Did Rice Change How Japanese People Think? Social sciences and the power of rice

    I’ve always been fascinated by the social sciences. Some people say that they’re not as important or “real” as the “hard sciences“ (i.e. chemistry, physics, biology, etc.), but social sciences like sociology and anthropology can show us a lot about how humanity operates.

    The social science perspective is especially interesting when applied to Japan. Japanese culture can sometimes be confusing or even weird to outsiders, but once you start to take a look at it from a broader view, things get a lot more interesting and can make more sense.

    For instance, I keep seeing one theme pop up time and time again in the social sciences. Social scientists think that one small thing in Japanese life has made big differences: rice.

    The Power of Rice

    Believe it or not, a lot of people think that a lot of the differences between Asians and the rest of the world has to do with agriculture; more specifically, the process of growing and harvesting rice.

    When it comes to agriculture, rice farming is a bit of a unique process. A lot of farming throughout the world involves planting something, then just kind of waiting to harvest it.

    Sure, you might need to shoo away pests or pull weeds, but for the most part once it’s planted in the ground, it largely takes care of itself.

    Rice terraces in Mie, Japan
    Source: Ippei & Janine Naoi

    Rice farming, on the other hand, is a giant pain in the ass. It’s a really intensive process that requires constant attention from a group of people.

    You have to terrace the land, lay down a hard clay base, make sure it’s all level, get the water right, stay on top of weeds, and a lot of other small tasks that, when taken together, can either make or break a rice harvest.

    Author Malcolm Gladwell claimed in his book Outliers that

    Working in a rice field is ten to twenty times more labor-intensive than working on an equivalent-size corn or wheat field. Some estimates put the annual workload of a wet-rice farmer in Asia at three thousands hours a year.

    That by itself is kind of interesting, but what does that have to do with how Japanese people think?

    All Together Now

    Psychologists, sociologist, and anthropologists have long said that Japanese people are very collective and group-focused, but it’s not always been clear why.

    Two people holding hands
    Source: Kate Ter Haar

    Over time though, people have developed a hypothesis that all of this attention on the group is because of how important (and intensive) rice farming was in Japan’s past.

    The idea is that since rice farming is so labor intensive, can’t be done alone, and depends on a group of people working tightly together. That kind of rice farming mentality transferred over into the modern world.

    Together, or Separate?

    The idea that rice farming made the Japanese a collectivist people is just that – an idea. It’s not really an idea that can be thoroughly tested and there are in fact some people argue the opposite, too.

    One of my favorite blogs on social science related to Japan, burogu.com, ran an article recently about just that. In the article, the author argues that rice paddies were actually self-contained ventures; that while it took a family to successfully run a rice paddy, it didn’t take the cooperation of a lot of other people.

    Western farmers, on the other hand, often had to collaborate with other specialists to keep their whole farm running. Specialists like butchers, blacksmiths, plowmen, etc., mean that a typical western farmer worked with lots of other people to get the job done.

    What’s Ahead?

    No matter which idea you subscribe to, it might not matter a whole lot in the present day. In recent years, technology has really changed how rice farming works.

    There are far fewer rice farmers in Japan than ever before, and the work is much, much different. Technology means that farming rice is significantly less of a pain in the ass than it was in Japan, and that it takes less strength, time, and people to do it.

    Obviously, this means that rice farming (and its effect on the Japanese mentality) is much smaller than ever before. So what’s next?

    Long and winding road through greenlands
    Source: Piero

    People have talked about how the salaryman lifestyle is shaping people’s lives in Japan (I actually wrote my senior thesis on the salaryman), but that’s changing too. The salaryman ideal has been on the decline for more than 20 years, and work is rapidly changing in Japan

    So what’s next? What’s the next major form of work that will help to shape the Japanese psyche? It’s impossible to predict the future, but it will be interesting, as always, to see how Japanese culture changes.