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.


You? Me? Who?

I’m about 90% finished my translation of the kōwakamai 幸若舞 titled Fushimi Tokiwa 伏見常盤. Kōwakamai is a medieval Japanese performance genre that has really been neglected by Western scholars–and Japanese, too! It seems to me that genres like  能 and kabuki 歌舞伎 get all the attention, but my research on kōwakamai has shown me that this genre is just as rich and wonderful as its close relatives  and kabuki.

Kakinomoto no Hitomaro 柿本人麻呂 (660?-724?)

Some scholars may doubt the “literariness” of kōwakamai in favor of other more highly stylized genres, but this is very much a mistake. I’ve found that kōwakamai texts are full of allusions to classical Chinese poetry and philosophy, “ancient” and classical Japanese literature, as well as  reflect the language trends of the time in which they were written (approximately late 14th century until about the early 17th century). Here’s an example.

I came across an allusion in Fushimi Tokiwa to a poem by Kakinomoto no Hitomaro 柿本人麻呂. Hitomaro was a pre-Nara era poet known for his work found in the Manyōshū 万葉集, Hyakunin Isshū 百人一首, and the Shūi wakashū 拾遺和歌集. The allusion I came across was from a waka 和歌 poem included in the Shūi wakashū in the section “Miscellaneous Love Poems” 雑恋. The waka appears in the Shin Nihon koten bungaku taikei 新日本古典文学大系, volume 7 and is waka #1243:

山科の木幡の里に馬はあれ ど徒歩よりぞ来る 君を思へば

Yamashina no Kohata no sato ni uma wa are dokachi yori zo kuru kimi wo omoeba

At first I translated it as:

Imagining you—  Coming to meet me on foot instead of horseback.  A hamlet in Kohata, in Yamashina province.

Kimi means “you” but has connotations of  “dear,” “sweetheart,” etc. At first I interpreted the kuru kimi as though  the sweatheart/lover was coming to the speaker. After discussing it with a colleague, I’ve now changed my version to:

To the village of Kohata, Yamashina—I have arrived on foot rather than on horseback Since I was thinking of you

It’s kind of the same, but my question was WHO is travelling to meet whom? Now, for grammatical reasons that I won’t go into (my 30-minute blog limit is up!) I’ve settled on the idea that it’s the speaker going to see the lover, which makes sense since it is the man going to see the woman, rather than the woman going to see the man. And, before you ask, yes, I guess it could be some man-man action, but I’m not a Hitomaro scholar, so Google it and get back to me~

Although the original waka does not strictly follow the 5-7-5-7-7 syllable pattern, I tried to follow it in my translation.

Also, the reason that the poet did not come on horseback was because he didn’t want anyone to hear the horse’s footsteps! Sneaky.