P.O.V. No.13 - BEAN CAKE

Ohagi: glimpses of a not-so-old Japan

Anemone Platz

Ohagi da nee... The name of the sticky sweet cake made of glutinous rice and red azuki beans awakens at once childhood memories among the handful of elderly people who agreed to watch the film with me. Memories of hard work in the rice fields being rewarded with ohagi at certain seasonal turning points of the year. The children usually had to pound the half-cooked rice until it reached its characteristic sticky consistency (mochi). The difficulty lay in the fact that the rice grains should not be pounded completely but should be left "half killed," as they would be told. Forming this mass afterwards into small rice-balls would give them a smooth surface, but inside some tasty small grains would remain. Lastly these balls were to be covered with sweetened azuki bean paste, which of course was also homemade. After offering the best ones to their ancestors’ spirits on the Buddhist house altar, they would take the bean cakes to the fields to celebrate the end of the rice planting in spring or the closing of the rice harvesting season in autumn.

Another occasion some of them apparently vividly remembered was the day they entered elementary school. Like Tarô's mother had made some to celebrate his first school day in the Lafcadio Hearn story (Hearn 1972: 247) that inspired Greenspan to make this film. Later on, also birthdays became a reason to celebrate with bean cakes, but at Tarô's time birthdays were so unimportant that they were often forgotten. In those days everybody from new-born to old man would turn a year older on the first of January, a custom that was first changed in 1950. In any case, ohagi is nearly the only sweet that people born before World War II in rural Japan can think of when asked about it. Their families had rice and beans. Sugar was scarce and expensive and thus kept for these special occasions.

Tarô's fondness for bean cakes above anything else does not surprise anybody in this group. His silent fight with the teacher over the matter is followed with nods of goodwill and understanding. It is only natural that his urban schoolmates did not understand how important mother's ohagi could become for a little boy left alone in an environment where most if not all seem to be enemies. O-Yoshi's reaction when trying this delicacy in the last scene confirms her lack of understanding of it before this experience. It was possible for children in urban Japan to get several kinds of sweets. Their playgrounds used to be near small booths where elderly women sold colourful candies, little bean balls, sugar canes, and cheap toys. Every day they would gather there after school and spend the little pocket money they had received from their mothers for their afternoon snack (Fukaya 1996:184-186). To a child like Tarô, from the countryside, where cash was kept for the most urgent necessities, such a custom must have been unknown.

Connoisseurs of Japanese-style confection have been searching for an explanation as to how ohagi came into existence. The common way of making this kind of Japanese-style cake was to cover a little ball of sweet white or red bean paste with a layer of glutinous rice. That was not only easier but also cleaner to make. How, then, did it turn into the contrary? How did what should have been inside, the bean paste, come to be outside, and what should have been the skin, the mochi, become the content? Looking at the occasions on which ohagi is made and enjoyed, one finds that they all precede something that is expected to produce a big change. A certain epoch is over and a new one will start. Thus it is interpreted as the symbol of a decisive change: what is inside moves outside and what has been outside disappears into the inside. Vernal and autumnal equinox days have traditionally been celebrated with ohagi. The end of winter and the beginning of spring brings about enormous changes in nature and thus in people's everyday lives. In the same way, the end of the summer gives way to autumn. In rural society this means the harvest and preparation for a long winter. The earth that had expanded in the period of growth shrinks and returns to a time of rest (Okuyama 2001: 303-304).

Whether this explanation is only speculative or corresponds to reality is not that important in this context; in any case it is a beautiful one. In Japanese traditions, which are very much coloured by their rural origin, ohagi marks the end of something and celebrates the new that is about to arrive. It is white and red, the colours that symbolize an auspicious occasion. They symbolise a short temporal pause, where people stop and reflect, feeling gratitude for what is ending and hoping for the future. Retrospectively for Tarô, his mother's bean cakes did not only mark the beginning of his new school life, but also the beginning of a new and special friendship, the one with Mihara O-Yoshi.

The custom of eating bean cakes on occasions that mark a turning point in the course of nature or a person's life is still alive today. The beginning of spring and autumn, certain events that mark the work in the rice fields, a grandchild's first school day, New Year and so on, are reasons for my co-viewers to make ohagi as they know it from their childhood days. Do you make them all yourself? Yes, of course! After a moment of reconsidering silence: Well, a machine pounds the rice... Although the hand-pounded tastes so much better!

Watching the film of course also revives memories of school life in the thirties and later on, during the war, under the American occupation. For someone who is accustomed to the way the Japanese deal with this topic, it is no surprise that they show neither signs of aggression nor resentment.

