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History of white (not whole-grain) rice in Japan
March 20, 2010 10:01 AM   Subscribe

When did the Japanese stop eating whole-grain rice and switch to white rice? I imagine that this was a gradual move, starting with the rich and slowly filtering down to the masses, and I'd like to know, generally, when it started, and when everybody was eating white rice only.
posted by ovesh to Food & Drink (9 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Japan and Rice: then and now touches on those questions.
posted by Carol Anne at 11:19 AM on March 20, 2010

This page from Hawaii Community College says, "Hakumai, polished rice came into use in the Genreku period at the end of the 17th century and the period at the beginning of the 18th century. It was the staple food prized by the emperors, nobles, warriors and wealthy merchants. Genmai, unpolished brown rice became the food of the poor."
posted by Houstonian at 11:35 AM on March 20, 2010

(Genroku, 1688-1704)
posted by Houstonian at 11:40 AM on March 20, 2010

This book, Rice as Self, also says on Page 15, "Most scholars agree that it was some time during the Genroku and Kyoho periods, the end of the seventeenth century through the beginning of the eighteenth century, that the Japanese began using polished rice. Until then, they consumed unpolished brown rice (genmai)."
posted by Houstonian at 12:10 PM on March 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

Interesting question! I had some trouble finding what I would normally consider a "solid, reliable Internet source," because most search results seem to return blog posts, but in any case most places seem to agree (links are in Japanese, sorry) on the following:

Rice was originally hulled/polished manually, which meant that it was only done roughly, leaving a lot of the bran still attached; however, in the middle of the Edo period, technology advanced to the point of using water power for this purpose and the resulting rice became more refined (and thus more appealing to the palate). At the beginning, as you suggest, this higher-quality rice was at first limited to mostly the urban upper-class due to its high price, but as polishing technique improved into the Meiji period, eating white rice became more commonplace. An unfortunate result of this refined rice was the spread of vitamin B1 deficiency, known as Beriberi disease or Edo-wazurai. As the link from Carol Anne above mentions, people started mixing in other things (e.g. barley) with their rice to make up for the lost vitamins and try to fend off the disease.

Two other notes you might be interested in:

1) The level of polishing did not come up to modern standards until the Taisho period (in this picture, the middle container shows an intermediary level of polishing between brown and white rice that would be similar to what people were eating in the mid-Edo/Meiji periods).

2) More recently, people seem to be more and more interested in eating brown and germinated rice for health reasons.

(Disclaimer: The above is simply a paraphasing of multiple Internet sources. I am not well-versed in the history of Japan or of rice.)
posted by caaaaaam at 12:21 PM on March 20, 2010 [6 favorites]

Brown rice is making a comeback in Japan these days. It's widely known that it's healthier, and any "stigma" attached to eating brown rice is long gone. However, white rice is simply produced in greater bulk so it's hard to kick the habit.
posted by shii at 12:39 PM on March 20, 2010

Probably tangential to the question, but since it's been answered... Elaborating on what shii said, I like genmai and use it on a fairly regular basis, but my father refuses to eat brown rice even though he knows it's healthier because he says it reminds him of growing up during the war. So a kind of "stigma" actually still exists in the older generations, which I thought was kind of interesting when I first heard my father talking about it.
posted by misozaki at 4:51 PM on March 20, 2010 [4 favorites]

One impediment I have to eating the healthier stuff is that it takes longer to cook. So a possibility is that when social pressures to work longer hours started to ramp up, it was more convenient to cook the faster stuff.
posted by RikiTikiTavi at 11:19 AM on March 22, 2010

>people started mixing in other things (e.g. barley) with their rice to make up for the lost vitamins and try to fend off the disease.

It should be noted that most Japanese people did not start eating white rice until relatively recently (since the start of the 20th century, when people became more affluent because of industrialization), especially the peasant farmers who in fact grew the rice! The peasantry typically rented land from a landowner, and paid their rent in rice.

Often very little rice (unpolished or otherwise) was left over to actually eat, so folks typically ate barley, sweet potatoes and "baryard grass" or millet.

Apparently, a lot of Japanese peasants suffered from chronic diarrhea because of the rough nature of carbohydrates in their diet.

Peasants, Rebels and Outcasts is an excellent book that discusses rural Japanese life in great detail.
posted by KokuRyu at 1:12 PM on March 23, 2010

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