The holidays are a time to celebrate tradition with friends and family. For some Japanese American families, the traditional art of pounding rice is a staple for the new year. This prominent Japanese tradition involves pounding in the New Year with fresh mochi, rice smashed into a gooey paste and molded into round cakes, then eaten for good luck.
One Detroit Senior Producer Bill Kubota visits a traditional Japanese New Year’s celebration at a metro Detroit community center where the Japanese American Citizens League of Detroit hosts its second annual mochitsuki party to learn about how the art of pounding rice is being replicated and kept alive.
Toshiki Masaki, Japanese American Citizens League: And then we’ll be making another round of mochi so just pace yourself, okay?
Christy McDonald, One Detroit, DPTV: A community center in Madison Heights. This is a Japanese Mochitsuki New Year celebration, Detroit-style.
Mochitsuki Participant: Put on some gloves and roll…
Christy McDonald: Members of the Japanese American Citizens League are making and eating mochi made from a gooey rice paste.
Henry Tanaka, Japanese American Citizens League: We created a lot of different ways to have it. We have it— the way I grew up eating it was with shoyu and sugar.
Christy McDonald: Shoyu. That’s soy sauce.
Henry Tanaka: And I have a frying pan, actually. So, if you want to fry some. We have kinako, the soybean flour with sugar and a little salt, and you roll it in there.
Toshiki Masaki: One thing I remember is because it stretches if you pull it and I think it has something to do with the longevity of your life, but my memory is kind of fuzzy, so…
Christy McDonald: Mochitsuki goes back a thousand years. In Japan, the celebration can go all day. The rice cakes take center stage to music and activities for the kids.
Toshiki Masaki: The rice harvest is in the fall, and the celebration of New Year’s is a big deal. So I think that’s kind of been added to it too.
Bill Kubota, One Detroit, DPTV: But is it good?
Margaret Hirozawa, Japanese American Citizens League: Very good. I’m very fond of mochi.
Christy McDonald: Like lutefisk in Sweden or the fruitcakes of the Western world, mochi returns every holiday season. Some love it, some don’t.
Mochitsuki Participant: Can you make this size of mochi? Oh yeah. Can you grab that end?
Christy McDonald: But with mochi, it’s not just the texture, but the danger. A choking hazard if you’re not careful.
Mary Kamidoi, Japanese American Citizens League: If you eat it, chew it good.
Margaret Hirozawa: Beg pardon?
Mary Kamidoi: Chew it good.
Margaret Hirozawa: Oh chew it good, huh? I’ve never had it like this before this. This is all new to me
Mary Kamidoi: Oh, why don’t you have it in the soup?
Henry Tanaka: Well, this is ozoni. This is the New Year’s soup that…and it has a lot of— it has carrots and tofu and fish cake and lotus root.
Christy McDonald: The mochi sits in the bowl like a matzo ball. This is just the second year the Citizens League has held Mochitsuki in Detroit, even though the group has been here more than 70 years.
Toshiki Masaki: It started out as a support group of obviously Japanese Americans, and it turned into more of a civil rights focused organization. And we have chapters everywhere, including obviously here in Detroit. The Detroit chapter started when a lot of people who came out of camp relocated to Detroit and at its peak, I understand there were about 400 members.
Christy McDonald: Mary Kamidoi was born in California, held in an internment camp in Arkansas during World War II. She’s long retired from Ford Motor Company but remembers Mochitsuki as a child.
Mary Kamidoi: All the time that we were making mochi, the kids just played around with it. Our parents made it every year and had friends come over, and so, you know, and I’m one of these— I didn’t eat it. I didn’t like it. So I crabbed every time we were molding the thing. ‘Ma, I don’t even eat the thing. Why do I have to come home and do this?’ She said ‘Mary, just keep molding it.’
Christy McDonald: Molding mochi, that’s the easy part. You need people to pound the rice, swinging a big mallet over and over again.
Mary Kamidoi: For you to pound, that’s a job. It’s like my dad used to say, ‘If you don’t pound right, you will hurt your back.’ And then the one that had to turn it. If you don’t time it right, the mallet will come down on your hand or your head.
Christy McDonald: Technology to the rescue, the mochi-making machine. Mary’s brother-in-law found one in Los Angeles.
Mary Kamidoi: He brought it home and my sister said, ‘Come on over, you got to see this machine, Mary. It’s really funny.’
Toshiki Masaki: This one just works automatically, it steams and when it’s ready, the pounding starts. The other two, you have to push the button.
Mary Kamidoi: I’ve always been saying, I would say it to my mom, ‘Why is it Japan hasn’t made a machine, so that the mochi comes out in like this, you know, out of it and it cuts off at a certain…’ ‘Mary, then there’d be no fun to this.’ Because see these machines, the way they’re cutting it? It’s a mess.
Bill Kubota: You like to eat it now though, huh?
Mary Kamidoi: Not really. I will eat one or two, but that’s it. Not because I like it so well. I just eat it because it’s just custom.
Woman: What are you going to do with that buddy?
Mary Kamidoi: You know, after a while when you don’t have it, you sort of miss it.
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