One day in late April, Kiku the little fox was studying the seasonal almanac given to him by Boss Panda, and wanted to check something with the old bear.

“It seems to say ‘frost ends, seedlings sprout’, but is it referring to a specific plant?’ Boss Panda stood up and beckoned to Kiku to follow him to the blackboard where they often studied. “It means probably the most important plant to the Japanese” said the panda, “the rice plant”.

“Rice is central to Japanese culture, and has been ever since it was introduced from Korea around 3000 years ago. The word for ‘meal’ [ご飯/gohan] in Japanese actually means ‘cooked rice’, and in fact even though consumption is falling as bread and grains become more popular, it still makes up a good proportion of year’s food intake. In the native Shinto religion, rice cakes and sake (alcohol made from rice) are sacred offerings, and the sport of Sumo wrestling originated as an offering to pray for an abundant harvest. There are still various rice festivals and planting rituals around the country. Japan remains self-sufficient in rice, supported by a ban on imported rice (although rice-based products can be imported). Rice farming is subsidised and a higher price is generally paid for rice that is understood to be of high quality.”

“Traditionally, rice seedlings are grown in trays and sprouting around this date, for planting in May in central Japan. Recently, some farmers have been coating rice seeds in iron powder and sowing them directly into paddies via unmanned drones – thus cutting out the entire need to plant on the seedlings.”

Boss Panda then drew the kanji for ‘seedling’ onto the blackboard to show him how the character was made up.

“In Kanji dictionaries, kanji are classified based on their main component, known as a radical. There is only one radical per kanji, and each one has a meaning, which it lends to the kanji of which it is a part. There are 214 classical radicals, and they can be found in one of seven different positions within the kanji. The radical for the seedling kanji is found at the top, and on its own means ‘grass’ (⺾ /kusa) – it is made up of one long horizontal line with two shorter vertical lines through it – they do look a bit like grass coming up through the soil. Other examples of kanji that use this radical at the top are those for ‘leaf’, ‘flower’, ‘tea’ and ‘medicine’ – so you see that this radical can sometimes indicate that the kanji is plant related (or a word that may have the characteristic of a plant, or something growth related). However, it can often be hard to work them out if it isn’t entirely obvious what the origin might have been.”

After the little lesson, the pair made their way to the kitchen to have some hiru-gohan [昼ご飯] (midday meal, but literally meaning midday cooked rice), of steaming rice bowls!