The curriculum under the imperialistic ideology does not lead to long discussions, as someone not acquainted with Japan and the Japanese might have expected. That was then, and there was nothing an individual could have done about it.

Nobody remembers having worn a uniform to school, which corresponds to the reality of the time in rural Japan. During the first years of Shôwa (Shôwa 1 is 1926) children went to school dressed in Japanese-style clothing: when it was warm, a cotton summer kimono held together by a narrow belt, and in winter Japanese-style pantaloons. Only a few in each class, children of the rich or civil servants, would wear school clothing. They were the ones who attracted attention (Fukaya 1996: 200). Tarô came from Shikoku, an area belonging to the Japanese countryside. The surroundings to which he was accustomed would thus have accepted the way he was dressed. But he came to urban Tokyo, where changes of course had been quicker to settle in, although his classmates had probably just got accustomed to their school uniforms shortly before his arrival.

Apart from not being attentive to what the teacher was saying because of his concern over the class's reaction to his appearance, it was most probably the first time in his life that he was confronted with such a clear imperialistic stance in school. The waves may not have reached the Japanese countryside by the beginning of the 1930s. The 1920s are known as the time when the ideas of free school had arrived and just settled in Japan (Fukaya 1996: 137-145). The turn to imperialism in the school curriculum was radical, but still it took time to take root all over the country.

Imperialistic slogans started to be repeated and called out in a chorus every day before teaching started. The government had just managed to establish a fair amount of national schools. Until then it had depended on private schools to realize six years of compulsory education for every child. That was a great step forward toward the implementation of an imperialistic ideology in the teaching (Honda 2000: 112-117). As my co-viewers see it, no child could have escaped from this machinery of propaganda.

But the scenes of 1933 in Ohagi still show the comparatively soft beginnings. Some years later the consequences of Tarô's answer to the teacher's question would have been much more severe, not only for himself, but most probably also for his parents for not educating their son in the right spirit.

There is one scene that left us all tense with fear and expectation for what might follow. It is the one where O-Yoshi offers Tarô a kneeling cushion. To sit in the Japanese style as a form of punishment should of course be done without any comfort. To give him a cushion is to challenge the teacher's order, and thus one expects consequences for both. But nothing happens, so we relax when the two start spinning tops, which in reality is another offence to the teacher's authority.

This sheds light on another important aspect in the Japanese context. Normally, a viewer not familiar with Japanese circumstances might think that Tarô missed out on playing with the other children, but he had also been lucky enough to escape the duty of cleaning the school after classes. However, for him this was no reason to feel lucky. It was the ultimate expression of being excluded and ignored by teacher and classmates. Being excluded from the group to which one ought to belong is one of the worst emotional punishments that a Japanese can suffer. First the children laughed at Tarô, then they completely ignored him. He is made into an outsider before even having been given the chance to become a part of the group. It is at this point only that O-Yoshi's kindness and support helps him to overcome insecurity and loneliness during his first school day. The two spinning tops seem to symbolize the friendship that is going to unite them and that ultimately leads Tarô to give the correct answer when asked the crucial question a last time. In this way he makes his first step toward becoming an accepted classmate.

With Ohagi David Greenspan manages to revive memories of times gone by. A sentiment of gratitude for having been offered this chance to remember among people who have had similar experiences in an atmosphere of common understanding spreads through the group of viewers. Each of them had been himself/ herself the little Tarô for twelve minutes, going through the whole range of feelings, thoughts, and fears he went through. To me it looks like the awakening of a common dear dream. The fact that this short film was made by a foreigner is completely forgotten. That might be the highest reward a foreigner can get from the Japanese. For David Greenspan, too, ohagi has obviously marked a turning point in his work life!

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Fukaya, Masashi. Kodomo no seikatsu-shi. Meiji kara Heisei (Children's life history. From Meiji to Heisei). Tokyo: Reimei shobô, 1996.

Hearn, Lafcadio. Out of East. Reveries and studies in new Japan. Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle, 1972 (1st ed. 1897).

Honda, Masuko. Kodomo 100 nen no epokku. 'Jidô no seiki' kara 'kodomo kenri jôyaku' made (Children's 100-year epoch. From the 'children's century' to the 'children's rights convention'). Tokyo: Furêberukan, 2000.

Okuyama, Masurô. Mikaku hyôgen jiten (Dictionary of expressions of taste). Tokyo: Tôkyôdô, 2001.

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