Blog Post

Let’s Talk: About Musubi (Japanese rice balls)

Photo of Rev. Dr. Diane Weibleby Conference Minister Diane Weible

I told this story a number of years ago and am sharing it again because I was reminded of it during a lunch with a friend and it really is relevant for these days.

When we ended our work as mission co-workers in Japan and moved to Hawai’i, my husband was serving a predominantly Japanese-American Church on O’ahu. Our first Easter at the church included breakfast and that breakfast included rice. After breakfast and before worship, as I walked by the kitchen, I saw a number of women standing around a table forming musubi with the leftover rice, preparing for the after-worship snack time. I had spent many hours when we lived in Japan shaping rice balls for after worship meals and since I considered myself a very experienced musubi-shaper, I jumped in to help.

As we talked and laughed and worked, I suddenly realized the women were staring at me. I looked up and said, “What is wrong?” “Oh, nothing,” came the reply. But they kept watching me. Finally, I said, “Please tell me what I’m doing wrong.” And they did.

They told me that the perfectly round-shaped musubi I was making, while beautiful, were only made for funerals. I’m pretty sure my jaw dropped to the floor even as I noticed the musubi they were making were all triangle-shaped. I explained that I always had trouble getting the triangle-shape so have been making them round for years.

As soon as I got home, I emailed my friend in Japan and said, “Have I been insulting you all this time?” She laughed and assured me that round musubi for a funeral is an old Japanese custom that no longer is followed in Japan and I didn’t do anything wrong, at least not while I lived in Japan.

I realized then that the members of our church, second- and third-generation Japanese Americans, were following customs their parents had brought over from Japan that they carried with them from a particular date in time when they left their home country. For them, in many ways, time stood still.

In addition to hearing this story through the lens of always being willing to see things differently as times and customs change, in my conversation with my friend, I saw this story through another lens as well.

We make assumptions about the world around us based on the evidence we have—our experiences, what we see, what we hear and what we have been taught. Sometimes, the very people who have influenced those assumptions come to a different understanding because of new experiences and new insights into the world the way it is or, even, just because it is a different day and time. If we assume they have not changed and will always be and believe exactly the way we were at one particular time, we lose the flexibility that is needed for change and growth.

Another friend from that same church in Hawai’I used to tell me to make sure I was living as a “Willow Tree,” always moving with the wind and being ready to be pushed around a little as needed but never allowing the breeze to knock me over. She said if I stand straight and tall and refuse to move, I am much more in danger of being toppled then if I learn to move as the situation requires.

What are the assumptions you carry about the world based on something someone told you a long time ago?

What are the beliefs that you are afraid to let go of out of fear of being toppled over?

What are the musubi shapes in your life that at one time were impossible to envision but now, maybe, there is room to explore?

When we say that God is still speaking we are making a statement about God’s voice not being limited to the writings of the Bible or to one particular historical time period but to acknowledge that God and God’s voice continues to be present in a changing world. And, the same goes for our own stories and lives—the way God is still speaking to us. The question to ponder is, what are we hearing? May you celebrate the musubi shape in your life this day.


  • Nancy McKay

    Ah, body language speaks and you listened. The physical matters even in metaphor. This story is a teaching on many levels. Thank you.

  • John M. Derby, Sr.

    Spam musubi in Hawaii are rectangular in shape and size like the can the spam comes in. Since Spam didn’t require refrigeration, it was the only availabe meat in Hawaii during World War II. Today, Hawaiians consume seven million cans each year, according to Hormel Foods Corporation, which produces Spam. Spam musubi is a popular snack on the golf course that I miss here in California.

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