If Japanese cuisine was a sphere, rice is its core. Almost the entire Japanese food culture revolves around rice, and rice carries a special ideology, a lengthy history, and a rich culture in itself.

So in this article, let me explain how rice came to be as important as it is now in the world of Japanese culinary.

1. A timeline of the history of Japanese rice

Since the introduction of rice, Japan had suffered 2 millenniums of rice shortage. The Japanese loved (and still love) rice so much that rice production was not able to keep up with the population growth until quite recently. It was not until people started eating bread regularly that the shortage of rice was resolved.

The timeline below will give you a quick look at how the production and value of rice changed through Japanese history, being affected by political shifts and war.

circa-30000 BC
  • The first Japanese started populating Japan
circa-5000 BC 
  • Rice was farmed around downstream Yangtze river in China
circa-500 BC
  • Rice was brought into Japan from China via the Korean peninsula. Thanks China and Korea.
circa-600 AD
  • Asuka era
  • All peasants were obliged to give up 10% of the rice they grew, as tax.
  • National rice production hit 700,000 tons/year
  • Supply of rice was lower than demand for rice
Late 1500s
  • Rice was considered to be currency among samurais under Hideyoshi Toyotomi’s rule.
  • Supply of rice still lower than demand for rice
Late 1700s
  • Late Edo era
  • National rice production hit 3,600,000 tons/year
  • Supply of rice still lower than demand for rice
Late 1800s
  • Meiji era
  • Samurais were taken away their swords and rice was no longer considered currency
  • National rice production hit 4,770,000 tons/year
  • Supply of rice seriously lower than demand for rice
  • Japan starts importing up to 2,000,000 tons of rice
circa-1940
  • National rice production had hit 9,500,000 tons/year
  • Japan joins World War II
  • Supply of rice still lower than demand for rice
1945
  • Japan surrenders, World War II ends
  • National rice production had declined to 5,500,000 tons/year. Fuck war.
  • Supply of rice catastrophically lower than demand for rice
1960s
  • National rice production recorded 14,450,000 tons/year
  • Japanese people start eating bread instead of rice 1 out of 3 meals
  • Supply of rice overcomes demand for rice for the first time in 2000 years. Thanks bread.

2. Rice crops formed Japanese civilization

Rice was not given birth from Japanese culture. Rice gave birth to Japanese culture. Let’s first get that straight.

The art of growing rice in paddies originated in China some 7,000 years ago. Japan adopted this ancient Chinese skill only less than 3,000 years ago, so hats off to the civilization living in the continent.

Until several hundred BC, people in Japan consisted of hunters and gatherers, and they were well-off living that lifestyle. However as the climate shifted towards becoming colder around that time, the acorns, fruits, fish, deer, vegetation, and mushrooms the ancient Japanese had in abundance started becoming scarce. The overall population actually shrank due to the lack of food.

Then, several people cruised into Japan from China with rice paddies in their hands. They brought about the concept of crop farming and saved the ancient Japanese from starvation. The mythical version of this story goes:

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When the imperial goddess Amaterasu Okami allowed her descendant Ninigino Mikoto to come down to Japan, rice stalk was bestowed as a gift.

This story is only partially accurate. Yes, rice was not there in Japan when the first settlers came to the islands, and it was something “given.” But it was not a god that granted rice to the Japanese; rice was brought to Japan by the people who came millenniums later from the Chinese continent.

The start of rice farming changed the way people lived in Japan – the originally hunter/gatherers finally were able to settle in one place, and they looked after their crops. With a place to stay and a more stable source of food, the population of villages climbed and eventually grew into a nation. In the year 701, a government centralized around the emperor was established in the city of Nara.

3. Rice upheld life and the economy

In the 8th century, rice farming was really the only industry Japan had and it was the biggest source of tax revenue for the government. In fact, the Japanese economy continued to revolve around rice all the way up to the late 19th century.

3-1. Rice used to be currency

Rice was, for quite some time, as valuable as money. Here’s a little background to help you see just how important rice was not only as food.

The days of the samurai warriors fighting with each other for land and honor began to see an end in the late 16th century.

