Education About Asia: Online Archives

Rice as Self: Japanese Identities Through Time

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Food is a rage in the United States and innumerable publications on food, academic and general, are available. While one seldom hears about the cultural meaning of staple food, it does not take much to notice the profound symbolic meanings assigned to staple food everywhere. Among Euro-American Christians, for example, bread is a symbolic representation of the body of Christ. It represents food in general, as in the expressions “breadline” and “breadwinner.” It is the only shared food passed around the table, and it thus often strengthens the human/kinship relations of the individuals at the table.

An effort to make a distinction between “we” vs. “they”—“food fight”—is often expressed through “our” vs. “their” staple food. “Rice-eating Asians vs. bread-eating Europeans” is a familiar expression of difference between the Asians and the Europeans. French vs. German vs. Italian bread; oil vs. butter distinction running east and west across France, with Belgians belonging to the butter side—or sorghum of the Pende contrasted with maize of the Mbuun in nineteenth century central Africa. In Asia, wheat-eating northern Indians vs. rice-eating south Indians, or, rice-growing east India vs. millet-growing west India.