Horai Senmaida

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When thinking of Japan, many have an image of tall buildings, flashing neon lights, crowded commuter trains, noisy advertizing, and teeming hordes of people – a Shinjuku or Umeda. It is easy to forget that the bright lights of a Shibuya or a Dotonbori are not representative of the vast majority of Tokyo or Osaka. Or even of Nagoya. It is also easy to forget that none of these cities resemble anything like what 90%+ of the rest of Japan looks like.

Japan is mountainous and predominantly rural. For as long as there has been an identifiably “Japanese” society on the archipelago, generations of communities have eeked out their living from farming and forestry. Many of these have been in what were until recently extremely remote valleys, with rich local traditions. Some of these are still very remote, preserving an increasing hard to find but nevertheless rich and interesting folk culture. During the past 20 years, many Japanese people have come to realize that much of the country’s heritage has been lost or endangered, and as a result efforts to record and preserve regional dances, songs, dialects, architecture etc have proceeded apace. In the case of some villages such as Ogimachi in the Shirakawa-go region of Gifu prefecture, or villages such as Tsumago in southern Nagano prefecture, this has been done with considerable success – mainly with an idea to developing the tourism potential of the local economy.

One interesting development in the last 10-15 years, is a new effort to preserve traditional landscapes. The best examples of these new efforts are epitomized by senmaida. The story of senmaida is essentially a story about land. When land was scarce, crop yields lower, agricultural mechanization non-existent and transport costs extremely high in comparison to today, it was not uncommon from time to time to have regional famines in Japan. Domestic transport technology was limited – the rivers were the major highways, and coastal shipping involved small sailing vessels of limited capacity and reliability. Even in the period before the mid-17th century when international trade was allowed, Japanese merchants could not import large quantities of food simply due to transport economics.

For most of the 1000 years leading up to the Meiji Restoration in 1868, Japan was ruled by an aristocratic and then a military caste that imposed a high tax burden, levied and payable in rice, on the agricultual communities of these islands. The pressure imposed by this taxation, plus the fear of a poor harvest, and a gradual growth in population, encouraged farmers to use all of the land suitable for wet rice agriculture under cultivation, and much land that was not. Without access to artificial fertilizers or scientifically developed strains, it was difficult to increase yields per acre. Crops were much more vulnerable to disease, climatic variations and storms than today. If a local crop was badly damaged, it was difficult and expensive to purchase rice from other regions – transport technology and infrastructure throughout Japan was pretty much identical from the Nara through to the Edo periods. For the ruling classes, a famine was an inconvenience. For the samurai, a time of hardship. For the farmers though, food shortages were an unmitigated disaster in which sometimes an entire village simply starved to death. The only way to obtain a reliable and sustainable improvement in food supply was to increase the amount of land suitable for wet rice and other agriculture.

In order to obtain more land, for many generations the “border” between the Japanese communities and those of the indigenous population shifted north through constant conflict until in the late Edo Period the only indigeneous communities remaining were in remote parts of northern Honshu and those of the Ainu in what is now called Hokkaido. The memorial to the famous indigenous chief Aterui at Kiyomizudera temple in Kyoto gives us a reminder of the long period of frontier warfare.

However even territorial expansion provided no solution. Every time the amount of arable land was increased, or land used for cultivating other crops was converted into paddies for wet rice agriculture, population increases soon followed. In most areas of Japan, infanticide was so common as to be unremarked upon. In particular, infanticide took a heavy toll on baby girls. Similarly, during hard times in rural communities throughout Japan it became common to carry an ailing elderly relative into the mountain forests to be abandoned to the cold. Throughout Japan there are place names such as obasuteyama – a constant reminder of the hunger and poverty of the past.

Thoughout the period, food production gradually increased, and in response to population pressure rice production also increased not only in absolute terms but also as a percentage of total agricultural output. Once all of the land suitable for growing rice was utilized, the only remaining option for many small communities was to start creating new fields by converting steep forested hillsides into senmaida.

The kanji characters for senmaida are 千枚田 – literally “one thousand rice paddies”. Senmaida are a feature of remote areas of Japan that used to be common, but are now increasingly rare since so many of them have been abandoned and have reverted to forests, or used for orchards, or for crops less labour intensive than rice. A senmaida landscape is exceptionally beautiful, the first time it comes into view it takes your breath away. You can take good photos, but no photo can ever quite capture the scale, the intricacy, or the rustic charm of an living yet ageless landscape. When looking at these steep hillsides with terraced fields carved out of the gradient through back breaking labor, it is impossible not to think of the thousands of people involved. Each field is fairly small due to the costs imposed by excavating rock and building safe retaining walls. Every paddy field has its own stone retaining walls, built by hand through backbreaking labor. These were designed not only for resisting earthquakes, but for holding waterlogged soil. Due to the steep gradients, the irrigation systems are incredibly complicated. Construction and maintenance of senmaida required the committment of entire communities over generations. When even a small number of farming families left farming due to old age or a move to urban areas, a senmaida complex can quickly become untenable. In such circumstances, the fields were often converted to orchards or vegetable growing plots, or simply left to be reclaimed by the forest. Urbanization and the drift of the population into villages, towns and cities has ensured that many of these painstakingly constructed systems have been abandoned.

Since the end of Edo Period, freedom of movement, the modernization of transport and new opportunities for the young has gradually changed the nature of many of these communities. Modern rice growing is typically capital intensive, employing machinery whenever possible. Traditionally, Japanese rice fields were small and harvested by hand. Even today, while the yields per acre in Japan have increased enormously through the use of scientifically improved strains, fertilizers and pest control measures – cost per ton of production remains significantly higher than the world price. Rice growers in places such as Australia and parts of the USA use lasers to check that fields are level, computers to control water levels and so on. In the years after 1945, entensive land reform in Japan enabled many fields on the rich alluvial flood plains such as those of Okazaki, to be converted into square or rectangular blocks suitable for mechanization. However in the case of the paddy fields of a senmaida, this was simply impossible. As a result, this means that in terms of efficiency, the rice growers working senmaida have serious disadvantages when it comes to mechanizing cultivation.

As with other developed countries, in Japan most rice farmers use machines for preparing fields, planting and harvesting. Farmers working a senmaida use agricultural machinery too, but have higher labor costs relative to the value of the harvested grain as they spend proportionately more of their time preparing the fields by hand for the tractors to enter/exit a paddy than their competitors elsewhere. Similarly, the steep gradient and small paddy size make water management more complicated. In other words, despite the extra hard work required, compared to farmers in the lowlands, the financial return to senmaida based growers is less. This reflects in part the lower yields (paddy fields in senmaida are by definition in mountainous areas and as a result often have few hours of sunlight per year than average) and in part the higher costs imposed by the nature of a remote location. Transport costs are higher, affecting the cost of purchasing everything from diesel to pesticides/herbicides etc and increasing the cost of sales – ensuring that when a senmaida farmer’s rice is sold these higher operating costs reduce net income.

The effect of these combined pressures has been a sharp increase in the average age of senmaida farmers (even more so than the increase in the average age of Japanese rice farmers in general) as the younger members of the communities settle in towns and cities. Schools in Horai have small class sizes, and education is valued – for the young people of senmaida communities, the high disposable incomes of people in nearby Toyohashi, Okazaki and Toyota are a powerful lure. For the residents of this valley, the nearest market town is Shinshiro, though a small village (Ebi) exists about a 15 minute drive away.

Since the end of Edo Period, freedom of movement, the modernization of transport and new opportunities for the young has gradually changed the nature of many of these communities.

A few suggestions, requests and recommendations:

1) Electric fences. Don’t touch them. Those signs say “Danger”, and they say so for a reason.

2) Driving. The roads are very narrow and the shoulders soft. All of the roads are only really wide enough for 1 car or light truck, but they are two-way roads. Drive slowly and use the mirrors, you may need to back up a few times to let cars past. In winter in particular, especially when there is snow or ice, the roads are dangerous due to the grade. You may need snow tires.

3) Privacy. The senmaida is a workplace, and the farmers are busy. They are usually happy to talk if they have a bit of time, but it isn’t a theme park and they aren’t specimens in a zoo. Behave.

4) Sansai (wild vegetables). Please refrain from collecting wild herbs and vegetables. Many Japanese visitors help themselves to the herbs growing between paddy fields, taking them home for use in home cooking. Please understand that the space between paddy fields is private property and the herbs are not for the general public. The only reason why there are so many wild edible herbs growing is because the local farmers harvest them for sale in local shops as sansai. The farmers deliberately clear any weeds they see competing for space with the herbs, and tourists who remove these sansai are inadvertently reducing gross farm income, endangering the viability of the senmaida in the process. There is no real difference between removing or damaging the herbs, and damaging the rice crop itself. Look but don’t touch.

5) Rubbish/Trash. Don’t burn it, don’t leave it – please carry out with you any rubbish/trash. The senmaida is a great site for a picnic, but these small communities can’t really afford the resources for trashcans etc. There is also a safety issue. If you see any discarded cans or bottles please take them with you even if they are not yours. If left on the ground these will soon be hidden by grass and weeds. Grass and weeds growing around the rice paddies in the senmaida are trimmed using portable hand held power tools – a sort of heavy duty “whipper snipper” or “weed whacker” – using circular steel blades. If the blade of these tools catches a discarded can or bottle it can result in serious injuries. The people trimming the weeds are not council workers but the members of the community, often old men. Apart from personal injury, the absence of scarce labor due to injury, as well as gradually increasing insurance risks can affect the overall viability of the senmaida.

Disclaimer and Request:

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