AMPONTAN

Japan from the inside out

Matsuri da! (132): Mugi, bakushu, and maekju

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, October 2, 2012

MOST Japanese festivals are several hundred years old and conducted at Shinto shrines that are usually much older.

But there are exceptions. One is a festival created this year and held for the first time last Saturday by the Koma Shinto shrine in Hidaka, Saitama. It’s called the Festival of Gratitude for Mugi and Prayer for Manju, and that’s a poster advertising it at the top. Mugi is the general term for barley, wheat, rye, oats, and other grains in the poaceae family. It’s been grown in Hidaka and the western part of Saitama for a long time. Manju are buns with a variety of fillings. Most often it’s bean paste, but there are many varieties, including those packed with meat and even cream custard. The first manju was brought to Japan from China in 1341, where they are also still eaten.

The priests offered a prayer for the bountiful sales of mugi products, and they gave a manju to everyone who came for good luck. To help promote those bountiful sales, there were booths offering a selection of delights, including the locally popular kinchakuda manju, made with wheat flour, Saitama’s own bean paste, and chestnuts. Inoue Hiroshi, the head of the Kawagoe (city) cultural treasure protection council, delivered a special address. Mr. Inoue spoke on Japan’s Wheat Manju, Past and Present.

The Mugi Culture Gratitude Festival Committee sponsored the event as one of the first activities to commemorate the 1,300th anniversary of the establishment of Koma-gun. (A gun is roughly equivalent to a county.)

Koma-gun was founded by refugees from Goguryeo on the Korean Peninsula. An ancient Korean kingdom, Goguryeo was the loser in a battle against an alliance of the Korean Silla Kingdom and Tang Dynasty China in 668. Koma is written as 高麗 in kanji, which are the same characters used for the Goryeo dynasty of Korea that lasted from 918 to 1392. Goryeo is the origin of the name of Korea, and is derived from Goguryeo. Koma was also used as a synonym for Korea long ago in Japan.

In fact, the Saitamanians think the newcomers established a Goguryeo court in exile there before giving it up and assimilating. One of the first to arrive was Koma no Jakko, an envoy from the court who showed up in 666. He might have been a member of the royal family known by a different name. His spirit is one of the three tutelary deities at the Koma shrine.

Goguryeo is said to have been a grain-producing area. The theme of the new festival is to celebrate the common food culture between the two areas and to remind everyone of the local grain-based foods.

The shared food culture hasn’t traveled on a one-way street. The Japanese introduced Koreans to another popular grain-based product in the first half of the 20th century: beer. Here’s an excerpt from Exploring Korea, a travel guide:

Beer is called Mekchu (맥주) in Korean. The Germans introduced beer to many Asian countries and helped countries such as China and Japan set up breweries and develop brewing techniques. When the Japanese colonized Korea they introduced beer and opened breweries to produce beer for the local elites.

Considering the wealth created on the peninsula and the increase in incomes over all social levels, I don’t know about that “elites” part, but let’s continue. The site has capsule summaries of the three South Korean mass market brewers. Here’s one:

Hite Brewing Company was founded in 1933 and was originally under Japanese ownership during the occupation of Korea. When the company began it was called Chosun Beer but later changed to Hite after gaining independence from Japan.

Chosun Beer was a subsidiary of Dainippon Beer (大日本麦酒株式会社), and was half-owned by local interests. Dainippon was created in Japan in 1906 through the mergers of the companies that made what are now Asahi, Sapporo, and Yebisu beers. It was split into separate units again after the war. Hite was founded in 1933, but didn’t start shipping until 1934.

The reason I provided the company name in characters was to show this part: 麦酒. That seems to have been pronounced biiru in the Dainippon name, and it literally means mugi liquor. The characters themselves were already in use for an older form of proto-beer in Japan and pronounced bakshu in that application.

The characters are also the source for the Korean word maekju, which is the Korean reading of bakushu. The Chinese call beer 啤酒, which is pijiu in Mandarin and bijiu in Cantonese. These days they often dispense with the second character. The first seems to have been a new creation/coinage when beer arrived in China. It’s a combination of 口, or mouth, which is used as a classifier, and another character also known in Japan that means low, base, or common.

OB is the second of the Big Three beer companies in South Korea. That brewery was founded in 1952 by what is now the Doosan conglomerate, but the company had already existed in a different form as Showa Beer, whose major shareholder was Kirin.

Koreans enjoy getting worked up over what they perceive as the faulty Japanese awareness of history and lack of recognition of their contributions to Japanese culture. The case could easily be made, however, that the opposite is closer to the truth. No one in Koma-gun, Saitama, is ignoring history, and one of the Korean county fathers is venerated in the local Shinto shrine. That’s not an isolated example, either: They do the same in Arita, Saga, to honor a key figure in the ceramics culture.

For contrast, allow me subject you to this Wikipedia article called Beer in Korea. Either some boy needs to do his homework, or his teachers gave him bad homework assignments. My guess is the latter.

*****
The Japanese still make bakushu in special circumstances, such as proto-beer festivals at Shinto shrines. Here’s a look at one held annually at the Soja shrine in Koka, Shiga. They started in 1441. The shrine makes three types, and the captions in the video say they are sweet.

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