How Japan had everything to do with the most important ingredient in Korean cuisine today.
In the ’90s, we’d fly to Korea every summer to visit my grandmother. I’d sit in Halmoni’s hot, humid apartment in Seoul and watch her pour barley tea, or sometimes plain water, over her rice dregs as she neared the end of her bowl. In the way that children mimic their elders, I followed suit. This would create a sort of consommé, lightly flavored with the remnants of our various banchan, or the sweet sauce of bulgogi, dotted with the sweet, nutty comfort of white rice. Halmoni said this was her favorite part of the meal, because it was her way of extending the rice and ensuring satiation.
My grandmother, born in 1930, was raised in Japanese-occupied Korea. After China and Japan fought for centuries over Korea (“a shrimp between two whales”, as the old Korean proverb goes), Japan emerged the victor in the early 1900s, officially annexing the colony in 1910.
While Japan had by then made great strides in its agricultural and manufacturing development, it was fast losing the means to feed its own population domestically. Japan had already been importing rice, mostly from Southeast Asia. But during World War I, British and French colonial rule restricted Japan’s access to this rice, triggering inflation, economic hardship, and the rice riots (kome sōdō) of 1918.
Japan had to look closer to home for its rice supply. Luckily, it had just taken over a country lush with agricultural land, natural resources, and a temperate climate ideal for rice production: Korea.
Korea was always a largely agricultural country. According to R. Malcom Keir, by the beginning of Japan’s occupation, 75 percent of Korea’s population was engaged in farming, with 94 percent of the arable land devoted specifically to rice fields. The Japanese catalogued over 1,400 varieties of rice indigenous to Korea at this time, but by the end of the occupation, virtually none of them would remain.
Japan was the first to genetically engineer rice to be higher yielding, quicker to harvest, and more resistant to disease (and more susceptible to fertilizer). Through the Campaign to Increase Rice Production, launched in 1920, Japanese land holders instructed their Korean tenant farmers to actively sow these specific varieties of rice, replacing many of the native Korean rice and paddy rice varieties. Japanese varieties went from making up 2 to 3 percent of Korea’s rice to 90 percent. Korea quickly became Japan’s breadbasket, increasing its rice production by more than 250 percent, eventually supplying almost 98 percent of Japanese rice imports.
So what did this mean for Korea?
While Japan was able to revolutionize Korean rice production and address their own shortage, they were suddenly unable to feed the colony itself. Eventually Japan had to start importing other cereal grains such as millet, corn, and sorghum to feed the Korean population, which was already relying on barley as their main source of grain. This is likely when japgok bap (a multi-grain rice mix of glutinous rice, millet, sorghum, black beans, and red beans) came into practice, an economical way to fill out the scarce white rice.
Korea’s rice shortage worsened as Japan entered World War II and heavily rationed the colony. Even after the war, post–Japanese occupation, U.S. forces in Korea struggled and failed to rehabilitate food security, creating severe inflation in the cost of rice and spurring a heavy black market for what little was left of it. My grandmother’s family would barter their surplus rice for banchan and vegetables. White rice became an even greater commodity.
Following the devastation of the Korean War, President (and high-key dictator) Park Chung-hee pushed for rice self-sufficiency in Korea, which was now one of the poorest nations in the world. Park also took a page out of the Japanese-occupation book and reimplemented their farming methods, particularly the genetic engineering of higher-yielding rice. Previous iterations were versions of the short-grain japonica rice. But for the first time, during the late 1960s in conjunction with the International Rice Research Institute, South Korean scientists successfully crossed japonica with the long-grain indica rice to develop tongil byeo, immediately dubbed a “miraculous rice seed,"
Tongil rice (which ironically means “reunification”) was higher yielding and more resistant to disease. Coupled with significant government propaganda and incentives, it revolutionized South Korean rice production completely. Unfortunately, the "miraculous" rice wasn't super popular with consumers, generally disliked for its bland taste in comparison to regular short-grain japonica rice. My dad recalls his mother purchasing this rice only once or twice, at the behest of the government, but never again afterward.
In addition to pushing tongil rice, President Park strived to regulate rice consumption among his people in order to grow the nation’s reserves. “No rice days” were implemented, and citizens were encouraged to eat more flour-based dishes (like ramyun and jjajangmyeon) and mix alternate grains into their white rice. In school, my parents were required to show their lunchboxes to their teachers at lunchtime, and those who did not comply with the mixed-rice initiatives would be punished. Via these measures, South Korea rapidly became self-sufficient in its domestic agricultural needs by 1977, setting the stage for the phenomenal growth of its modern economy since.
As rice supply became a surplus, consumers moved away from the tongil variety and farmers ceased planting it entirely by the early 1990s. Many farmers, particularly in the Gyeonggi Province, had reverted to planting “ordinary rice,” initially for their own consumption and eventually for sale. This rice was of the akibare japonica variety, introduced by Japan in 1969. South Korean consumers, who now had more capital, chose to buy rice from this area because it was historically served to the king of the Joseon dynasty.
This Gyeonggimi (Gyeonggi rice) spread across Korea as the most popular variety of rice. Imgeumnin ssal (“king’s rice”), the first Korean brand of rice, hit the shelves in 1995 (yes, that recent). Thus, the sticky, short-grain Korean rice we know and love today was born.
Rice continues to be a signifier of wealth and fulfillment in today’s South Korea. Expensive electric rice cookers are a staple of every household, as are industrial-sized bags of rice. My grandmother had a rice cooker so big, she’d have to use it on the floor of the kitchen so the steam wouldn’t singe the ceiling. Every time I saw her, she’d ask me, “Bap muhgussuh?” (“Did you eat rice?”), already reaching over to scoop me another bowl. It’s no wonder that the word rice (in countries like Japan, China, and Korea) is synonymous with “food” in general. It’s a staple with a long history, one that tells the story of a nation that once counted every grain of rice like gold.
Many of us eat rice each day without wondering where it comes from, or remembering a Korea where it was once scarce. A South Korean “well-being” movement in the early 2000s even popularized the mixed-grain rice from those earlier years; adding grains to rice became a health trend instead of a rationing necessity.
But for my grandmother, rice—white rice—remained a currency. I imagine that bowls of it were her thrice-a-day right as a free Korean citizen, a quiet rebellion. As she aged and fell under the effects of Alzheimer’s, all she continued to want to eat was plain white rice, soaked in water, eventually eschewing even the mandatory kimchi. Her relationship to rice mirrored her country’s—a great respect for it as a symbol of wartime economics, control from outside forces, and eventual freedom.
Today, years after my grandmother has passed, I pop open my own rice cooker, a Zojirushi-brand Japanese model, and fluff the steaming white kernels. Once the meal is done, I look down at my bowl and see a few stragglers, clinging to leftover sauce, and pour a bit of water in.