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Leisure • Eastern Philosophy

Rice or Wheat? The Difference Between Eastern and Western Cultures

They’ve been growing rice in the central Japan for 3,000 years; it has always been a complicated business and remains so to this day. Seeds will only germinate properly if they’ve been sitting for many months in a sunlit pool of water at least five centimetres deep but the stalks can only be harvested when the water has been drained and have been able to dry out for a few weeks. 

Sean Pavone, Rice Terraces at Sunset, Maruyama Senmaida, Kumano, Japan, 2014

This makes for an unholy degree of complication; it means that rice generally has to be grown in terraces facing the sun, with water flowing down the hillside through a well-managed network of sluices and dikes. There has to be an upper terrace that functions as a reservoir or holding pond — and an extremely detailed agreement between all the farmers as to when their particular terrace will be ready to receive or be drained of water. 

The whole community needs a firm grasp of hydrodynamics, a law-biding nature and a highly punctual and discipled outlook.

When trying to understand the particularities of the Japanese character, sociologists in the 20th century focused in on what has come to be known as ‘the rice theory’ — which states that a nation whose diet has for centuries depended on rice will develop many of the qualities that are necessary for its successful cultivation. They proposed that the Japanese are the way they are — thorough, collaborative, precise, traditional, focused on the ‘we’ rather than the ‘I’ — principally because of the virtues a majority of them had to exercise to bring in the harvest; the rice terraces of places like Maruyama Senmaida moulded the national character. Conversely, the same sociologists have proposed that the characteristics of many Western nations — individualistic, impatient, self-reliant and innovative — have been the consequence of their cultivation of a very different plant: wheat.

Photo by Robert Wiedemann on Unsplash

However fanciful the two theories might sound, they point us to the idea that, far more than we’re normally prepared to recognise, our jobs don’t just occupy our energies, they shape our personalities. Teaching children all day will give us one sort of temperament, designing advertising campaigns another. Politicians might speak one way over the dinner table, psychotherapists another.

This can open up an avenue for compassion. The regrettable awfulness of many people won’t necessarily always be their fault; it may be a function of the work they have found themselves doing. If people in television are often disloyal, paranoid, unreliable and insincere, this may have far more to do with the vagaries of their industry than of anything fixed in their natures. If we gave them a rice field to cultivate in a picturesque village south of Osaka, some water sluices to manage and some neighbours to depend on, they might in time grow exceptionally calm, collaborative and forbearing. 

Similarly, at a state level, the atmosphere of many modern nations — their ruthlessness, immaturity, aggression and exhibitionism — may ultimately be a function of the way most of their citizens have to earn their living rather than of any drastic deterioration in human nature. Japan’s rice theory asks us to explain — and then perhaps one day reform — our characters by looking in an unfamiliar and often painful place: at who our jobs ask us to be every day.

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