Pretty much every Pokemon fan and even mainstream anime fan has heard the jelly-filled donuts joke at least once, such is the wild legacy of 4kids anime localization. It’s become a classic legendary-tier meme to the point that even the official english Pokemon twitter account (knowingly) referenced it on National Doughnut Day this year 2019.
Pokemon was one of the first Japanese cartoons to find mainstream western success along with Sailor Moon. Although the old assumption that kids would be so confused by the sight of their favorite cartoon characters eating rice balls for lunch would warrant changing it to a ball of fried fat and sugar seems absurd to many people today. Some even call it xenophobic, and as the covering up of Japanese culture was motivated by a desire to make anime “pass” as western cartoons this isn’t entirely unwarranted. [Learn more: The Cartoon Cipher]
Although knowledge of and acceptance of other cultures have gotten better today, back in the 1990s making anime “pass” as western cartoons was a way to trick consumers into giving anime a try before unfairly judging it based on it’s origin (or at least, attempting to trick the parents who aren’t really paying much attention).
Since the games and cards were already being accused of turning kids into occultists and pagans, I’d hazard a guess that the people in charge of localizing the anime did not want to take any other risks.
Nonetheless, despite the hurdles Pokemon successfully converted many children into anime fans for life (much to the chagrin of some of our parents I’m sure). As such, now is the time for us converted occult weebs to learn about these rice balls with many names and fillings but a similar history and function.
So, what is an Onigiri? (besides being a rice ball)
Their primary function is essentially that of a sandwich in the USA, and wherever else people eat sandwiches. As someone who grew up in the USA I will be drawing most of my comparisons from my experience as a Northern-Eastern American.
These rice-balls are easy to pack and easy to eat. You don’t need any utensils and you can even eat it while working if you need to, since a skilled eater only needs one hand. As such, these rice balls are a favorite choice for packing school lunches and for picnics or eating on the road… the perfect snack for a traveler in the Pokemon world.
The beginnings of the Onigiri tradition is debatable, as is most food history debates. Some archeologists recovered the remains of a rice ball that’s thought to be over 2,000 years old, which means the year Zero AD. [Source: Iro Magazine] Nonetheless, some people mark the beginnings of the Onigiri’s culinary history to be during the Heian period, just around 800 AD. At the time the dish was called Tonjiki (頓食). Tonjiki was made with the sticky-sweet Gluttonous Rice, which according to Tofugu, one of the sites I highly recommend as a reliable source of information, was introduced to Japan from mainland China between 300BC-250AD. [Source: Tofugu]
One disadvantage of Gluttonous rice however is the same stickiness that keeps it together could also make your hands sticky (hence why many people use chopsticks or forks to eat it nowadays). Gluttonous Rice is to the Onigiri as the taco is to the burrito. Therefore, some people might like the Gluttonous rice in Chinese rice-dumplings better than modern Japanese rice balls, some people like the chewy, sticky, rich rice.
Gluttonous Rice is often wrapped in Bamboo leaves for transport. Today, China has it’s own variety of a rice dumpling with fillings called a Zongzi. If this sounds familiar, that’s because I’ve briefly mentioned it in a previous blog post, where Zongzi were traditionally used as a tribute to spirits and possibly Dragon Gods.
What made Onigiri easy to eat became particularly popularized through the middle of the Edo period (1688-1704) in the form of mass-produced seaweed called Nori. Before it became mass-produced, Nori began being used about a few hundred years previously in the Muromachi Period, which is also when Gluttonous rice was replaced with Japonica rice. [Sources: Tofugu, Iro Magazine] Japicona rice is still sticky enough to be rolled into balls, but not nearly as sticky as the kind borrowed from China. The cheap, easy to cut up and easy to handle Nori in particular was also an ideal replacement for Bamboo leaves. The black squares you see in the cartoons are the Nori handles.
The kind with a cute little square Nori handle seems most popular for kids, and it’s also the most common kind you will see in anime. These are usually homemade, although you can find specialty shops that sell them like this.
The kind you buy from convenience stores however tend to have the whole thing wrapped in Nori. According to Tifa San on YouTube it seems like eating the Nori isn’t actually that bad (she also gives a good tutorial on how to open the convenience store packaging). A lot of people seem to prefer convenience store Onigiri because the way it’s packaged keeps the Nori from getting soggy. Nobody here likes soggy lettuce either.
Translating the meaning behind the Onigiri in the Pokemon Anime
Admittedly one of the more culturally intelligent changes in the english version of the Pokemon anime in terms of making the english events hold the same functional meaning as in the Japanese version is turning Morrison’s giant rice ball into a giant sub.
