Structure, Event and Historical Metaphor: Rice and Identities in Japanese History

By Ohnuki-Tierney, Emiko | Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, June 1995 | Go to article overview
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Structure, Event and Historical Metaphor: Rice and Identities in Japanese History

Ohnuki-Tierney, Emiko, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Anthropologists, once the specialists of the spatial other, have recently made a serious effort to study the temporal other that used to be the exclusive province of historians,(1) and have made significant strides in their effort to get out of 'the zero-time fiction' (Vansina 1970: 165) - the notorious 'ethnographic present' (Evans-Pritchard 1962: 146-54).

In historical anthropology, for which historical changes and stabilities are of central concern, the perennial anthropological concern of 'structure and practice' has received a renewed interest. I have chosen to focus on this theoretical question by comparing a very long-term study and a short-term 'event' analysis. For illustration, a long-term study of the Japanese concepts of selves and others as they are expressed through the twin metaphors of rice and rice paddies is contrasted with an analysis of the recent opening of the Japanese rice market, demonstrating how a combination of the two approaches enables us to understand historical processes.

Theoretically, the article is a critique of an influential approach in historical anthropology, represented by Sahlins. His model in my view has a number of built-in 'synchronic traps', including an equation of the structure of myth with history, and the misuse of historical metaphor as a mechanism to collapse two historical periods, thereby synchronizing history. Above all, his model presents a view of historical change as a process whereby a pre-existing solid structure is shaken by the politically powerful at the time of a sudden arrival of a major event. Sahlins assigns both analytical and historical priority to structure, which subsequently is disrupted by an event - a claim which cannot be supported either theoretically or by historical evidence.

As an alternative vision, I propose a view of structure as always in flux structure that is becoming, reproducing itself at the same time as it is disintegrating, in a constant ebb and flow as it interacts both with internal and external forces cum events.


Rice in Japanese culture and history

Wet-rice agriculture was introduced into Japan around 400 B.C., and gradually supplanted the previous hunting-gathering subsistence economy which began with the first occupation of the archipelago around 200,000 B.C. Wet-rice agriculture provided the economic foundation for the Yamato state and what later became the imperial family Post-war scholarship revealed that rice was primarily the food for the upper class throughout most of history, and was not a 'staple food' for most Japanese until recently. However, it has always been the most important food for ritual occasions for most Japanese.

The first written accounts of the meaning of rice in Japanese culture are found in two myth-histories of the eighth century. They were commissioned by the Tenmu Emperor who sought to establish a Japanese identity distinct from that of Tang China (Kawasoe 1980: 253-4) whose influence was engulfing Japan. These myth-histories of the Kojiki and the Nihongi, dated A.D. 712 and 720 respectively, are replete with references to rice as deities. In one version in the Kojiki, Amaterasu (the Sun Goddess) is the mother of a grain soul whose name bears reference to rice stalks. The legendary Jinmu Emperor, the so-called 'first' emperor, is the son of the grain soul or the grandson of Amaterasu, who sends him to rule the earth. At the time of his descent, Amaterasu gives her grandson the original rice grains which she has grown in two fields in Heaven (Takamagahara) from the seeds of various types of grains given to her by Ukemochi no Kami, the deity in charge of food (Kurano & Takeda 1958; Murakami 1977: 13). Amaterasu's grandson transforms a wilderness into a land of succulent ears of rice (mizuho) and other grains, grown from the original seeds given to him by Amaterasu, whose rays nurture rice and other plants.

Unlike the creation myths of other peoples in which the universe is created, this version of the myth is not about the creation of a universe.

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Structure, Event and Historical Metaphor: Rice and Identities in Japanese History


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