Review of Rice as Self: Japanese Identities Through Time

by Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney
Book Reviewed
Book Title
Rice as Self: Japanese Identities Through Time
Book Author
Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney
Book Publisher
Princeton University Press
Place of Publication
Year
1994
ISBN
9780691021102 More info
Book Review Citation
Review Author
R. S. Khare
Year
1994
Publication
Current Anthropology
Volume
35
Issue
5
Pages
683-684
Publisher
Language
English
License
Select License
URL
Updated
December 27th, 2012
Abstract
Food, Self, Society, and Nation in Japan 
R. S. KHARE 
 
Anthropology Department, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Va. 22901, U.S.A. 21 IV 94 
 
Rice as Self: Japanese Identities Through Time. By 
 
Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney. Princeton: Princeton Uni- 
 
versity Press, 1993. 184 pp. $19.59 
 
For the major Asian cultures, food is a serious affair, now often evoked in the conveniently reversible formulation "We are what we eat" and "We eat what we are." Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney's Rice as Self, a carefully researched, informative, and well-organized "exercise in historical anthropology," describes the approach of Japanese cul- ture to the food-self-society-nation axis via its distinc- tive cultural location and history. Although recent an- thropological studies of food as a symbolic system could have strengthened the argument, the book does link the symbolic and the historical in each other's terms to show how the Japanese attribute "natural"-historical, symbolic, strategic, and nationalist-meanings to rice. 
 
The fact that rice, though now not eaten in large quan- tities as a ''staple food" by the Japanese (p. 4), continues to mean so much to the Japanese elite and to ordinary people provides Ohnuki-Tierney with a central puzzle around which to organize her inquiry. She presents a good discussion not only of what "staple food" means but also of how some current events may be better un- derstood by learning what rice means to the Japanese. For example, the current Japanese aversion to importing foreign, particularly American, rice, she posits, may be part of "the Braudelian longue duree, the middle-range historical conjuncture." 
 
The best-thought and best-written chapters, appropri- ately enough, open and close the book. Basing her study "on the distinct advantages of taking a broad and long- term view" (p. 7),Ohnuki-Tierney is not detained by the internal cultural and historical diversities either of the Japanese or of those that the Japanese call "foreigners" or "Westerners." How fortunate she is to be able to make such stipulations in her field of inquiry! A scholar working in India, by comparison, would be quickly re- minded that such assumptions are hstorically disputa- ble, sociologically untenable, and now even politically incorrect. At the same time, however, she demonstrates 
 
I. Permission to reprint items in this section may be obtained only from their authors. 
 
that in Japan as elsewhere, historical forces help redefine Japanese "concepts of self as a result of an encounter with the other" (p. 8) and how rice encapsulates this formulation, being treated as soul, deity, and self in Japa- nese mythic accounts, imperial rituals, novels, arts and handicrafts, taxation and monetary systems, and mod- ern national opinion polls. 
 
Rice production and its quantitative uses in Japanese society are, Ohnuki-Tierney argues, "meaning-laden," historically marked, and even counter to economic (and economic-historical) rationality. More important, she shows how rice establishes rich interrelationships be- tween the symbolic, political, economic, and agricul- tural domains. First, the cosmogonic, restorative, and rejuvenating rituals help convey the primacy of the sym- bolic in rice. Thus, "each rice grain has a soul and that rice is alive in the hull"; rice represents "the nigitama (the peaceful/positive power of the deity)" (p. 55). Second, rice is shown relating food consumption to polity by way of rituals about agricultural production and hu- man reproduction. Third, Japanese kingship is distin- guished from the "divine kingship" of the Indo-European tradition by the maintenance of rice at the nonviolent sacrificial center and its rendering "as the gift of self" and as the paramount food for commen- sality. These discussions make significant contributions on some enduring sociological issues. 
 
The remainder of the volume (chapters 5 to 8) vari- ously expands on this historically verifiable cultural elasticity of rice, touching on widely different domains of Japanese thought, experience, representation, and practice. If rice signifies measures of wealth, money, commodity, landedness, and power, then it also reflects sanctity, "good life," beauty, and power. But this rice-as- self ideology (like any other) also masks, limits, and ex- cludes, we are reminded, when the history of "agrarian Japan" is traced and juxtaposed to that of modem and contemporary Japan. Yet rice variously marks and mea- sures the social distance the Japanese recognize between "US" and "not-us" and between "near others" (e.g., Chi- nese) and "distant others" (Westerners). Ohnuki-Tierney runs us through a range of distinct symbolic markers, placed within appropriate "historical conjunctures," to show how the Japanese self itself may have been trans- formed in its encounters with others. 
 
