Flexible Division of Labor: Getting Ready for Mochi-Pounding

by johnmccreery

This morning Ruth and I turned out and lent a hand with preparations for our condominium complex’s O-mochi-tsuki, mochi-pounding. Mochi is the somewhat rubbery but can-be-delicious result of pounding glutenous rice. Mochi-pounding is a traditional way to celebrate the New Year in Japan. In the case of Mitsusawa High Town, the complex in which we live, the local government association had dropped the ball; not everybody likes the custom and some of those who dislike it had a turn in the association this year. A small group of fans rose up and decided to do it anyway, resulting in the event being somewhat later than usual. Today (1/16) was preparations; tomorrow (1/17) will be the event itself.

Those who turned out today were a mixture of grandparents and other elderly folk and parents (mostly mothers) of young children. When we arrived at the public room where the preparations were underway, the scene appeared chaotic. Soon, however, elements of order began to appear. One crew was in the alley in back washing the equipment. When the big plastic garbage cans that would serve as temporary receptacles were clean, it was time to start pouring the glutenous rice that had been parceled out in 5kg lots and soaked overnight into them. Ruth joined a crew of women shaping anko, red bean paste, into tablespoon size balls to be used as fillings when the mochi is ready tomorrow. I wound up as part of a crew wrapping chunks of sweet potato for roasting. Observing what happened then set me to thinking about the material as well as social conditions of flexible divisions of labor.

Sweet potato wrapping involved several discrete steps. The sweet potatoes were washed and cut up in the small kitchen accessible from the public room. The sweet potato pieces were brought out in rectangular plastic containers (think dishpans a couple of feet on a side). These were placed in the middle of a table. At one end was a bucket of water and a supply of old newspapers. The newspapers were torn in (very rough) quarters and dunked in the water. The wet newspaper was used to wrap the sweet potato pieces which were then wrapped in aluminum foil and then arranged in boxes to await roasting the next day. One old lady did nothing but tear off pieces of aluminum foil for the final wrapping step. Initially, there were two of us doing everything from tearing and dunking the newspaper to wrapping the sweet potato pieces, first in wet newspaper and then in aluminum foil. Then others began to pitch in. By the end of the process there was one woman tearing up the newspaper, which she handed to me to be dunked in the water and handed to those wrapping it around the newspaper pieces. These were then passed to those who added the second layer of aluminum foil wrapping. Those in the middle of the line switched tasks as needed. The same person who did the newspaper wrapping might also do the aluminum foil wrapping if those doing that stage of the process fell behind.

The group making the anko balls did not work out as well. Basically there were only two tasks, spooning globs of red bean paste and rolling them into balls. These tasks were, thus, divided between those who held the spoons and those with sanitary gloves on their hands doing the rolling. The paste sticking on the gloves made it impossible for any of the women performing that role to pick up a spoon instead. There was also some (albeit largely amicable) disagreement over what constituted “large” (adult portion) and “small” (child’s portion) balls. There was none of the fluid task-switching found in the group wrapping the sweet-potato pieces.

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7 Comments to “Flexible Division of Labor: Getting Ready for Mochi-Pounding”

  1. Oh, the divisions of labor in the bakery were an education in themselves! The thing that I liked best, on some level, was realizing, my first christmas season there (I had been there nearly a year at that point, and was capable of making thousands of croissants a week, all by hand, from scratch, in addition to doing multiple other jobs), that I could stock up on unbaked croissants in the freezer, and then, in the three days before christmas, be a utility infielder, doing whatever was the next job that needed to be done. I wasn’t uniquely suited to that, but not everyone could have done all the things I did.

    that aside, it was fascinating to me how we distributed labor around the bakery.

  2. How was labor distributed around the bakery? Was everyone doing what you were doing, specializing but stepping into help once their particular task was done? Were there turf battles? How did people avoid stumbling over each other’s toes?

  3. Whoops, it just penetrated my grey cells that you said “not everyone could have done all the things I did.” Still curious, though, how people reacted to others pitching in. Were they happy for the help? Disliked the interference? Defensive about their turf?

  4. And then, the day after the preparations, here is how we spent our Sunday morning.

    http://gallery.me.com/jlmccreery#100415

  5. That looks really elaborate, a great way to humanize that modernist space. I’m struggling with floor tile right now so thanks for that ptsd moment. The steamers are beautiful. Why is that woman wearing a surgical mask?

    Does something good happen to the rice that is commensurate with the amount of fuss involved in pounding it? Or is the fuss the point? I like the littler kid-sized pounder. You can see how happy she is to get her turn – memory, identity and belonging in the making. I think I’ve seen other poundings (taro, maybe, which ‘makes more sense’ to me because there are fibers to be broken down) where the instrument was not a hammer but a piston that was taken straight up and down. Much easier to get a rhythm and a clean flush hit that way, I’d think. Is the hammer just an arbitrary refinement, or does the rice really need the increment of leverage and acceleration the hammer offers? Maybe the piston doesn’t make that distinctive *pok* sound the well-struck hammer does?