Hideyoshi Toyotomi, originally a peasant born in central Japan, had built his career as a warrior by consistently exceeding expectations of his boss (Nobunaga Oda, who kept conquering neighboring provinces successfully and became pretty close to ruling Japan entirely) through the use of never-foreseen strategies and innovative ideas, and eventually found himself to be the 2nd-most valued subordinate of Oda.

In 1582, the most valued subordinate, Mitsuhide Akechi, decided that he should overthrow Oda and become the most powerful ruler himself. Things went as he planned and Oda was defeated. But this gave Toyotomi a great excuse to kill Akechi, and he avenged his boss. And so the once-farmer became the ruler of Japan.

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From when governments ever existed in Japan all the way up to the 19th century, peasants paid tax in the form of rice barrels. This meant: lands capable of producing more rice were considered more valuable.

So one of the first initiatives Toyotomi took after establishing peace was to find out just how valuable the various lands he and his subordinates owned. His men went around the country to see how much rice each province could produce. By this, Toyotomi was able to figure out exactly how much tax to take from each province and which subordinate to grant the most valuable land in order to honor his contribution to the regime.

After Toyotomi died in 1598, one of his most powerful subordinates, Ieyasu Tokugawa assumed power. Under the rule of this guy and his descendants, Japan enjoyed over 250 years of no war.

It was at this time when samurai warriors got their salaries in the form of rice barrels (the practice itself started under Toyotomi’s rule). In order to buy stuff they needed in life, they sold rice and traded it for money.

I hope you can see how rice was not just ordinary food. It played a central role in the country’s governance and economy for quite a significant amount of time in Japanese history.

3-2. Peasants dreamed of eating pure white rice

Rice excels at keeping your stomach full. While bread would be digested within 2 hours, rice would still remain in your stomach. This means you wouldn’t need to have a calory-and-sugar-charged snack until your next meal, which is probably one reason there are less obese people in East Asia compared to bread-eating countries.

So until food culture started to really flourish among ordinary Japanese people in the 17th century, people often ate just a few slices of pickles and A LOT of rice, to keep them alive and do manual labor. Here’s what that sad meal looked like:

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The salty and sour pickles served as appetizers to help people chug more rice, which didn’t have much taste in itself.

So anyway, as long as people had rice, they didn’t have to starve. However much of the rice peasants grew in their fields was taken away by their landlords as tax. They never had enough rice left in their hands to feed the entire family.

So instead of cooking only rice, peasants mixed chestnut, barley, fungi or vegetables in their rice and cooked them together to make it feel like they were having whole servings of rice. It’s sad and ironic that farmers didn’t get to eat much of what they grew and loved, but in fact, this is how the wide variety of Japanese style pilafs (炊き込みご飯 – takikomi gohan) came about.

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Peasants refused to give up white rice, and no matter how poor they were, they put in some rice in their pots of vegetables to make pilafs. Relatively more rice was put in the meals of wealthier farmers. Only those living in the cities ate pure white rice regularly, as it was easier for them to acquire rice (by buying it from samurais).

4. Life centered around rice

Traditionally, excessive rain or cooler-than-usual summers caused poor harvest of rice in Japan. Before preventive technology and techniques were developed, massive famine occurred every several years, starving thousands of people. No rice meant no life.

The lives of Japanese people used to be VERY dependent on rice until now, when we have so many choices of filling food aside from rice – bread, pasta, naan, etc.

This traditional dependence on rice has a heavy influence on the lifestyle of the Japanese even to this day.

4-1. Annual festivals are all about rice

Many of the annual festivals held in local shrines and temples everywhere in Japan are harvest festivals. The festivals held in spring are to pray for a good harvest that year, and the ones held in autumn are to express thanks for the harvested rice.

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There is a national holiday called Labor Thanksgiving Day(勤労感謝の日 – Kinrou Kansha No Hi)on November 23rd every year. It’s a day to express thanks towards all the hard workers of Japan. However, this actually used to be a religious event and is still now a special day for the imperial family.

For the longest time, Nov. 23 was the day of a harvest festival (新嘗祭 – Niinamé sai)where the emperor offered newly harvested rice crop to his ancestors and the holy spirit of rice, as a gesture of appreciation for letting people have food for the year to come. The emperor of the time himself ate the first rice in this festival. It was a very holy day for all Japanese people until the imperial bloodline was taken away its holiness as a penalty for siding with the Nazis during World War II.

