JAPANESE RICE CULTURE
The Misunderstood Philosophy of the Agrarian Past
by Nold Egenter
Rice culture? Do we mean culture, or merely cultivation? Rice, once a luxury for the
few, is today Japan's staple food, the daily source of energy for over a hundred
million people. The rice economy has become important. But because rice in Japan
was long the mark of fine living, it has developed an aesthetic aura. Rice as an expression
of refined eating habits? The definition would be too narrow.
Those who venerate the arts of the steaming dish often forget that rice is also a
plant. It has to be tended and cared for, which to the farmer means toil and travail.
Yet here again there is an element of culture, embodied this time in coarse cloths,
simple tools, unadorned vessels, such as are exhibited in the Museum of Japanese Folk
Art (Nihon Mingeikan) in Tokyo. Many people find these things beautiful because they
stand for the plain, genuine values of a peasant culture.
The rice plant also produces green foliage which, when dry, becomes straw, Japanese
Once again, this time perhaps unexpectedIy, we stumble over a culture: a material
culture that is now being explored in Japan and is known as wara no bunka,
straw culture. A two-volume study by Kiyoshi Miyazaki, financed by the Toyota Foundation
and published in 1985 under the title of Wara
by the Hosei University Press, is a comprehensive account of the historical, technical,
human and territorial aspects of this highly complex culture. The blurb states: "Linked
to the cultivation of rice which has a history reaching back over two thousand years, there is a straw culture which has deeply influenced Japanese homes, food
and clothing from the earliest times and has permeated the whole of Japanese life.
One can therefore regard straw culture as the original form of Japanese culture in
general." The material presented is convincing. This is surely a turningpoint in the history
of Japanese culture! Miyazaki has discovered a new material culture in his own country,
one that has hitherto escaped archaeologists because of the short-Iived nature of its products. The study shows impressively how the traditionaI Japanese village-society,
particularly in the wintry north, remained eoonomically independent by making very
many things itself, hats, clothes, utensils, etc. But this was not restricted to
practical things. Anyone who wishes to explore the immense wealth of plastic forms
in Japan's ritual straw art should inspect the fine collection in the Ethnological
Museum of Suita near Osaka. Predominant features are designs using thick and thin
ropes, decorated with fruit and foliage and mostly bearing the sacred paper sign of Shinto.
They take the form of masks, human figures, snakes, horses and many other things.
They were of the greatest importance as cultic and ritual objects in village Shinto.
Rice was, then, traditionally more than a food. It also had its extensive and doubtless
very old material culture. Its objects still speak to us, telling us of an age-old
world of practical beauty. This culture as a whole is vividly illustrated by a "Pictorial Follklore Report" (Nihon Minzoku Zuroku, 1957) compiled by Kunio Yanagita.
It deals with Japan's traditional peasant world and would long ago have justified
a Western edition. For it not only presents this culture in numerous nostalgic
photographs from before and just after the Second World War, but reminds us how far Japan
has moved away from this "rice culture" in more recent years.
Japanese rice production also has to do with culture in a quite different sense,
cultivation this time being closely interwoven with a cult. In fact, in traditional
rice cultivation the rice is not simply produced. Its whole cycle is instead treated
as a cultic happening. If this aspect is not considered as culture, it is only because
it has turned into a matter of religion. And because of its theological approach,
this religion has no appreciation of the concrete facts of farming. It sets out
from the spiritual conceptions of belief and primitivizes the cultural content by measuring
it against the abstractive powers of the mind. It consequently works only with ideas,
such as the "rice soul", and presents the cultural content as a hierarchy of values
ranging from the established cults of the divinities of Shinto to those of the divinities
of popular belief, and ending with peasant festivals and annual customs that have
very little to do with religion. Those who have studied the customs at close quarters and have investi- gated their spatial and temporal structures must realize that such
primitivization can only be caricature. In reality a rich culture comes to light,
and one that has its own philosophy of life. It is concerned with safeguarding the
farmer's existence in space and time. This "agrarian philosophy" is worth a closer look.
