Rice Cultivation

  • Peter Barakan

    Host

    Born in London in 1951, Peter earned a degree in Japanese from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). An expert on diverse forms of popular music, Peter is also a well-known TV and radio presenter. He has lived in Japan for 40 years and has a deep understanding of the language and culture.

  • Matt Alt

    Reporter

    Born in Washington D.C. in 1973, Matt's interest in Japan was kindled by robot toys in his childhood. He worked as a translator for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office before co-founding a company that produces English versions of Japanese comics and video games. He also writes extensively about cultural trends including yokai, ninja, emoji, and more.

  • Kenji Sano

    Main guest

    Kenji Sano is a professor at Kanagawa University and specializes in folklore studies. After a college classmate told him about a farmer who had created his own archive of obsolescent folk artifacts, he decided to visit Yonezawa. Fascinated by the intricate links between community and mountain, as well as between villagers and their past, Sano established the Rural Culture Research Institute with people in Yonezawa. Believing that the customs of farming communities represent the wellspring of Japanese culture, Sano continues to chronicle village life. He has also written books on topics relating to the importance of rice fields as well as the changing role of humans.

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June 26, 2018

Rice Cultivation

*You will leave the NHK website.

Rice has been an integral part of life in Japan for over 2,000 years. Traditionally, one alternative name for Japan is mizuho no kuni, or “the Land of Abundant Rice.” As we learn on this edition of Japanology Plus, when society shifted from hunting and gathering to agriculture during the Yayoi period, communities formed around rice paddies to facilitate the cooperation necessary for bringing in a plentiful harvest. This organizational structure laid a foundation for Japanese society, and the effects can still be seen in Japan’s cultural identity and people’s shared beliefs today.

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Samurai used to eat rice and pickled vegetables for a quick breakfast.

The most basic role of rice is to provide sustenance. Host Peter Barakan mentions at the start of the program that if you want to talk about eating a meal, you are by default talking about eating rice. The word gohan means both “cooked rice” and “meal,” indicating just how indispensable rice is to Japanese cuisine. One key concept in Japanese cooking is ichiju sansai, which refers to one soup and three side dishes. These dishes are customarily accompanied by a bowl of rice and a side of seasonal pickles.

Various iterations of ichiju sansai can be seen in all kinds of meals, from restaurant teishoku meal sets and school lunches to the dishes served at traditional Japanese inns. In fact, it’s often thought that a meal isn’t complete without rice, so sometimes even Western-style restaurants will offer patrons the option of swapping out a side of bread for a side of Japanese rice. (It can even be served alongside spaghetti at times, which might be surprising to some readers.) One of the best things about rice is how versatile it is—not only is it delicious when shaped into onigiri or used as a base for toppings, but it can also be transformed into mochi rice cakes, senbei rice crackers, and sake.

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Host Peter Barakan and expert guest Kenji Sato discuss rice’s integral role in Japanese culture and identity.

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Old rice paddies were constructed by hand, so they are much more irregular in shape than modern paddies.

Rice isn’t just important for its culinary uses—it also has intangible value as well. As befitting something with such a long history, rice cultivation is linked to many special Japanese traditions. On the show we witness one such fascinating custom, Aenokoto from Ishikawa Prefecture, but that is far from the only rice-related ritual. In northern Japan, locals perform a dance from the 17th century called Akiu no Taue Odori to pray for a good harvest. In Hiroshima Prefecture, elders instruct the community in Mibu no Hana Taue, a yearly event that celebrates the local rice kami through a ritualized enactment of planting and transplanting rice seedlings. These various practices are so important to connecting Japanese people to their agricultural heritage that they’ve been added to UNESCO’s list of intangible cultural heritages of humanity.

Despite the far-reaching influences of Japan’s rice cultivation traditions, the country’s most beloved crop is in crisis. The average age of Japan’s rice farmers is 70 years old, and as time passes there are fewer people to take over farming duties. On top of that, the amount of rice being consumed per year is dropping due not just to the aging and shrinking of Japan’s population but also changing dietary preferences, so it’s becoming harder for farming families to make a living. All hope is not lost, however—Japan’s farmers are a resourceful group by nature, and they’re not afraid of trying new things.

After searching for a way to revitalize its economy, a village in Aomori Prefecture decided to honor its 2,000 year history of rice cultivation by turning two of its rice fields into tourist attractions. Locals work together each year to create enormous pictures in the paddies out of the growing rice plants. When the new tradition started in 1993, things were kept fairly simple, but as technology has advanced and the number of colored rice plants has increased, more intricate rice paddy art is now possible. Once the rice plants are fully grown, the completed art draws in thousands of tourists each year. Farming communities elsewhere in Japan have followed this village's lead.

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The future of farming? Matt Alt checks out the latest and greatest in rice-planting technology.

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This machine plants rice 40 times faster than a human.

Rice paddy art isn’t the only method aging locals have used to bring in more money for their communities. In some locations, visitors can pay for a chance to harvest rice by hand. Some communities are aiming to forge a more lasting connection between farming villages and city-dwellers by encouraging landowners to rent out their rice paddies to people living in urban centers. Renters partake in supervised farming activities a few times a year, while the landowners do more regular maintenance. Another option is investment into high-tech machinery, such as the rice-planting machine Matt Alt tries out in Plus One, which alleviates the burden on farmers. Going forward, some of Japan’s traditions may change and new ones may be created, but the importance of rice itself seems unlikely to fade.

*You will leave the NHK website.