Rice cultivation first began in Asia and has been rooted in Japan between 2000 and 3000 years. Because the warm humid Japanese climate was well suited for the rice to grow, the planting and harvest cycles became regular, and rice was easy to store, it spread rapidly throughout the country, from the Kinki region to the eastern sea, on to the Tokyo area and north to Tōhoku.
Because growing rice is a labor-intensive effort, people began to cluster together in settlements and to make permanent dwellings. They divided the tasks and created organizations to manage them, pragmatics out of which came villages. When the technologies for cultivating rice advanced over the years, a "rice gap" emerged between villages that produced sufficient rice and those that didn't, and split into small and large settlements. Small villages melded into larger ones, and cadres of large village-dwellers began to hold power. This is the basic sketch of how the first loosely unified "Japan" came to be as the Yamato court in the middle of the 4th century.
After this birth of this loosely unified regime, the proto-national rulers began to actively plan rice production. They installed infrastructures like irrigation canals and floodbanks, encouraged the use of special tools suited to agriculture so that productivity gradually improved. Given this state of affairs, landowners with large s that could produce rice began to ascend in power, and another socio-economic gap was installed between the "haves," large landowners, and the "have-nots," or tenant farmers. In order to reclaim some of this power, farmers developed fields even in regions not initially thought hospitable due to the cold, a struggle that in the end led to developing strains of rice that thrived well in colder northern areas.
In the year 645, a series of new rules called the Taika reforms went into effect and completely transformed the governance of the proto-nation. As the emperor took on a greater role in ongoing task of nation-building, legal codes standardized to regulate ownership of rice fields, and individual people were allowed to possess fixed plots of land while giving a tax of 3% of their crop to the authorities. Rice effectively became a medium of currency, and by extension, an economic medium.
In 1590, the former shōgun Toyotomi Hideyoshi effectively unified the archipelago and revamped the tax system by conducting a comprehensive land survey. He calculated his take according to the area and productivity of the land and established a fixed amount for each land parcel. Throughout the 17th century as the Tokugawa bakufu ruled, the motivation for increasing rice production was to increase the coffers of the bakufu. At the same time, landowners could take their crop to market in the cities and exchange it for goods useful in daily life, establishing a place for rice wholesalers, and a merchant class grew prosperous from buying, selling and transporting rice.
The big seismic shift in the economic role of rice took place in 1873 with a revision of the tax system in light of other nation-states. In this revision, money took the place of rice as a currency and rice reverted back to being "merely" something to eat. Most of the rice currently eaten in Japan has its "roots" in varieties bred and popularized in the nineteenth century. Now, as then, research continues to breed varieties of rice that are well adapted to the climate and current conditions of production. Here are a few of the more standard varieties.
- This rice varietal grows all over Japan and is popular. Koshihikari is far and away one of the more high-yielding varieties. It has a sweetness and a desirable degree of stickiness and holds up well even when it is chilled.
- Sasanishiki is nearly as popular as koshihikari, though it is a little less sticky. It is noted for its straightforward taste that stays consistent at any temperature and is often used in sushi.
- This is a variety bred from koshihikari, known for its pleasant stickiness and the way it fluffs while it is cooked. It is soft on the palate, and stands up well to being chilled in sushi or o-nigiri.
- This rice was bred to mesh with the landscape and climate of Akita prefecture but is also found in other parts of Japan. Its claim to fame is its stickiness due to high water content, along with its luster and fragrance.
- This is a variety from Yamagata prefecture, the "child" of Akita-komachi. It produces a sturdy grain with an al dente-like texture.