After Japan lost World War II, imperial rituals (which had religious connotations) and national activities were set to be apart, and therefore Niinamé sai became a ritual only conducted in the imperial palace. The national holiday was renamed Labor Thanksgiving Day and became a strictly secular holiday for the public.

When I was little, I was told by my mother during meals not to leave even a spec of rice uneaten. Her reasoning was that rice farmers worked hard to grow each little grain of rice, so I shouldn’t waste any. She was probably told the same by her parents, and probably, the forgotten real reason was the belief that pissing off the holy spirit of rice would result in terrible harvests and therefore, death.

To this day, eating up every single grain of rice served in your rice bowl is considered proper table manners and if you fail to do so, quite a few Japanese people will feel slight disrespect towards you just for that. In the Japanese subconscious mind, showing disrespectfulness towards rice is like intentionally spilling coffee on your national flag – that’s how important a role rice has played in Japanese history.

4-2. Rice cooking required craftmanship

Rice cooking is now almost fully automated thanks to years of R&D of Japanese electronics manufacturers. However, rice cooking used to require long spans of concentration and years of experience to do it right.

Back when Japanese people were living in traditional houses, their kitchens were half-outdoors (called 土間 – doma) like the one in the picture below, and women cooked with their shoes on.

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While the floors of Japanese houses were made of wood and tatami (mats made of rice straws) to be used with the inhabitants’ shoes off, the floors of the kitchen were just dirt. This was because the kitchen was a place water and fire was used frequently, and dirt was perfect to protect the rest of the house from fire and prevent water from rotting the wooden parts of the house.

Giant kettles were set over a furnace. Rice was made in these kettles, but merely dumping rice and water and putting them on fire was not what it took to make rice edible. Here are the steps to cook rice the traditional way:

  1. Make fire. Do not leave the fire unattended as you will need to adjust its strength from time to time.
  2. Measure the amount of rice you want to cook and wash it with water.
  3. Soak the rice in water for 30 minutes in summer, or 1 hour in winter.
  4. Put the rice in the kettle along with the right amount of water. The ratio = 1 rice : 1.2 water. However this ratio should be altered depending on how old the rice you’re using is, how high or low the room temperature and humidity is, the type of kettle you are using and the type of rice you are cooking. How do you know the right amount? Through trial and error.
  5. Cook rice over low heat until the water starts to boil. However, you should not open the lid to see if it has boiled as this will ruin the taste. How do you know when it has boiled? Through listening to the subtle change in the sound of the kettle.
  6. After all the water has evaporated, add firewood to make medium heat. Making the fire too strong for too long will burn the rice at the bottom. How do you know how much firewood to add for how long? Through experience.
  7. Take the kettle off the fire and let it sit for around 10 minutes. Rice is ready to be served unless you’ve messed up and burnt half the content of the kettle.

Nowadays most households use an electronic rice cooker and only the upscale Japanese restaurants and ryokans (Japanese style inns that typically serve elaborate Japanese meals) cook rice the super traditional way.

But before gas stoves and rice cookers, as you can imagine, rice cooking traditionally required a lot of labor, concentration and experience. In Edo, the name of Tokyo during the Edo era (1603 – 1868), big restaurants would even hire women who specialized in cooking rice. No matter how hard it was to prepare, rice was that important to Japanese people.

4-3. First on the day’s to-do list: cook rice

From around the Edo era, Japanese households started to have three meals a day, and rice was in every meal. But because rice cooking was such a tedious task, a heck load of rice – enough to last the whole day – was typically cooked in the morning.

There were no microwaves or rice cookers at this time, and therefore people generally ate like so each day:

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Breakfast  freshly cooked hot rice with miso soup (fermented bean paste dissolved in broth) and a few dishes
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Lunch  Rice balls (おにぎり – Onigiri) made of cold rice with a few hor ‘d oeuvres
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Dinner  Rice with hot green tea poured over it (お茶漬け – Ochazuké)

Like how you would prefer having bread straight out of the oven than cold bread that’s been sitting around for a while, Japanese people preferred to eat hot, steamy rice. But until the development of technology and infrastructure allowed them to do so every single meal, they strived to come up with ways to make cold rice taste good.