Time as a Cycle
The Japanese rice village thinks in cycles. Since our own way of thinking is based
on documented history and a linear process of change, we often have difficulty in
grasping cyclic thought. For the Japanese it legitimates the here and now. In this
sense the importance of a past event, of a beginning, is preserved in rites and festivals
Otherwise it is the seasonal changes that predominate in the calendar of festivals,
in which all ritual actions - always the same as in the past - are repeated again
and again. From this system a central principle emerges: in cyclic time every new
beginning merges with the past beginning. The then and the now are one, and always new. Without
this knowledge it is impossible to understand the meaning of the Japanese farmer's
New Year, in which the house is symbolically created anew with the sign of the past, the ritual rope (shimenawa).
The knowledge, also explains why new fire is kindled in many places at New Year, new
rice is cooked, new water is drunk on New Year's morning (wakamizu),
people go solemnly to the shrine, for the first time (hatsumôde),
for the first time into the fields (wazahajime)
to celebrate the first work there (kuwahachime, nôdate),
reoccupying the field and even symbolically planting rice straw in the snow for
the first time (niwa-taue).
A less fragmentary expression of the past in the present is to be found in the widely
preserved New Year huts (sagichô, dondongoya, etc.)
in which today it is mostly the children who spend the little New Year with the sign
of the boundary god (sai no kami).
All this very local emergence of the past in the present intrigues us today and provides
food for thought.
The year with all its festivals is divided into the cold and the warm season. The
rice rituals proper belong to the warm season, between two climaxes: the spring and
the autumn festivals (harumatsuri, akimatsuri).
The rice cycle comprises five main phases: Sowing, planting out, growth, maturity,
harvest. We shall retum to them.
The Polar Space
The space of the Japanese agrarian village is not homogeneous. The divisions of the
village as can be recognized in the ritual, are differently valued. The house is
a temple between the fields and the woods. The fields stand for the work of cultivation,
the woods are untamed nature. Consequently the ritual sign of the divinity of the fields
is brought in spring from the woods into the house, offerings are made to it, meals
shared with it, after which it is taken into the fields to protect them. After the
harvest it is carried back to the house, is shown hospitality there, and is then taken
into the woods. The fields are thus unprotected in winter, they are given back to
nature. These ancient customs with their polar patterns are not meaningless, but
are part of a philosophy of harmony between opposites. The ritual signs are not sacred in
the theological sense, they are simply the nucleus of the system.
In the light of these facts, Japan's traditional rice customs are much easier to understand.
The polar pattern of the cult of the field-and-forest god (ta no kami - yama no kami,
is the wooded slope above the village, so that the interpretation of "mountain god"
would be wrong) provides the basic pattern and the framework for the whole calendar
of festivals of the rice year (inasaku-girei).
The polar deity of the woods and the fields (yama no kami / ta no kami)
is brought to the correlated farmhouse, is set up in the cult niche (tokonoma)
and becomes the centre of the corresponding festival. The cult is clearly related
to the territorial organisation of the settlement and tells us how territorial law
was cultically practiced in preshistorical conditions.
The spring festivals open with the rite of the field god we have just mentioned. His
name differs from region to region (nôgami, sakugami, tsukurigami,
etc.), but the rite is basically the same. The sign of the forest god, today usually
a carved stone figure, is brought into the house, where it becomes the centre of
the rite and changes its name. The forest god becomes the field god. When the field
god is in the field, this bicomes part of the human domain, the land is temporarily assimilated.
The seedbeds are prepared in early May. The water inlet is decorated (or territorially
occupied) with flowers or symbols (minaguchi-matsuri)
The seedbed is then prepared. A sign, an altar or a ritual mark is set up at the water
inlet to the field, rice and rice wine are sacrificed (minakuchi-matsuri).
Water, the life of the heavens and the mountains, flows like breath through the
'mouth' into the rice field, inspires growth, so that the grain germinates.
gives the rice more room, the seedlings are distributed over all the fields. In
many places big festivals accompany the planting-out (ta-asobi),
and Shinto priests consecrate the seedlings before a temporary field altar. Women
in festive clothing move in rows, setting the holy plants in the mud. Male groups
celebrate the event with drums and bells. Yet this custom, mostly regarded as a fertility rite, probably does not go back to furthest antiquity, but developed when the field
organization was centralized. In the course of the Taika reform (645), when private
land became state property, under the Rit- suryo legislation, tax-free fields (mitoshiro-da, shinden, ubusunada, etc.)
were allocated to the historic shrines. They were considered as "fields in the possession
of the divinity" and were jointly cultivated by local cultic groups (e.g. toya)
. The rice grown on them was used for offerings.
