The Japanese Fixation on Rice


The crescent-shaped jiaozi dumplings of China are highly popular in Japan, where they are known as gyoza. To the surprise of many Chinese, gyōza are generally served in Japan as an accompaniment to rice or as a snack to go with beer. Does this say something about the Japanese affinity for rice?

Gyōza is among the most popular Chinese foods in Japan, but its history in this country is not so old. The Japanese version of the crescent-shaped dumpling introduced from China became a regular household dish only after World War II, when large numbers of Japanese citizens were repatriated from China.

Unlike in China, where jiaozi dumplings are generally served in a clear soup, in Japan gyōza are usually fried. Not only that, they are served as an accompaniment for rice or as a snack to go with beer.

In China, jiaozi are considered a staple food in their own right. After all, the dumplings are wrapped in thin sheets of dough made from flour. The Chinese would never think of eating the dumplings as a side dish while drinking a traditional Chinese wine such as Shaoxing wine, anymore than the Japanese would consider eating a bowl of rice while quaffing their thirst with a glass of cold beer.

A Chinese person is likely to find it odd to see a Japanese person eating a bowl of rice with a side dish of gyōza and would probably be equally taken aback by a gyōza set meal. When I lived for a time in Tianjin in the northern part of China, I was surprised to learn that jiaozi was a staple rather than a side dish.

Asked by Chinese friends why I would eat gyōza with rice, I am at a loss for words. The only response that comes to mind is, “Because I don’t feel like the meal is complete without a bowl of rice.”

The Japanese also have a strong affinity for Chinese-style fried rice and ramen noodles. And we don’t mind at all combining the two starches—ramen and fried rice or ramen and regular white rice—in one meal, another aspect of Japanese eating habits that astounds the Chinese. The only explanation must be that we just don’t feel a meal is complete unless there is some rice. Even when we have been out drinking, we like to finish off with rice in some form.

Personally, I think the way we cannot finish a meal without some rice is not for nutritional reasons but because of our Japanese culture—perhaps a hangover from the days when a meal was just rice and nothing else.

In the past, a meal for most Japanese people consisted only of rice. In the Edo period (1603–1868), before Japan’s westernization, the average Japanese person ate 3 , or around 450 grams, of rice every day. As of 2016, however, Japan’s per capita daily rice consumption has gone way down to only about 150 grams per day.

Side dishes were a rarity. Edo-period records indicate that the few that were eaten tended to be miso soup, pickles, and tofu. Before the Meiji Restoration of 1868, eating meat was prohibited, and tofu and fish were the primary sources of protein in the Japanese diet. Fish was a valuable commodity seldom available to the common people, who depended for nutrition nearly exclusively on grains, particularly rice. I doubt that there was any sudden change in the sparse diet of the average Japanese citizen even with the start of the modern period in the Meiji era.

To her dying day, my grandmother complained that the only side dish served with meals during her childhood years in the Taishō period (1912–26) was kiriboshi-daikon, a condiment made of reconstituted strips of dried giant white radish. “It was so boring,” she said. And she was the daughter of a doctor with his own clinic in Tokyo’s Fukagawa district; hardly a poor family. Only her father, she recalled, had fish on his plate.

For much of history, Japanese people did not eat the highly polished white rice that was most coveted, and they seldom got to eat a bellyful of whatever kind of rice they could get. In the Edo period, white rice was only available to aristocrats. By the late Edo years, people in Tokyo and Osaka were able to eat white rice, but those in the countryside still subsisted on millet and other mixed grains. It was not until after the Meiji period that white rice became a regular part of the Japanese diet throughout the country. During the food shortages that followed the end of World War II, the Japanese vied with each other to get their hands on white rice. For a long time thereafter, a meal continued to consist of little more than rice. Even as recently as 1962, the average Japanese was eating 325 grams of rice per day.

The custom of serving rice as the main dish accompanied by only a few meager condiments was probably a direct result of the economic conditions of the Edo period, when the wealth of the ruling samurai class was measured in the number of bales of rice they were paid. Fast forward to today, and we see that over a very long period, especially in the last half-century or so, the Japanese diet has drastically changed. Comparing 1962 to 2016, we see that rice consumption has decreased by more than half, while that of meat is now 4.2 times what it used to be. Likewise, annual consumption per person of milk and dairy products has more than tripled, going up from 28.4 kilograms to 91.3 kilograms, an increase of 3.2 times. The shift to a Western-style diet is one reason for this change, but perhaps it has been exacerbated in recent years by the popularity of carbohydrate-free diets.

With an abundance of side dishes, it is not surprising that people are eating less rice. Perhaps the move away from a fastidious devotion to the grain means the Japanese people are at long last breaking eating habits that date back all the way to the Edo period.

(Originally published in Japanese on September 8, 2018. Banner photo: A gyōza set meal at a Japanese restaurant. Photo by the author.)

rice food China culture