly depressed. Even in modern companies, the decision is rarely based on individual responsibilities and the process called “ne-mawashi” is often used to get a consensus. The word “ne-mawashi” literally means “nurturing roots” and is originally used in gardening. After an actual decision is made, the protocol meeting takes place and a document is circulated on which the persons concerned press their seals called “hanko” (In Japan, hanko has the same legal value as the signature in other countries).
It is not exaggerated to say that the Japanese cannot live without rice. Although the eating habits have changed and people eat it less than before, rice keeps an immovable place as staple food for the Japanese. Rice is also a basic ingredient of important seasonings such as soybean paste (Miso), vinegar, Saké. So rice is considered as a sacred plant and has played an important role in religious faith since ancient times. Even today, after each harvest, rites to dedicate rice or sake are performed in festivals. That’s why you can often find Saké barrels in the precinct of Shinto shrines.
At Shinto shrines, you can also find a large straw rope decorated with white papers called Shime-nawa. In Japan, it is believed that Shime-nawa separates the sacred domain from the terrestrial world and drives away evil spirits.
Izumo shrine located in the Shimane prefecture is famous for its huge Shime-nawa. It measures 6.5 meters and weighs 1 ton. In the Kagura-den where music and dance are dedicated to the gods, you can find a larger Shime-nawa measuring 13.5 meters and weighs 4.4 tons. These Shime-nawa are manufactured in a manner totally contrary to those of other Shinto shrines which begin from left to right.
You can also find the Sime-nawa at Sumo stadium. Sumo is a match between two enormous wrestlers. These wrestlers wear only a sumo loincloth called “Mawashi” and make a topknot. The Sumo takes place inside a circle separated by Shime-nawa called “Dohyo”. If one of the wrestlers puts a foot outside the “Dohyo” or touches the ground with any part of the body except the sole, he loses the fight.
The sumo is not exactly sport. In the past it was dedicated to the gods to pray for a good harvest. Even today, before each game, wrestlers perform a series of gestures. Each gesture has a symbolic meaning that is closely related to Shinto and rice cultivation.