Deadly White Rice in Japan’s History

Rice is an important part of the Japanese diet. The Japanese word gohan means cooked rice and meal as well. Prefixes are attached to form words for breakfast (asagohan), lunch (hirugohan) and dinner (bangohan).

Rice paddy. | /\ltus

It can be said that a meal without rice is not a meal at all in Japan. Cooked white rice is low in fat, low in calories, high in protein, an excellent source of folate and fiber.

Japan’s Meiji Emperor suffered from a common malady of the time which would afflict him sporadically his whole life. His legs would swell, his speech would slow, and this would often be accompanied with numbness, paralysis, twitching, and vomiting. In the year 1877, the emperor watched his aunt die of the same illness which often resulted in heart failure. This same disease afflicted thousands of people in Japan. The emperor poured money into finding out what caused this horrible affliction called kakke in Japanese. This disease was so dreaded for it chose no economic class or stature and befell on anyone. The culprit was unnoticed for quite some time and it came in the form of polished, fine, white rice.

Shiny and pristine white rice was a status symbol in Japan. It was expensive and it took some effort to remove the husk, hull, wash, and polish. This process of removing the outer layers of grains of rice also removes one vital nutrient humans need in their everyday diet, thiamine or vitamin B-1.

Emperor Meiji and family.

Without this, we are all susceptible to developing kakke, also known as beriberi. Machine-milling in Japan made polished rice available to the masses, and the government fed their soldiers in the army and navy white as well. White rice was considered to be less bulky and lasted longer than brown rice which would grow rancid in warm weather.

Takaki Kanehiro was a member of the Japanese navy in 1872. He noticed a high number of sailors suffering from kakke.

When Kanehiro returned from medical school in London and became the director of the Tokyo Naval Hospital, he decided to focus on the dreaded disease. He noticed that Western navies didn’t suffer from beriberi. On one of the navy training ships, he arranged for it to carry bread and meat instead of just white rice.

White rice. | Calgary Reviews

When the ship returned to Japan, only 14 crew members had gotten kakke. Since meat was expensive, Kanehiro proposed giving sailors protein-filled barley which was rich in thiamine. The Japanese navy began mixing rations with barley and within a few years, kakke was totally eradicated from the Japanese navy.

Vitamins were yet to be discovered at the time and kakke would still inflict some people over the course of decades. But Takaki Kanehiro contributed in uncovering the connection of white rice to the deadly affliction that took so many lives.