Decline of Rice Consumption and the Ubiquity of Bread in Japan Today

Questions people often ask me when I explain my research are: ‘Do people in Japan eat bread? Isn’t Japan a rice-eating culture?’ This is not a question posed solely outside Japan; there are also people in Japan who say, sure we eat bread, but our main staple is rice. However, as my informants suggest, the answer is not quite that simple. While some stress that rice is a staple food, at the same time, I have encountered others who tell me that they prefer bread over rice, and that rice eating is facing decline. Yet, others inform me that it is not so oppositional, that bread can also include rice and in fact some of the supermarket breads do. One baking instructor, who was running a baking school out of the kitchen/dining space in her home, informed me that Japan is undergoing a bread boom. According to her, about ten years ago, there were very few projects like hers, but now there are many.[1] A simple trip to the convenience or grocery store in Japan conveys the sheer demand for bread, with shelves filled with many (often small) loaves or buns. Even vending machines sell bread in clear plastic packaging at certain train stations and key locations in Japan. Bread is not only viewed in the imaginations of the public in Japan as a modern, portable food but also as an increasingly accepted everyday food item. In addressing the phenomenon of increasing bread production and consumption in the broader bread culture of Japan, in no way am I downplaying the significant and conspicuous role of rice in the cuisine and culture of Japan.[2] Yet, there is an increase in bread consumption, debatably at the expense of rice.[3]

In Rice as Self, Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney demonstrates the impact of rice on Japan’s national imagination, achieved through the selection and canonization of the creation myth Amaterasu, Sun Goddess, and her divine fields of rice. In this case, the cuisine of the ‘Self that features rice was constructed, a myth of a static ‘unchanging’ form of consumption of which all Japanese people (later as members of the nation) partook - overlooking the substantial consumption of other grains and tubers, as well as the matter of rice’s inception in Japan through continental Asia.[4] In considering religious rites, Shintoism heavily employs rice symbolism (e.g. through the use of sake or rice wine) and holidays such as the New Year are often accompanied by eating mochi (pounded rice cakes) in ozoni soup and placing out kagami mochi (mirror rice cakes) decorations.[5] Yet, journalists and bloggers express doubt over the predominance of rice over wheat in actual consumption. For example, one Slate article asks, ‘How did Japan come to prefer wheat over rice?’ It gives an overview of modern Japanese food history, stressing wheat coming from the US as food aid, and eventually concludes, ‘[t]hat’s because over the last 40 years, the Japanese have increasingly favoured wheat-based foods like bread, pasta, pizza and noodles, while rice consumption has declined by more than 50%.’[6]

One graph based on statistics provided by the household economy survey of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications (MIC, Somusho) demonstrates that for households with two or more people, the amount of money spent on the consumption of rice has been veering downwards in the last decade and actually crossed that of the rising line of bread in 2010, thus eliciting remarks from media that bread consumption has surpassed rice consumption in Japan. The graph indicates that in 2010, households of more than two people were spending 28,318 yen annually on bread while rice expenditure was below that mark at 27,428 yen. Yet, this graph is also somewhat misleading because it only accounts for rice as grain, kome, purchased by households and does not account for obento (lunchboxes), onigiri (rice balls) and other prepared rice purchases. However, the fact that the graph often comes up in my interviews and fieldwork events, as well as on shows on national television, indicates that people in Japan are taking seriously these sweeping identifications of rice consumption vs. wheat consumption in notions of Self and Other. In the episode on bread in BEGIN Japanology aired on NHK (Japan’s national broadcasting channel), the narrator also refers to this graph, insisting household bread consumption is surpassing rice consumption. At one of the bread festivals I attended focusing on teaching about wheat and bread culture, an event brochure featuring this graph was circulated. When I was later interviewing the event coordinator at a Tokyo cafe, he pulled the graph out again to illustrate his account of a general background to bread consumption in Japan in the last few years. I mentioned some problems with the graph to him. He responded by saying that although the omissions on eating out are indeed true, the graph still gives an idea of the immense changes that have been occurring. Other informants have also directed my attention to this graph, as it has been widely circulated as credible statistics published by a cabinet ministry of the national government, even though they understand the graph’s limitations. The aggregate of what my informants have expressed suggests that the decreasing consumption of rice exemplifies transformations in the societal level in the imaginations of the consuming public.[7]