This is how various ways of enjoying rice were invented, creating these unique Japanese food culture subdomains that continue to evolve with time:

  • おにぎり (Onigiri) – Rice balls designed to be eaten with your hands while you’re out for work, like the Western sandwich. Often has some ingredients inside, ranging from fish, meat, to vegetables. The convenience store mega-franchise Seven Eleven, in Japan, sells around 400 varieties of Onigiri per year.
  • お寿司 (Osushi, or just Sushi) – As the best-known Japanese food to the world, there are around 50 authentic kinds that generally use raw seafood and hundreds of other creations inspired by other food cultures. Sushi was originally prepared and eaten as preservative food, and it looked quite different from what the world considers sushi.
  • お弁当 (Obentou, or just Bentou) – A boxed lunch designed to be opened and eaten on your lap. Comes with some form of cold rice (unless microwaved) and assorted hor ‘d oeuvres, prepared and placed in a visually pleasing or entertaining manner. Parents strive and compete to prepare elaborate Obentous for their children’s lunch every day. Commercially made Obentous are especially considered to be a key part of enjoying long-distance railway travel. Tokyo station sells up to around 50 different kinds of Obentous and a single store may sell up to 15,000 units a day.
  • お茶漬け (Ochazuké, or just Chazuké) – Pourage made by pouring hot tea over rice and some complimentary ingredients like dried seaweed, vegetable and/or fish. You can put in whatever tastes good so there is an unlimited variety. Great to have to warm you up in winter and also when you don’t have a big appetite.

4-4. Rice fused with foreign cuisine

Japan had a long period of disconnect with the rest of the world between 1639 and 1854, as the Tokugawa government at the time limited or barred completely the entrance of foreign ships into Japan. This period of isolation is important to know in order to understand why modern Japan has adapted so many international cuisines into their food culture.

The Spanish and Portuguese were not allowed in at all, as their missionary activities in southern Japan were starting to hint eventual political unrest. The Dutch were allowed in because they promised they wouldn’t try to convert anyone to their religion and the Chinese were allowed to trade too because they were Buddhists like most Japanese.

However even those foreigners exempt from the bar could only come and stay in a secluded area of a single port in a successful effort of the Tokugawa government to have complete control of all foreign trade. Naturally, foreign goods, culture, or knowledge of the rest of the world did not touch the lives of ordinary people in Japan.

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While Japan’s isolated state persisted for some 200 years, the Western world kept developing industrially, economically and technologically. When a flock of American steam frigates led by Commodore Matthew Perry came and demanded the opening of Japan to foreign trade, the government then felt they had no choice but to obey because it was as if these Americans came from a distant future on a vehicle running on far advanced technology. Japan agreed to trade with America in 1854, then agreed to trade with England, Russia and France later.

After its opening to foreign trade, what Japan worked on was catching up with the Western world. To the eyes of the Japanese, anything Western looked trendy – fashion, architecture and food. By the 1880s, several restaurants serving Western cuisine were opened in cities and one of their most popular dishes was the Curry Rice. The rich and those who yearned to see the world beyond the ocean started eating curry rice at restaurants, and then eventually the dish reached ordinary households and has been eaten regularly ever since.

Curry Rice (カレーライス) is a marriage of:

  1. Curry powder, which was something the British developed out of Indian curry.
  2. White rice, which was something any Japanese household had

And because it’s so tasty and easy to make, curry rice is eaten in 3 to 4 meals a month in an average household. The traditional Japanese curry rice consists of boiled pork or beef and potatoes, onions and carrots, with pickles on the side (often colored red).

