Larry Jones

When we prepare a picnic lunch basket there may be sandwiches, fried chicken, chips, potato salad or whatever we choose to put in the basket. There are also a number of choices as to what might go in a picnic basket in Japan as well, but one thing that quite likely to be there are rice balls or nigari, or more often o-nigri. The o is used as a prefix on many words and is sort of a word of endearment. 

It’s very likely there will be a rice ball in children’s lunch box or obento when they head off to school or in the husband’s obento when he goes to work, if he takes his lunch. Thousands of obento are sold in convenient stores, at train stations and on trains and many include a rice ball. Fairly often when we travel, my wife, Kayo, makes a couple rice balls to take with her in case she wants a snack. 

One may think “there has to be more to this article than a ball of rice”. Well, yes, a bit more. Just what are they and how long have they been around? 

Rice has been a staple in the Japanese diet for centuries, but it hasn’t always been eaten with chopsticks as it usually is today. Nigiri means to press, and “rice ball” suggests pressing into a spherical shape, however the rice is sometimes pressed into a triangular or cylindrical shape. 

Despite common misconceptions, o-nigiri is not of a form of sushi and should not be confused with a form of sushi called nigirizushi. O-nigri is made with plain white rice often pressed around a pickled plum called an umeboshi or some other salty or sour ingredient which serves as a preservative. O-nigiri makes rice portable as well as preserving it, while sushi originated as a way of preserving fish. 

Mention of o-nigiri in writings goes back to at least the 11th century where Lady Murasaki of the Imperial Court wrote about people eating o-nigiri while on picnics. Even earlier when chopsticks were not used, rice was pressed into a small ball to simply make it easier to pick up. 

There are also references in other writings which go back a number of centuries about samurai warriors putting o-nigiri wrapped in bamboo leaves and put in a bamboo sheath for a quick lunch during times of battle. Usually the o-nigiri was prepared by a woman, perhaps a wife or a servant of the daimyo in whose army the samurai was serving. 

As she pressed the rice into a ball, and as her hands were pressed on both sides of the small ball of rice, she may have paused, closed her eyes and said a silent prayer for the young worrier about to go into battle. For something so small and somewhat insignificant, the o-nigiri has a significant place in Japan’s long history.

Larry Jones is a member of the Stillwater Sister Cities Council.