  6. The steamers are beautiful. They are made of bamboo and used throughout East Asia for steaming all sorts of things, e.g., Chinese dimsum. The mask is worn by people who have or fear catching a cold or flu. We have seen a lot of them this year since the H1N1 flu scare started.

    Mochi is made from glutinous rice, grown and consumed throughout East and Southeast Asia, where it is common ingredient in local confectionary. When steamed and pounded, this “sticky rice” becomes a paste with an unhardened taffy-like elastic consistency that makes it easy to shape. It is also extremely high in calories and highly resistant to spoilage. Used to produce fancy confections for Heian-period aristocrats, it was also used as a field ration by samurai, since, it is said, a matchbox-sized block contains as many calories as a bowl of ordinary rice.

    Omochi-tsuki does, indeed, exemplify the deliberate excess of effort required by sacred ceremonies. Ruth suggests (we are still looking for a source) that glutinous rice itself is more resource-intensive to grow than ordinary rice, which makes it a luxury in Japan. Since, however, one could now steam the rice in a normal home rice cooker and process the mochi in a handy appliance (basically a food processor customized for mochi-making), the point of the exercise is clearly more than having mochi to eat. Steaming the rice using wood-fired stoves, then pounding it using the traditional wooden hammer-pestle and mortar, and making both a collective celebration in the consumption of whose produce everyone who participates clearly marks Omochitsuki as ritual.

    When observing ritual, a social anthropologist expects to see behavior that calls attention, either by exaggeration or inversion, to traditional gender and other roles. This Omochitsuki fulfilled but also qualified that expectation. Those who arrived early enough would have seen the first stroke of the hammer-pestle reserved for the male head of the local government association under whose auspices the event was conducted. They would have seen men feeding the fires, pouring the steamed rice into the mortars, and wielding the hammer-pestle, while women prepared the pork soup, prepared and distributed the finished mochi, etc. (Was this, the anthropologist wondered, a symbolic inversion of the role that women usually play, preparing the rice as well as the other components of a traditional Japanese meal, something analogous to men taking over the cooking of the meat at a backyard barbecue?)

    Well into mid-morning, they would see men and women involved in the pounding itself, with the men wielding the hammer-pestle and the women responsible for reaching into the mortar to fold the mochi before each stroke. Later, however, as more and more mochi was produced, the women went off to do other things and the last few batches were finished by teams of men, one pounding while the other folded. The last batch was finished by the kids, pounded by both boys and girls. (Were these signs of social change?)

    When I asked our Japanese associate, who is our generation, how things had been when she was a child, she said that older people (both male and female) fed the fire and steamed the rice. Younger, more energetic, people were responsible for the pounding. Only men and boys were allowed to participate in the pounding. Girls were seen as too delicate.

    More interesting evidence of social change and changes in cultural relevance emerged at the party for those who had actively helped out with the event. It was noted that our condominium complex is an increasingly rare example of a community that continues to hold an Omochitsuki. In our case, organizing the event had been the responsibility of the Children’s Association, a group for mothers of elementary school or younger kids. As the residents aged and the number of kids declined, the responsibility had been shifted to the Self-Government Association. That created problems since membership in that group is rotated around resident households, resulting in years where those compelled to serve were either uninterested in continuing the event or felt unable to organize it. Thus, the party became the occasion for the launch of a new Friends of Omochitsuki Group, made up of people who share an interest in keeping the Omochitsuki going and are willing, if old, to pass on the necessary know-how and, if young, to acquire that know-how.

    Traditionally, Omochitsuki is held before the New Year, ideally on December 29, since “29” can be pronounced in a way that implies increasing prosperity. Our Omochitsuki was held after the New Year, since it was this year’s Self-Government Association decision to not hold the event that stirred up the movement to hold it anyway. Another decision reached at the party was to continue to hold it after the New Year, when women would have the fuss and bother of New Year preparations behind them and the weather is likely to be better as well.

    Why bother? one might ask. One reason is fun for the kids, who are once again growing in numbers as the older residents die off and are replaced by young families. Another may be relief for empty-nest syndrome. Several women who were participating again after a lapse of several years spoke up to say that they had enjoyed participating while their children were small but had fallen away after their children left elementary school (back then the event was still in the hands of the Children’s Association). One repeated rationale, however, was that residents need to get to know each other, to be able to help out if something bad happens. Here the anthropologist notes that the earthquake in Haiti now so much in the news coincides with the 15th anniversary of the Kobe Earthquake, and the High Town is located in Yokohama, a city flattened during the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923.

    So a ritual continues but not in a society where that is a foregone conclusion. It takes on new forms and meanings that reflect social change in the community in which it occurs. It picks up added relevance not only from a feeling that those of us who live in massive apartment blocks are too socially isolated but also recent news and historical memories. Lots to think about here.

  7. Love this answer. Thank you very much.

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