Japan: More opt for toast and coffee
TOKYO – When Mrs Kanako Hosomura was a child, her family sat down every morning to a breakfast of rice, miso soup and salad, all washed down with green tea, before her father went to work and she headed off to school. Now 29 and a housewife, she and her husband invariably start the day with toast and coffee. And while her own parents continue a breakfast ritual with ingredients that have been traditional Japanese staples for generations, the Hosomuras are in the modern-day majority in having swopped rice for bread. “My mother still makes that breakfast for my father and whenever I am at their house, I really enjoy eating her breakfast, but bread is just easier and quicker to prepare,” she says. “The convenience is one part of it,” she adds, “but I also have an image of bread as almost a treat and more similar to pound cake.” Mrs Hosomura’s love of bread is shared by millions more Japanese. As a result, it has led to that wheat-based staple toppling rice for the first time from its traditional top spot in household spending last year.
A study by the Internal Affairs Ministry found that the average Japanese household spent 27,790 yen (S$430) a year on rice in 2011, down 4.1 per cent on the previous year. It was below the 28,310 yen spent on bread in the same year. In a separate survey conducted by The Urban Life Research Institute last year, 34 per cent of the 3,300 respondents said they had rice mainly for breakfast, down from 44 per cent in 1990. Those who replied that they have primarily bread for breakfast rose from 35 per cent 22 years ago to 40 per cent today. While the shift from rice, a traditional Asian staple, to more Western-derived wheat-based cakes, buns, breads and other convenience foods is happening in many parts of the region, the move away from rice is particularly significant in Japan, given the important place of the grain in Japanese history and culture.
Rice was believed to have been first cultivated in Japan as far back as the Jomon Period, some 6,000 years ago. Today, the nation produces around 11 million tonnes a year, but the 4.63 million hectares of land under cultivation is shrinking annually as farms fragment and fewer young people choose to make a living from the land. Yet rice remains an important symbolic part of the Japanese national identity. As well as being the national staple food, it is the source of “sake” rice wine and serves as an offering to ancestors and the gods. It has also served as currency in the past and the “shamoji”, a curved spatula designed specifically to serve rice, is a symbol of the Japanese housewife. One of the most solemn duties of the Japanese emperor every spring is the ceremonial planting of the first rice plants on the grounds of the Imperial Palace in Tokyo.
A newly enthroned emperor is required to take part in a solo ritual known as the Great Food Offering, during which he offers newly harvested rice to the Sun Goddess, from whom, legend has it, the entire Japanese nation is descended. Professor of cultural anthropology Kevin Short, at Tokyo University of Information Sciences, points out that the cultivation of the crop was a key factor in moving the people from an existence as hunter- gatherers to a culture of settlement and, eventually, urbanisation. “It’s fair to say that without rice, there would have been no nation of Japan,” he adds. “The value of rice to this country is symbolic in a way that is far more important than merely a source of nutrition.” The traditional Japanese diet of rice, fish, vegetables and fruit has also long been cited as one of the main reasons why Japan has had the longest-lived population in the world, which includes record numbers of people living past the age of 100. The increasing Westernisation of food here, however, may be changing that. Fast food is a popular indulgence and despite the last two decades of economic stagnation, one retail sector continues to flourish : the 24-hour convenience stores with their pre-packed, processed meals and snacks.