It’s often said that as many words as the Inuit have for snow, the Japanese have for rice. Whether you’re looking for Japanese rice dishes or trying to impress upon someone your food-based Japanese vocabulary, you’ll soon find that a lot of things in Japan are centered on rice. Aside from being an ingredient, there is a cultural significance to rice in Japan, as well.
If you’re looking for how to say rice in Japanese, you’ve come to the right place.
The Cultural Significance of Rice in Japan
In order to understand some of the reasons why the Japanese have so many words for rice, it’s important to know a little about their culture. Rice is inseparable from Japanese culture, because they use it for more than food. Their identity is centered around it. In fact, the original name for Japan is Toyoashihara no Mizuho no Kuni (豊葦町の瑞穂の国）or “the land where abundant rice shoots ripen beautifully.”
Within Japanese mythology and folklore, there is a spiced sake (rice wine) that is called o-toso (お屠蘇), which is meant to ward away evil spirits. Rice plays such a huge role in the culture that even the indigenous religion, Shintoism, utilizes rice. Sumo was originally performed as a divine ritual that was meant to grant the land a bountiful harvest. There is even a Shinto god—Inari—of rice and agriculture, who is said to descend from the mountains when the Japanese plant rice.
Life stages are also celebrated with various rice dishes, like Taijumai (体重米), a bag of rice that’s the same weight as someone’s baby. Rice is also the centerpiece during festivals like Girl’s Day, Children’s Day, and Shichi-Go-San.
Traditionally, the Japanese have rice with every meal. Ichiju sansai (一汁三菜) refers to a standard Japanese meal, which consists of soup, three sides, and rice. With rice acting as the centerpiece, you often have vegetables and fish to accompany it. Now, in modern times, it’s not always like that. But the Japanese do continue to consume large amounts of rice for meals, festivals, and more.
Ways to Say Rice in Japanese
It’s time to look at all the words for rice in Japanese. A quick note: Many symbols, or kanji, used in Japanese come from Chinese. Therefore, you might see where one symbol has two readings, called on-yomi and kun-yomi.
The word for rice, or the uncooked, harvested grain is kome (米). This refers solely to short grain white rice, not brown rice, which is referred to as genmai (玄米).
Cooked rice is gohan (ご飯) or meshi (飯).
Rice is also used to make rice flour or komeko (米粉), which is also broken into different categories:
- Mochiko (餅粉), for making sticky rice buns called mochi
- Dangoko (団子粉), for dango dumplings
- Genmaiko (玄米粉), which contains fiber from the husk of rice
10 Japanese Rice Dishes to Try
Now that you know a little more about the word meaning rice in Japanese, let’s have a look at popular rice-based dishes:
Also known as Japanese rice balls, these bundles of carb joy are ubiquitous throughout the Land of the Rising Sun. You’ll find them plain and tossed with salt; stuffed full of ingredients, like chicken, tuna, seaweed, crab, ume, and egg; or blended with sesame and other seasonings. The earliest fossil dating of an onigiri was during the Yayoi period (300 BC to 300 AD).
Also called rice bowls, donburi come in many shapes and sizes. You can get gyu-don (牛丼), which is rice topped with beef; oyako-don (親子丼), or chicken and egg on rice; or even rice bowls heaped with sushi and sashimi. There’s really no limit.
A rice porridge that is garnished with herbs, pickled vegetables, or ume (plum). It’s often used for sour stomachs and hangovers.
This is a special dish that is used during ceremonies. The red color of the rice and beans is said to ward off evil. It’s often speckled with black sesame seeds. Dense, filling, and delicious.
Here we have another kind of rice porridge, except it is infused with either broth or green tea. Many Japanese prefer chazuke during the colder months.
This is a rice dish that is named after the iron pot—kama—that it’s cooked in. Additional ingredients, such as vegetables, fish, or meat, are rested upon the rice as it cooks, so everything is steamed together.
Takikomi Gohan (炊き込みご飯)
Blend together vegetables, meat, and rice and you get takikomi gohan.
Tamago Kake Gohan (卵かけご飯)
A quick and easy Japanese breakfast staple that consists of an egg (tamago) cracked upon a heap of steamed white rice. The dish is then jazzed up with a dash of soy sauce.
Inari Sushi (いなり寿司)
A ball of rice wrapped in the skin of deeply fried tofu. The rice is sometimes stuffed or blended with seaweed or pickled vegetables.
The Japanese take on the omelette. A thin egg is either wrapped or draped over a bed of rice then topped with either tomato sauce or ketchup. Sometimes, the omuraisu is savory, blended with meat, or other fixings.
Yakimeshi or Chahan (焼き飯/チャーハン)
Chinese-style fried rice. There are various styles, but most are tossed with some kind of meat or seafood, egg, peas, and carrots.
There are many words for rice in Japanese, including kome, gohan, genmai, meshi, and so on. Cooked and uncooked rice have different names, as do the various grains of rice! Hopefully, this helps you find the recipe you’re looking for or to impress your friends.
There are several words for rice in Japanese, including kome (米) for uncooked rice, gohan or meshi (ご飯/飯) for cooked rice, and more, depending on the kind of dish you’re making.
Gohan means both! Rice is such an integral part of the Japanese diet that they after have it with every meal, so it’s no wonder that the word for prepared rice and meal (ご飯) ended up having the same meaning.
Cooked rice is called either gohan (ご飯) or meshi (飯).
The verb “nigiru” (握る) is the base of onigiri (お握り）and it means “to clasp, to grasp, to clutch,” or “to form with one’s hands.” Therefore, while onigiri does indeed mean rice ball, it also is named for the action that is used to form the balls.