Concomitantly with the fading consumption of rice, producers and consumers alike in Japan also regard bread as being infused with positive associations of progress. In some instances, bread currently continues to be marked as an indicator of advancement and closeness towards the West, or at least Western forms of culinary culture, as a form of pride and as an index of this elusive notion of modernity and progress. Yet, bakers and self-fashioned bread coordinators I have met grapple with a persistent association of bread as Western,[8] while aiming to produce a kind of bread that reflects some imagined national aesthetic and sentiment they can proudly call their own.

  • [1] In discussion with the baking instructor, February 25, 2016.
  • [2] Ohnuki-Tierney, Rice as Self.
  • [3] One director at a government research centre indicated that there are many forms of competition, including competition between wheat and rice, but also rice and okazu (accompanying sidedishes), where the amount of rice provided in obento (lunch boxes) for sale has decreased in favourof okazu. Therefore, it is not as simple as to suggest that wheat and rice are the main rivals, asanother coordinator of bread/wheat-related events also suggested bread and rice are not diametrically opposed. This coordinator said wheat and rice were sometimes also used in cooperation,such as bread made with rice and wheat. Discussion with director of government research centre,April 20, 2016; Discussion with bread/wheat event coordinator, February 25, 2016.
  • [4] Ohnuki-Tierney, Rice as Self, 83-84; Kushner, Slurp!, 125. Establishing this notion of ‘Self wasachieved through by Tenmu emperor’s orders to canonize myths, eventually selecting rice agricultureas a means of defining the Japanese ‘Self against the Tang Chinese ‘Other’ (even as rice wasintroduced to Japan through continental Asia). The imperial court’s implementation of the creationmyth of Amaterasu exhibits strong claims with respect to Japan's treatment of rice as a touchstone ofcultural identity since the canonized myths assert: (1) the Sun goddess Amaterasu’s divine rice fieldsyielded the first crop of rice and (2) this deity is an ancestor of the imperial family and thus, of people.Seealso Ohnuki-Tierney’s tracing views of scholars in Japan after WWII on the subject of staple food.She demonstrates how there are generally two camps, one arguing for rice as a staple in Japan’s historyand the other arguing for miscellaneous grains (including wheat among others) who contend thatonly the elite ate rice consistently. Ohnuki-Tierney, Rice as Self, 30-36.
  • [5] Ohnuki-Tierney, Rice as Self; Rath, ‘The Magic of Japanese Rice Cakes'.
  • [6] Arumugan, ‘Waves of Grain'.
  • [7] One woman who works part time at a senior care centre (deisabisu senta) told me that amongcertain populations, such as the elderly, rice is still favoured, though some like soft bread. Otherinformants indicate that the elderly are actually nostalgic for bread, having consumed it as part ofschool lunches in their childhood.
  • [8] While many people to whom I have spoken in Japan still associate bread with the West, I shouldnote that this association of bread and the West is tenuous: not only is it challenged by the bakersand networks promoting a kind of Japanese-style bread that I account for here, but there are alsokinds of breads in Japan that have been considered more or less ‘Western’ than others, which I willalso discuss in this chapter. Also, it is important to keep in mind that the term ‘Western’ alsocarries an array of contentious meanings and the affiliated term ‘Westernization’ in relation toJapanese history can refer to several related phenomena: for example, Farrer demonstrates thatWestern food referred mostly to American food immediately following WWII, but in the 1980stended to signify European tastes. Farrer, ‘Eating the West’, 5—6.
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