Rice Planting: Then & Now

Recently (“in recent years” is probably more accurate) I’ve been working on a piece of Muromachi-era fiction called Fushimi Tokiwa. In it, the protagonist/heroine Tokiwa gets snowed-in a small town called Fushimi and is unable to leave until spring comes. During that time a group of village girls entertain her by singing tauta 田歌, rice planting songs.


There are five village girls, each representing a different region of Japan. Before singing they explain that they are not from the same town, so they can not sing the same song together. They also explain that while they (the women of the village) plant rice the men of the village accompany them by playing music.

As I drive around the outskirts of Akita these days, I can’t hep but see the stark contrast between rice farming then and now. That is of course if one is to believe the portrayal in the tale is at all accurate.

Separation of the Sexes…

First, I observed mostly MEN doing the field work–not young women, or even “women” as is in the tale. Let me qualify this: these days planting is mostly done by machine. I did not (or to my recollection ever) see a women driving one of these planting tractors. I did however see individual women planting little sections of rice by hand once in a while.

This is opposite of what is depicted in Fushimi Tokiwa, leading me to the conclusion that women played a more active role in the labor-intensive rice planting in premodern Japan than they do now.

Whistle while you work…

Second, the most glaring difference is that no music accompanies modern day rice planting! What a shame! In Fushimi Tokiwa the women say that male musicians accompany them while they sing and plant. It does not specify which instruments they play, but the kanji characters indicate that it was probably flute (a side-blown flute, not like a recorder) and probably some type of small drums.

These days they could at least have speakers blasting prerecorded music, just to keep some remnant of the tradition alive.

An important thing to point out is that these rice planting songs were probably very local and connected with the local kami (native spirit/spirits) associated with the land. Therefore as local regions stop passing down their songs from generation to generation they become lost. The kami become silent and forgotten.

It takes a village…

The third obvious difference is that since the industrial revolution, rice planting does not require a large number of people any more–it’s not a community effort. Now one guy on a tractor can do acres of planting with minimum support from others.


A bit of editorializing: Quite often, people I meet tell me about how globalization is a threat to “the Japanese way.” But in the case of perpetuating the tauta field song tradition, that was something very much in their power to keep alive, they just chose not to do so. It’s not like American “planting songs” (are there any?!) have come in and taken over Japanese ones–they just quit it all together.


For more beautiful photos of Akita, visit https://500px.com/alanbessette.


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