There were a few other weddings of foreign dishes with rice in post-isolationist Japan, and they still remain popular in Japanese lunch and dinner tables:

  • Om-rice (オムライス) – A marriage of the French omelet and the Japanese “ketchup-rice” which is white rice mixed with  diced chicken, onion and carrot sautéed in ketchup
  • Hayashi-rice (ハヤシライス) – A marriage of the British/French roast beef hash and the Japanese rice, seasoned with demi-glace. Similar to the Russian beef stroganoff, however rice is used in place of pasta
  • Katsudon (カツ丼) – Breaded pork cutlet boiled in a mixture of Japanese condiments, put on top of a rice bowl and topped with egg soup

Meat and oil were not a common part of Japanese cuisine until the country opened up to trade. Cows were not commonly grown as livestock in Japan as they helped farmers in the field, and they were treated more like we treat dogs as a member of the family nowadays. It was considered a taboo to eat beef among many people, and that sentiment probably led to the reluctance of eating any animal in general (fish was not considered an animal).

It was not until the Japanese encountered external, far advanced civilizations that they started to shift their minds toward trying foreign stuff. And this is how they discovered how well their beloved rice went with meat.

Japanese adaptations of recipes with European roots such as cutlet, hamburg steak and curry rice came to be called Yo-shoku (洋食 – literally meaning “Western cuisine”), and these dishes are almost always accompanied with white rice served on a flat plate instead of a rice bowl.

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4-5. Rice shortages in recent history

As mentioned before, Japanese people constantly suffered from shortage of rice. Although the climate was perfect for rice to grow, because 70% of Japan is covered in forests, there was always not enough land to grow enough rice for everyone.

On top of this disadvantage, various changes in the economy, foreign affairs and the climate caused severe shortages during modern ages. Here are some examples:

  • 1914 – 1918: During World War I, the economy boomed in the metropolitan areas of Japan, and so did the demand for rice. As the shortage of rice became a serious problem, 2,000,000 tons of foreign rice had to be imported from Taiwan, Korea, Burma and Vietnam.
  • 1939 – 1945: During World War II, conscription of young men from farming households led to lack of labor and caused domestic rice production to plummet.
  • 1993: The record-low temperature in the summer (which is said to have been caused by the 1991 eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines) led to very poor harvest. Rice disappeared from shelves of rice vendors and so the government decided to import 2,600,000 tons of rice from Thailand, China and the US.

Thailand offered the most amount of rice, however, the taste of Thai rice was ill-received by Japanese people. Households scrambled and qued in front of supermarkets and convenience stores to buy Japanese white rice.

I remember my childhood self having to eat Thai rice for a while and thinking it tasted very different from what I had been used to. Although I couldn’t help it, I deeply regret feeling this way now that I know that a significant amount of Thai rice was disposed uneaten in Japan at the time. Meanwhile, the sudden and massive export of rice resulted in a sharp increase in the price of rice in Thailand in 1993, and the poor couldn’t afford to buy rice. Some starved to death.

This outrageous incident had much to do with the Japanese government not thinking thoroughly about the effects its actions would cause, and with underestimating its people’s craze with domestically grown rice.

The Japanese people’s strong attachment to rice was the primary factor of rice shortage, which I guess is a result of inheriting the idea that for centuries, peasants couldn’t have rice in abundance despite the hard labor and thought they put into making tasty rice.

4-6. The end of rice shortage

Right after World War II, Japan was seriously deficient of food. Several foreign countries donated food to resolve the situation, and among them, the US offered tons of wheat especially in order to feed children.

To make good use of the donated wheat, bread was served instead of rice for school lunch (starting in 1950) and this probably had a big impact in terms of accustoming the Japanese population to accepting alternatives to rice into heir diet. Bread tasted good and children at the time came to like it.

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Bread occupied not a small place in the Japanese diet, and nowadays the Japanese eat a wide variety of other staple food: rice, bread, pasta and sometimes naan. We don’t need that much rice to fill our stomachs anymore.

The shifts in demand and supply of rice over the last several decades clearly illustrate this change.

Rice production was as low as 5,500,000 tons per year and rice consumption was 77kg per person in 1945.

In 1960, rice production was as high as 14,450,000 tons per year and rice consumption had grown to 112kg per person. However from around this year, demand for rice starts to decline.

By 2015, rice production had decreased to around 7,500,000 tons per year and rice consumption to below 60kg per person.

And so the long history of rice shortage in Japan came to an end, thanks to the introduction of foreign food culture and staple food.