A kid in Japan lugging around a rice ball the size of their head has about the same energy as that one kid in school who packed a footlong sub for their lunch after all.
The smaller rice-balls in the first season were also occasionally refereed to as sandwiches (such as when Team Rocket were getting robbed by the Squirtle Squad). As I have discussed above this is actually an appropriate function-based translation for what an Onigiri is.
It sure as heck is a lot more appropriate than showing the main characters eating donuts all the time at least. Way to go on promoting healthy lifestyles 4kids. They should have refereed to those things are sandwiches all the time if they really couldn’t just call them rice balls.
Much like how sandwiches have fillings in between the slices of bread, Onigiri have filling in the middle of the rice. If you ask me I like this aspect of Onigiri better than the American sandwiches I grew up with, if only because you can theoretically fit anything in the middle of a rice ball, even stuff like beef stew. However perhaps the locals would consider me to be a weirdo, like Kennouske was considered a weirdo for doing this with a type of stew-like dish in the anime Kuromukuro.
In all seriousness some of the more popular fillings include different kinds of fish, dried plums, kelp, other vegetables and sometimes meat. There are of course some who like to eat it with no fillings at all, just some good ol’ salted rice (14.7% of respondents to this pool indicated that they like their rice balls with no filling). Other plausible fillings include teriyaki chicken and barbecue beef as shown here.
Before you look at those hyperlinks above and come to the conclusion that (other than the people who use no filling) Onigiri are for the rich who stuff it with fish eggs, the results of pools taken by convenience stores as opposed the internet are slightly different. While there is certainty a vibrant culture of making homemade Onigiri at home (especially trendy among young single men who can buy the filling ingredients in bulk), equally significant is the buying of premade Onigiri at convenience stores. A pool taken by a convenience store found that among it’s respondents the most popular filling was tuna with mayonnaise. Salmon, the fish eggs & the roe are still pretty high up there, but not as high as in the first pool.
One notably popular and traditional filling is the plum, if you actually go to Japan it might help to remember that their Japanese name is an umiboshi or ume (“ooh-may”) for short. Umiboshi are sometimes refereed to in english as Japanese plums, dried plums, preserved plums or “pickled” plums, but they are really just soaked in salt. Sometimes they are dried afterwords but they are never actually pickled in the sense that english speakers usually use the word. People with concerns about salt intake should pass on the ume.
What makes the salted plum a popular filling for Onigiri is that the saltiness of the plum also preserves the rice. This makes this variety of Onigiri ideal for packing a lunchbox. No doubt it was particularly useful back before refrigeration was invented, but the tradition has survived into modern times. People just like the unique sour and salty flavor combination… except Wendy from Fairy Tail. The love of these plums are evidently not universal. Not everyone likes American pickles or olives either, it’s an acquired taste.
More varieties on Onigiri
As there are many varieties of sandwiches, there are many varieties of Onigiri.
Occasionally, for example, you might see an unwrapped Onigiri served on a plate and seasoned with sesame seeds, ground shiso leaf, or the salty “furikake” seasoning made specially for rice dishes. These same seasonings can also be used in wrapped Onigiri. Yes, you should have noticed a pattern by now, there’s salt everywhere. Japanese food might be low on fat, but it’s not low on salt.
There are also some Onigiri made with mixed rice as opposed to just plain white rice. The ones with brown rice are considered to be one of the healthier varieties.
Then we have the Yakinori. This patty of rice is cooked over an open-flame until it’s crispy, then typically coated in sauce. The sauce varies, it can be soy sauce or savory miso butter. [Source: Gurunavi]
It’s literally grilled rice, because you can just do anything with rice.
The final variety is one that goes a step further than merely filling a similar function as a sandwich, it really looks like one! These new hip Onigiri, popularized by the manga Cooking Papa about 25 years ago are also a thing. They are called Onigirazu. [Source: Just One Cookbook]
If you’ve ever traveled in the USA (or any large stretch of land) you will probably notice that different people call the same thing by different names. Every language is guilty of this. Sandwiches are sometimes called “sammiches,” etc, etc.
While people in the south tend to call crawfish by the proper name of crawfish, people in the north may call them crayfish because we just like to be unique. Just as if you say “crayfish” in the south it might take a second or a millisecond for someone to remember that it’s another name for crawfish, pretty much everyone in Japan will know what you are talking about if you say “Onigiri” due to the Onigiri’s popularity and also due to the relatively small size of Japan. You may occasionally however hear other people refer to the Onigiri as an “Omusubi”. “Onigiri” is generally a more popular term in the eastern part of japan, while “Omusubi” can be heard in the western part of Japan.
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Further reading on Japanese food: