For the Japanese, rice farming is more than just agriculture; it is the essence of culture, community and indeed life itself.
It is hard to exaggerate the reverence Japanese have for rice farming. Organized rice cultivation in Japan began about 2,000 years ago, during the iron-age “Yayoi” period. Since then, it has permeated every aspect of Japanese culture and daily life.
Of course, the rice plant has many practical uses; it is hard to think of a Japanese dish without cooked rice. But this is only where the story begins.
The core of tatami mats is made of multilayered rice straw (“wara”) which is also hand-woven to make rope, stylish fabrics, baskets and practical sandals (“waraji”).
The Japanese word for cooked rice (“gohan”) is synonymous with the word for meal. When lunch is ready, mother’s emphatically announce it to their children by calling out “gohan desuyo!” Similarly, friends commonly ask each other “gohan mo tabeta?” to inquire if he/she has already had a meal.
However, and perhaps even more importantly, Japanese consider rice farming as a central pillar of their communities — living and working together in harmony, caring for the land and being grateful to the heavens for its gifts.
The Japanese character for rice paddy is “ta”. It is a simple yet stylish character which depicts a group of neatly organized rice paddies.
It is not hard to imagine that the kanji for “ta” — like the ideals of a Japanese rice paddy — represents planning, sharing communal resources, fairness and equality.
Otaue Matsuri (rice planting festival)
Rice planting normally gets underway throughout Japan in the month of May. This is the time for lively ritual rice planting festivals (“Otaue Matsuri”) in countless town and villages.
Performing the Otaue rituals is also an important imperial event. For over two thousand years, almost every one of 125 Japanese emperors have performed it publicly.
There is a small rice paddy on the imperial palace grounds in Tokyo, which is tended to personally by the current emperor himself.
Pictures below are from this year’s (2017) Otaue Matsuri in the magnificent Miyazaki shrine in our town, with a rich history going back to when it was erected in the year 1197 AD.
After ritual purification, planting gets underway by participants dressed in colorful traditional outfits donning rice-straw hats. They wade into the mud singing in unison and begin to plant the seedlings. They continue to sing as they plant, until the entire paddy is covered with bright-green plantings.
How do you put a price on a nation’s soul?
In this age of globalism, Japan is under heavy pressure to open its domestic rice market to foreign imports. Global agribusiness lobbies claim buying their rice is a good bargain since it means lower prices for Japanese consumers.
Rice farming is an integral weave in the tapestry of Japanese cultural identity. There are thousands of haiku poems about rice. The kanji for rice paddy (“ta”) is common in people’s surnames (such as Tanaka, Fujita, …) In short, it’s in the nation’s collective DNA.
Multinational corporations produce rice for making a profit. But the price they ask for is not just in dollars or yens; it includes a piece of the nation’s soul.
Should everything be for sale?