5. Diversification of modern-day Japanese rice

The consumption of white rice has fallen to around 50% of what it used to be around 1960, and again the main reason for the decline is the diversification of staple food. However there is another trend now in the late 2010s that is pulling the popularity of white rice down: the increased health-consciousness of Japanese people.

5-1. The rise of the health-conscious Japanese

In the 1990s, fatty fast food had found a significant place in Japanese people’s diet and lifestyle diseases such as obesity and diabetes became more common. In light of these circumstances, Junichiro Koizumi, who became prime minister after years of heading the Ministry of Health and Welfare, mandated education in nutrition through issuing the Basic Law of Shokuiku (which means “dietary education”).

This helped to raise awareness of the importance of eating healthily, and a significant number of people (I’d say mostly women) started preferring organic, less fatty and nutrient-rich food to oily and salty food.

5-2. Healthy options for rice

Rice was affected by this trend, too. More people have come to learn through popular TV programs and other media that white rice did not contain as many nutrients as multigrain rice. As a result, the sales of multigrain rice have been growing rapidly at supermarkets while those of white rice continue to decline slowly.

If you go eat at fashionable café-restaurants that have proven popular to young women in Japan, it’s highly likely that you will be given a choice of white rice and multigrain rice.  Men often pick white rice in pursuit of filling their stomachs with food they’re familiar with, and women often pick multigrain rice in pursuit of health and weight-loss.

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Also, we should note that white rice is colored white as a result of polishing brown rice and getting rid of bran stuck to the surface. Bran adds a distinct smell to rice, which many people wouldn’t say they like. However, this bran contains a lot of nutrients such as vitamin A, vitamin B6, calcium and iron. So some very health-conscious Japanese people prefer eating brown rice to white rice. They say they have come to like the taste and smell of brown rice as they continued to eat it.

For those who can’t stand the smell of brown rice but want to keep the nutrients from being washed away completely, incompletely-polished rice started to hit the shelves of grocery stores. These are called, in order of thoroughness of polishing:

  • San-bu seimai (30% polished rice)
  • Go-bu seimai (50% polished rice)
  • Shichi-bu seimai (70% polished rice)

I personally prefer white rice over any other type of rice because of the taste. But I’ve tried all these different types of rice and I’d say they taste different – not inferior to white rice.

5-3. More options for tasty rice

For the longest time in Japan, crop failure meant an outbreak of famine and therefore deaths of thousands. So until after World War II, the primary goal of rice breeding used to be to create a breed that had a high yield and was resistant to diseases such as blast. Taste was of secondary interest.

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However the Agricultural Experiment Station of the prefecture of Niigata pioneered the idea of taste-focused breeding from around 1944. A tasty breed that was vulnerable to blast and a disease-resistant breed were mated.

And through years of experimenting, this new breed acquired enough desirable traits to be adopted as the recommended breed in the farming community of Niigata prefecture.

In 1956, this breed was named Koshihikari (コシヒカリ) and became the parent of many quality rice brands that are grown in modern-day Japan. Koshihikari is even grown in California as a result of the rising popularity of Japanese cuisine in the US.

Now, there are several brands of Japanese white rice that compete with each other in terms of taste. Here’s a list of the current top players (as of 2018) that are rated highly in the annual tastefulness rankings conducted by the Japan Grain Inspection Association.

Koshihikari こしひかり Niigata Prefecture
chewy, silky and sweet
Yume Pirika ゆめぴりか Hokkaido Prefecture
soft, chewy and rich
Nanatsuboshi ななつぼし Hokkaido Prefecture
tasty even when cold
Seiten No Hekireki 晴天の霹靂 Aomori Prefecture
gets sweeter when cooled
Akita Komachi あきたこまち Akita Prefecture
small, silky and supple
Hitomebore ひとめぼれ Miyagi Prefecture
bigger, sweet and chewy
Tsuya Himé つや姫 Yamagata Prefecture
silky; consistent size
Tochigi No Hoshi とちぎの星 Tochigi Prefecture
big, sweet and firm
Harumi はるみ Kanagawa Prefecture
tasty even when cold, sweet
Hana Echizen ハナエチゼン Fukui Prefecture
round, very silky 
Akisakari あきさかり Fukui Prefecture
subtly sweet
Mizukagami みずかがみ Shiga Prefecture
soft, dry and sweet
Kinumusumé きぬむすめ Tottori Prefecture
chewy, soft and silky
Yumetsukushi 夢つくし Fukuoka Prefecture
soft and less chewy
Sagabiyori さがびより Saga Prefecture
big and very chewy
Mori No Kumasan 森のくまさん Kumamoto Prefecture
thin and chewy
Akihonami あきほなみ Kagoshima Prefecture
big, sweet and rich

