A ball of rice bringing evacuees a sense of comfort

Rice Ball Onagawa Miyagi May 17 2011

The Japan earthquake evacuees participate in making a ball of rice for their meals at Onagawa in Miyagi Prefecture on March 17

Cultural News, 2011 April Issue / Tohoku Bulletin

By Barbara Ito

If everything you knew and loved vanished in an instant, and you found yourself living in an evacuation center in the midst of strangers, what could possibly bring you a sense of comfort, a feeling of the familiar?

For the people of northeastern Japan who experienced the massive March 11th earthquake and tsunami, the answer has come in the form of a ball of rice. This is not special rice, just the rice that everyone eats daily, formed into a ball about twice the size of an egg.

Looking at a picture of volunteers making rice balls for the victims, you might not realize how totally appropriate this activity is. In the U.S., we are not accustomed to eating our rice molded into balls.

In fact, we would be hard-put to get our long grain rice to form a ball that could be picked up without disintegrating. The short grain rice that is standard in Japan is stickier and easily forms into a ball.

Originally, rice balls were portable food. Molded in damp hands with just a bit of salt and wrapped in bamboo leaves, they resisted spoiling and were taken for lunch or carried along when traveling.

Known as O-musubi in eastern Japan and O-nigiri in the west, rice balls have become a cultural icon over the years, representing the love and care a mother puts into feeding her family. The warmth of mother’s hands seems to cling to the rice.

With just a bit of fish or a pickled plum tucked into the center, and wrapped in paper-thin, black nori seaweed a rice ball becomes a complete and satisfying snack or even a quick lunch. At the annual elementary school sports festival, O-musubi tell the young competitors “You are special to me and we are rooting for you!”

When kids take a break on a school outing, their O-musubi, carefully prepared and packed by their mothers, remind them that they are loved and watched over.

This convenient comfort food has become a staple in food stores. They are one of the best-selling items at the multitude of convenience stores throughout Japan, and they have branched out into a variety of different flavors.

They now include fillings of canned tuna fish and mayonnaise, or roasted cod roe, even cooked chicken, and are ingeniously packaged to keep the nori dry until opened. In spite of the fact that they are prepared and packaged on a production line, their popularity shows the complex emotions associated with this simple food.

For this reason, when the Lawson convenience store chain wanted to go to the aid of the victims of the northeastern disaster, they decided to do it by donating tens of thousands of O-nigiri to the people of the devastated area.

However, major obstacles stood in their way – their production facilities in the region had also been damaged by the earthquake and were not usable. The project was quickly shifted to the Kyoto area which had the capacity to prepare the needed amount.

They then faced another dilemma – how to transport such a large amount in a timely manner. They needed to reach their hungry recipients within hours of preparation, not days.

The organization first approached shipping companies, but discovered that they were already swamped with deliveries. One after another, they tried trucking companies – the damage to roads in the region made it unfeasible.

They tried the airlines, but the condition of airports in the northeast precluded that option. They tried the railroads and even went directly to the government without success.

On the verge of abandoning the project, they finally found their “knights in shining armor” – the National Self Defense Forces. With their assistance, the O-musubi were flown by helicopter to their destination, where they were distributed to the waiting people.

Although this is only one among many stories of amazing determination to come out in the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami, this story in particular illustrates the importance of the simple O-musubi in the Japanese culture and its ability to both comfort those in need and inspire others to do their best.

Barbara D. Ito, Ph.D. lives in Niihama, Ehime Prefecture and runs Boston English Company KK. The American-born scholar specializes in sociology.