In Tokyo rice shop, loyalty to a sacred staple

Why We Wrote This

Sometimes you stumble across a single place, or person, whose story tells a much larger one. That’s the case with this tiny Shinjuku rice shop, as its owner tries to weather change and keep true to a time-honored trade.

Lenora Chu
Mr. Koichi Ogawa inside his Tokyo rice shop, which serves about a third of the customers it did in its heyday.

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In Japan, rice isn’t just a grain. Over the centuries, it has served as a store of wealth; a mealtime staple, three times a day; and inspiration for paintings and poems. Today, it sits at the center of the most formidable agricultural lobby in the world, with an iron-willed policy to restrict foreign imports. In short, it’s national pride.

That doesn’t mean selling it is easy. Households consume half the rice they did half a century ago, thanks to a declining population and a shift toward Western tastes.

“I’m barely staying afloat,” says rice shop owner Koichi Ogawa, perched on a stool amid the tools of his trade: a rice mill, large metal scale, and burlap sacks. The shop does one-third of the business it did three decades ago, and it’s his pension – not profits – that covers basic expenses.

Many other shops have closed their doors, and someday his may, too. Even Mr. Ogawa’s own daughter prefers two-minute microwave rice. But for now, his loyalty is to his 70 customers: patrons who appreciate the texture of the grains in their hand, and purchase three kinds just to try a new variety.

“I can’t do anything about societal changes,” he says. “But I can sell quality rice.”

Loyalty to rice, loyalty to customer.

These are the driving motivations behind Koichi Ogawa’s tenacity as a Tokyo shopkeeper. “I’d be very sad if I had to close – I’ve grown up with this store,” Mr. Ogawa says of the Kinsei Ogawa rice shop, a trade that’s been in his family since the 1940s.

Located down a tiny street in bustling Shinjuku, Kinsei Ogawa has seen it all: The bubble economy of the 1980s whose deflation caused corporations to fail, but spared the mom-and-pop vendors supplying staples of everyday life. The 2011 earthquake whose tsunami washed away rice farms, driving up wholesale prices and forcing him to purchase black-market rice.

Today, Mr. Ogawa struggles with a new conflict: the tension between the economic realities of a dying industry, and a stubborn devotion to the 70 customers he has left.

“I’m barely staying afloat,” he says, perched on a stool in his shop, surrounded by the tools of his trade: a rice mill, large metal scale, and burlap sacks. Kinsei Ogawa is doing a third of the business it did three decades ago, and it’s Mr. Ogawa’s pension – not profits – that covers basic expenses. Still, he keeps his doors open, even as others of his generation declined to take over their fathers’ businesses. 

In Japan, rice is more than just a staple: It signifies the pride of a country and culture. Over the centuries, the grain has morphed from a store of wealth to the focal point of the dinner table. Rice is at the center of the most formidable agricultural lobby in the world, not to mention one of the most hotly-debated items in national policy.

Yet cultural and demographic shifts have left rice merchants like Mr. Ogawa behind. A declining and aging population, along with a shift toward fast food and Western tastes, means less demand overall. Now his loyalty to the grain – and its buyers – harkens to a bygone era.

“Rice has cultural cachet,” says University of Chicago professor Thomas Talhelm, who’s spent a decade studying the connection between rice agriculture and cultural behavior in Asia. “I can imagine that if [Mr. Ogawa sold] beans, it would be easier for him to give it up.”

‘Rice as Self’           

In Japanese, the word for meal – gohan – is actually the word for cooked rice. 

Rice is so intertwined with culture and language that it’s central to Japanese identity, says Nicole Freiner, a professor at Bryant University in Rhode Island who recently wrote “Rice and Agricultural Policies in Japan: The Loss of a Traditional Lifestyle.” It has served as money, at a time metal was considered “dirty”; an offering at shrines; and sustenance, eaten three times a day. 

Rice paddies themselves are heralded, portrayed in everything from Japanese paintings to poetry. They are “our ancestral land, our village, our region, and ultimately, our land, Japan,” writes anthropologist Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney in her book “Rice as Self: Japanese Identities Through Time.”

Understanding the symbolic-cultural significance of rice is critical to understanding the modern hullabaloo around it. For years, at the behest of the lobbying organization Japan Agricultural Cooperatives, the government has paid farmers to produce rice, and heavily subsidized the crop. As a result, consumers are penalized twice in the name of protecting farmers – once via taxation and a second time at the counter, with rice prices kept artificially high.

Perhaps the most iron-willed policy of all is a restriction on foreign imports, aiming to prop up the homegrown version. Indeed, the tariff on imported rice beyond set quotas has been, roughly, anywhere between 300 and 700 percent in recent years. The government’s longstanding intervention in rice is, “from a world perspective, unparalleled in its degree,” writes Dr. Ohnuki-Tierney. 

Today, rice derives its symbolic power from day-to-day sharing among family and friends. And it builds community not only at the dinner table, but back at the rice paddy: Rice is more labor-intensive than any other staple crop. In other words, it requires a village to raise it.

In the end, any governmental protections may come too late to save the rice merchant, much less the farmer. Policies that benefitted small sellers like Mr. Ogawa are long gone. Up until about 1970, Japanese bought staples with a food stamp, initially introduced when rationing was required. Effectively, this system required people to purchase at local shops. That system’s demise, in part, gave rise to the power of the supermarket.

Meanwhile, households in Japan consume only half the rice they did a half-century ago – down to about 56 kilograms per capita each year. Rice shop owners can seem the final point of contact between a customer and a cultural relic, as both grain and merchant shift toward scarcity.

Loyalty to quality

Back in his Tokyo shop, Mr. Ogawa is more than happy to wait for the occasional customer. After all, working is a form of exercise. “Those who closed their businesses go jogging to stay healthy,” he says. “I stay active because I carry rice daily.”

The family tree isn’t an option for succession; his daughter prefers two-minute microwave rice to the slow-cooked version. His son was willing to learn the trade, but Mr. Ogawa talked him out of it, since “he wouldn’t be able to make a living.”

Hiring a foreigner wouldn’t be an option, either, though immigration has been posited as a salve for Japan’s labor shortage. “There are more than 100 different kinds [of rice] to explain to customers,” Mr. Ogawa explains, and a newcomer might not grasp the ins and outs.

Meanwhile, the shop grows quieter, year by year. Two years ago, the elementary school down the street shuttered its doors, as young families moved in search of more affordable housing. Where schoolchildren used to parade past Mr. Ogawa’s line of vision twice a day, like clockwork – just before 8 a.m. and a touch after 3 p.m. – there’s now silence.

“The kids used to say, ‘Good morning, rice shop man!’ when they walked by,” Mr. Ogawa says, fondly. “And in the afternoon, ‘Hi, rice shop man! I’m done for the day.’ It was lively in this neighborhood. It was fun.”

He waits for his few customers. “They’re all rice lovers,” he says with gratitude: patrons who appreciate the texture of the grains in their hand, and purchase three kinds just to try a new variety.

“I can’t do anything about societal changes,” he says. “But I can sell quality rice.”

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