Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney's book on the significance of rice in Japanese culture could not have come at a better time, given that the 1993 rice crop was the worst in postwar Japan, and given that the Hosokawa government's historic decision to open Japan's rice market to foreign producers gave rise to enormous controversy.
In her previous book, The Monkey as Mirror (1987), Ohnuki-Tierney illustrated the historical transformations of Japanese cosmology through an analysis of the monkey as a metaphor for the human being. In the book under review she turns her attention to rice, showing how this grain has helped form and transform the identity of the Japanese as they encounter other peoples.
Readers will notice that the "collective self" of the Japanese is spoken of throughout. Postmodernist anthropology, with its staunch opposition to totalization, might criticize the author's terminology, but such criticism would miss the point. As Ohnuki-Tierney states in chapter 1, her objective is to show how rice has become the dominant metaphor for the Japanese identity despite the diversity of life-styles that has always existed in Japan (6). Ohnuki-Tierney also criticizes the "individual-centered model of change" for failing to recognize cultural constraints on the meanings assigned to symbols (7, 80, 137). Taken together, her position is that although projecting a monolithic picture of a people is problematic, individuals may not be divorced from their sociocultural context, particularly when one is examining the formation of their identity as a dialectic process between the self and other.
Chapters 2 and 3 turn to historical and ethnological data to provide background information about rice in Japan. The author develops her symbolic argument in chapters 4 to 6, supporting her views with evidence ranging from everyday...