In case you haven’t guessed, yes, there are several more quality rice brands not mentioned here. There are just too many so let me just go on with the story.

Koshihikari used to dominate the tastefulness rankings from 1989 to 2016, but all these other brands have been jeopardizing Koshihikari’s monopoly. The rice brands above have all been classified as tasting as good or even better than the Niigata Koshihikari. This means that there is no longer one single best, but that there are many bests.

5-4. Survival race

There are a few reasons for the rise of so many non-Koshihikari high brands in the rice market.

One reason is the need for rice farmers to earn more. Because domestic rice consumption has declined in volume, farmers all over Japan needed to be able to charge more for each batch of rice they sold. To ask consumers to pay more, each prefecture needed to come up with its own quality rice brand that matches or exceeds the Niigata Koshihikari.

And so each prefecture put immense efforts into breeding and experimenting to create a unique brand of rice. If they hadn’t all pursued quality, what would have awaited them is a price war against cheap import rice. This leads to the next reason.

The second reason is the need to compete against import rice. Rice farming has been a protected industry in Japan. There is an import tax of ¥341/kg ($3.00/kg) on rice. 5kg of Koshihikari is priced around ¥3,000, while any import rice will cost its raw price + ¥1,705 ($15.00). It’s not easy for even the shittiest-cheapest foreign rice to be priced competitively in Japan.

So consumers would rather buy quality domestic rice even though they cost a little more than import rice, because they know the quality is incomparably higher.

However there is great possibility that these circumstances will change now that the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement has taken effect. The US is now allowed to export up to 50,000 tons of rice into Japan bypassing the ¥341/kg import tax every year. This will pull down the overall price of mediocre rice in Japan.

If mediocre rice was all a Japanese farmer grew, then again, he/she would be facing an uphill climb competing with low-priced import rice. The cheapest Japanese rice is around ¥1,700/kg while Chinese rice is around ¥1,300/kg (as of 2012). There’s no way Japanese farmers could survive by growing cheap rice.

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So basically, all rice farmers in Japan now need to make quality rice if they want to keep their living standards. Therefore, each Japanese prefecture is working hard to establish a brand so that its farmers won’t go out of business.

The third reason is the effect of global warming. Niigata Prefecture, home of the king of brand rice, has developed a new brand of rice called Shin No Suke.

Niigata had been concerned about declines in yield due to global warming. Koshihikari, apparently, does not thrive under crazy-high temperatures. Because 70% of rice grown in Niigata Prefecture is Koshihikari, the increasing frequency of heat waves in summer every year was no joke to Niigata. This is why the prefecture developed a heat-resistant (and also tasty) breed of rice, Shin No Suke, and started growing it at farms from 2015.

Shin No Suke  新之助  Niigata Prefecture 

The southern parts of Japan which experience hotter summers than the rest of the country, namely the Kyushu island, had been working on developing a heat-resistant breed even earlier than Niigata. And in the course of the development, several new brands of gourmet rice were created.

Traditionally, Kyushu was not associated with high-end rice farming, but now many prefectures of the island such as Kumamoto, Saga and Kagoshima have successfully bred top quality rice that tastes as delicious as Koshihikari. All other prefectures of the entire country will most likely follow suit as they prepare for climate change, and therefore even more quality rice brands are bound to be given birth.

And that’s where the history of Japanese rice stands now. The rice-farming industry of Japan has adapted to the shifts in Japanese people’s preferences and interests by first growing rice with high yield, and then diversifying their produce and providing more options as the diet of Japanese people changed.

As the popularity of Japanese cuisine grows around the world, it’s hoped that the outreach of Japanese rice expands into foreign markets.