In Japan one of the traditional activities of the new year celebration is the pounding of mochi. We also pound mochi here in Hawaii to celebrate the new year and if you click on the picture to the left you can view more photos and a video on mochi pounding in action (via the Honolulu Advertiser Daily Dish blog) . While this is an accepted tradition in Japanese culture I was curious about its history. My search revealed quite a bit about the uses for mochi (soup, stew, sweet snacks and altar presentations) but not a lot about the history of the tradition. Below is an excerpt from The Cambridge World History of Food:
Pounded rice cakes (mochi), prepared by pounding steamed glutinous rice with a mortar and pestle, have been indispensable food items for Japanese ceremonial feasts. People thought that the essence — the sacred power of rice — was made purer by pounding, and mochi was believed to contain the “spirit of rice.” Naturally this was and is the most celebrated form of rice and therefore the most appropriate food for feasts. Thus, New Year’s day, the principal annual feast in Japan, sees mochi always consumed as a ceremonial food.
While this is interesting I was still left wondering how it became a new years tradition. I then found this from Neat Stuff From Japan:
The Japanese word for cooked rice is gohan which literally translates as “honorable food.” That a simple grain would be worthy of such a lofty title hints at the significance rice has played in Japanese history and culture. For centuries rice was not only a stable of the Japanese diet but also served as an important form of currency. Samurai warriors were once paid in rice and their status was, in part, associated with the number of koku (1 koku equals roughly 5 bushels) of rice they received as stipend from their lord each year.
In reviewing these two excerpts my conclusion is that the belief behind the pounding and eating of mochi is that it will purify your body while at the same time encourage wealth for the upcoming year. Both of these wishes are common at new year celebrations around the world and transcend existing cultural and physical borders.