Ohnuki-Tierney makes a coherent case for a sensible (and mutually satisfying) collaboration between histori- cal and symbolic anthropology. Her discussions of sacri- fice, kingship, food (versus foods), commensality, and purity in self, ethnicity, and nationalism make several new comparative points. Yet some of her comparative cultural discussions (particularly on India's conception 
 
of food, sacrificial violence, kingship, and commensality) remain rather weak and incidental. A more care- ful selection of studies might have helped. Similarly, her diverse "theorizing" (modern and postmodern?), picking up and dropping different scholars in every chapter, is diffuse and less effective. Thus, we find George Herbert Mead, Charles Taylor, Clifford and Marcus, and Kondo evoked on personhood on one page of a chapter (chapter 7), Robertson Smith, Braudel, Bourdieu, Rosaldo, and Mintz (among many others) in the next (chapter 8)) and Sally Falk Moore, de Man, Gerard Genette, James Fer- nandez, Nur Yalman, and Michael Herzfeld in the clos- ing chapter. The conceptual discussion might have gained if she had confined herself to a more controlled and consistently examined squad of theorists. At the same time, some major scholars responsible for initiat- ing the symbolic approach to food are either overlooked or summarily dismissed (e.g., Levi-Strauss, Leach, Mary Douglas, and Roland Barthes). Some of OhnukiTierney's own insightful remarks (e.g., the possibility of "food for feeling" [p. 1271) remained unexplored. Simi- larly, her notions of "the historical" either dismiss or overlook recent developments in critical historiography, "subaltern studies," and multidisciplinary studies of the cultural Other and Otherness. With attention to such aspects, her claim of marrying the symbolic and the his- torical within anthropology would have been far more forceful and convincing. Given the few efforts of this kind so far, especially on complex Asian cultures, how- ever, Ohnuki-Tierney's study in historical-symbolic an- thropology is undoubtedly pioneering, perceptive, and accessible. 
 
Historicizing Malinowslzi : Two Views 
The Early Writings of Bronislaw Malinowski. Edited 
 
by Robert J. Thornton and Peter Skalnik; translated 
 
by Ludwik Krzyzanowski. Cambridge: Cambridge 
 
University Press, 1993. 324 pp. 
 
ELVIN HATCH 
 
Department of Anthropology, University of California, Santa Barbara, Calif. 93106-32x0, U.S.A. 22 VII 94 
 
The Early Writings of BronislawMalinowski is an absorb- ing book if only because of its surprises. For example, as the volume editors note, Malinowski devoted con- siderable attention to Nietzsche and Mach during his university studies, and he was originally far more criti- cal of Frazer than he would later admit. These writings reveal some important dimensions of his early theoreti- cal orientation, which is highlighted by comparing his thinking with Durkheim's. Malinowski was influenced by the Durlzheim school in these early years- more so, I think, than the editors appreciate (p. 8). 
 
For example, in his book on the Australian family, writ- ten at about the same time as the essays in the vol- ume reviewed here, his emphasis on social norms and sanctions strongly reflects Durkheimian thought (1963[1913]: esp. 10-13, 192 n. I, 300-302). Similarly, his emphasis on social organization in his analysis of totemism in the present volume (chapter 4) seems strik- ingly Durkheimian. He notes that, in contrast to the patterns among the Torres Straits people, a key feature of totemism in Central Australia is that the Australian clan is a religious cult (pp. 145-49). "In Australia the totemic cult reaches incomparably deeper into the sub- stance of social life and is connected to a considerably greater number of social phenomena [than in the Torres Straits], and is thus more important for the sociologist" (p.148). Again, Malinowski's analysis of "traditions"-- myths-is reminiscent of Durkheim: "the unity of the clan in Central Australia is based on ideas of their com- mon descent from a group of ancestors of the same to- tem" (p. 131). 
 
Even more intriguing is what Malinowski did not pick up from Durkheim, including one of the central princi- ples of Durkheim's thought, the notion that a profound gulf separates the natural and the social features of the human character (see Hatch 1973:168-89). To Durk- heim, the collective consciousness is not reducible to individual sensations and personal drives or interests but rather forces people to transcend their natural selves. In contrast, Malinowski tends to regard social forms, including religious institutions, as both expres- sive and purposive-on one hand expressing natural hu- man inclinations, largely of an emotional nature, and on the other being oriented toward such beneficial ends as relieving the individual's anxieties (see Hatch 1973: 
 
276-3141. Both of these themes are prominent in Malinowski's essay on Nietzsche, written while he was a student in Cracow. Malinowski describes the condition of human life as one of horror over the apprehension of death and over the endless conflicts of the workaday world. He writes, "the naked truth [about reality] would kill a man like prussic acid" (p. 82). In response, the "selfpreservation instinct" produces an emotional or "psy- chic reaction" (p. 82) which takes a number of forms, including the production of myth, art, and metaphysical systems of thought; these, then, are grounded in natural, emotional processes. Thus, what distinguishes art is that it removes us from the world of everyday life and places us in another which is less threatening; it is a palliative which blunts human fears. These social forms serve the instinct for self-preservation; because of art and myth we are not overcome by fear and so are better able to cope. He was later to use virtually the same argu- ment in his theory of magic. The themes of expressiveness and purposiveness are manifest in Malinowski's doctoral thesis, in which he explores the role of thought, including science, in the lives of human beings. He views thought as interested, as having survival value because its source is the desire for mastery over the outside world-a notion that con- 
 
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