Widely practised methods of driving off insects (mushi-okuri)
that today appear grotesque have no doubt helped to discredit the customs of the
rice-growers in modern eyes. The pests were symbolically caught with straw dolls,
often figures of horsemen attached to poles, and were expelled from the village in
processions accompanied by music and smoking rush torches. Today such actions are at best
qualifed to amuse. But that is because we no longer understand their original function.
Initially there were no doubt signs that protected the growth of the rice and that
later were given the form of effigies. They were replaced before the rice reached maturity,
as at this stage it was guarded by a scarecrow (o-kakashi).
This too may still occasionally appear in its original form of a ritual protection
sign which was only later turned into figure. The custom of offering rice and rice-wine
to the scarecrow has also survived in some instances. Superficial observers only
see a farmer sacrificing to a straw doll.
In many places the first ears are brought in before the harvest proper. In the village
of Uken on Amamioshima the head of the family goes into the fields early on a day
in July known as inetusu-kure
makes a sacrifice to his ancestors and the field god, and pulls out three plants
with fine ears, much as he must have done when people lived by hunting and gathering.
He takes them home ant lays them on the ritual board (kamidana)
. The family then eats a simple but solemn meal together. Every member of the household
is given a few grains and tastes them reverently. "The rice has come well again this
year," people say.
Many ancient customs (kariage)
are also connected with the cutting of the rice (ine kari).
While the plants are usually cut at the roots (nekari),
the cutting of the ears (hokari)
has survived in many harvest rites. It goes back to the times when the people were
gatherers rather than cultivators. A special bundle of ears is prepared (ina kazu)
to be kept for the New Year and sacrificed to the year god (toshi-gami)
or the field god (ta no kami).
Elsewhere special attention is paid to the last sheaf, for instance in a few villages
west of the country town of Tsuyama in Okayama Prefecture. Three rooted sheaves are
bound together before the harvest to form a small hut (karigomesan),
thanks are rendered for the harvest before the sign, and the reaping of the last
field is then commenced. Finally the three sheaves are untied and cut, to be taken
home separately and placed on the ritual board. They are thought to protect the seed
rice for the following year. At the end of the rice cycle the field god is again carried
home from the fields and placed into the ritual alcove. He is celebrated there,
and various special dishes are prepared in his honour. White rice cakes (o-mochi)
are then made, to be sacrificed and eaten at a festive meal. Finally the field god
is carried back into the woods for the winter and during the cold season is called
the forest god.
Some Closing Thoughts
Anyone who takes these peasant customs as a serious source of information and tries
to understand them in their existential aspects and in their intensive use of signs
will soon begin to see the seemingly unreasoned procedures as traditional remnants
of a prehistoric field organization. The rice farmers who came to the islands in
the Yayoi era did not live in a vacuum. The early history of Japan and the establishment of
the Yamato state clearly reveal the clashes that took place with other ethnic groups.
The Japanese islands at that time comprised many countries and many peoples, as
is still the case with parts of the Indonesian archipelago. The various settlers defined
their boundaries and accepted certain ordering principles so as to be able to live
side by side. The rice rituals have retained some vestiges of these orders.
Historically speaking, it is clear that the centralization that began with the founding
of the Yamato state changed these traditonal field orders. Since the fields the peasants
cultivated (harita, kakitsuta
originally likewise agata)
were now regionally surveyed, taxed and given military protection by the officals
of the provincial governments (Miyatsuko),
the old ritual order lost its purpose, if not its meaning. It was integrated in
the central Shinto faith and was - under Chinese influence - theologically interpreted.
We are justified to talking of a rice culture by the philosophical basis of this environmental
structure. Its landmarks are concrete: path and place, gateway and house, field and
woods, water and soil, mountain and river. It does not plunder nature, but makes only temporary use of parts of it. Man is a guest who receives gifts from nature,
and gives some of his own possessions reverently in return. That is no doubt the
deeper meaning of the numerous rites and sacrifices of rice and rice wine. They are
the modest expression of a local attitude to life which seeks, by harmonizing the opposites
of nature and culture, to create the prerequisites of human and humane existence.
At the festival of the old mid-August (jugoya)
in Chiran-cho, Kagoshima, a straw and reed hut is built for the gods in the village
square. Young men in hut like costumes dance around it.