The air is crisp, the leaves are falling, and the terraces are peaking with full crops of rice plants in picture-perfect patterns waiting to be picked, just as they have been for centuries. It’s harvest season in Japan, but a lot has changed over the years.
The number of rice-producing households in Japan has decreased, and the price of the grain has increased. Industrialized production has become the norm. At the same time, according to “The Rice Demand System in Japan,” by Masahiko Gemma, of Waseda University, “changes in Japanese dietary life have been observed for the past three decades as the economic growth has made the improvement in standard of living possible. Rice consumption per capita has been declining since 1962.” The trend has held steady, and Japanese rice production, purchase, and amount consumed in households has decreased by every measure in the last 50 years.
But there are still families holding onto the old ways of the rice harvest.
I recently took part in a traditional rice harvest.
Maki Hamanaga invited me to help her family gather rice—a once a year event that involves the entire Hamanaga clan. Maki, who lives in Hiroshima City, her aging parents, and her brother Yuma, who lives outside of Kyoto, travel out to the mountainous countryside town of Kurosecho in Hiroshima Prefecture to join their uncle and take part in the harvest. Even their grandmother participates.
The Hamanaga family has been rooted in Kurosecho for the past 60 years. But the land they cultivate has been producing rice for the past 400 years.
In the spring, the rice fields were flooded, and the crops were planted on the limited space of their terraced hillsides. They have maintained their rice fields harvesting in the traditional Hazekake or rice-hanging style: The rice plants, after being cut into bundles, are hung over bamboo pole racks and left out to dry. After a few months, they are ready for sale, cooking, and the new years tradition called mochitsuki, or the pounding of the fine grain into sweet chewy rice cakes.
On the day I arrived, in mid-October, the crops were finally ready to be picked. Maki’s father Yukio used a mechanical rice reaper and bundler on their field while her brother and I set up the bamboo racks. Then we trenched through the muddy ground and hung each bundle one by one in two layers.
How has the land been producing high yields for over 400 years? Her father told me, “After the rice is dried and cleaned we turn over the field, and the remains of the plants decompose over it. Their compost keeps the land fertile.”
The traditional harvest was an exciting new cultural experience for me, but I wondered how long it would last. In Japan the population is aging. More over countryside regions are facing population declines as the younger generations move to the big cities like Tokyo and Osaka. I asked Maki, “what will your parents do when they get too old to continue farming?”
She gave me a shrug, and said she assumes that her brother would have to move home one day if he wants to continue the business. The future of her family’s tradition, much like the future of the country’s traditional diet, remains uncertain.
Ari Beser is a Fulbright National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellow in Japan, focusing on the human impact of nuclear technology. Find him on Twitter @aribeser.