Rice does not only have an important place at the dinner table (and at breakfast, and in the lunch box), but it is deeply engrained in Japanese culture at large. For centuries the communal management of rice paddies and prioritization of rice for agricultural land use are good starting points–back when a larger percentage of the population was made up of farmers, most people forged cooperation in their communities to make the most of natural resources, which likely contributed to the group-oriented spirit of cooperation still found today in other sectors. Since different paddies often shared the same water system, neighbors coordinated their planting efforts, often planting on the same day, so it’s easy to see how this labor-intensive activity would grow into a big happy get-together.

Sure, agricultural cooperation is important in several cultures, but rice has political and religious weight in Japan as well (before TPP and the like even became an issue). The emperor is often thought of as harvest deity, and back in the four-tiered class system of the Edo era, farmers were honored with the second highest rung on the social ladder (though that wasn’t reflected in riches) because of their valuable service in producing sustenance for the population. The samurai class was on top (but again, riches didn’t always reflect this), and according to their rank, they were paid in rice as opposed to cash.

Speaking of samurai and farmers, remember the scene at the end of the Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai when Shino and the other village ladies are all dressed up and singing in the mud? Sure, it’s great to celebrate that they were no longer terrorized by bandits so they could plant their rice in peace, but the song is not in celebration. That song is to entertain, and thereby invigorate the rice!

Every so often you hear people say not to waste rice, because seven lucky gods (or more) rest on each grain. Maybe the custom isn’t that specific, but there is some idea that there are deities lurking inside the young rice seedlings, and that entertaining them with song brings out their full potential. There are countless Shinto customs associated with rice (“rice” is almost interchangeable in anything having to do with “harvest”), so it’s not unsurprising that the planting of the rice is a pretty big deal. Since traditionally the whole neighborhood gathered and helped out, it’s a pretty festive deal, too.

Today, there are not as many farmers by profession, and therefore not as many villages centering their social lives on a common crop, but people still eat rice–lots and lots of rice–and the rituals go on, such as the festive Otaue (paddy-planting) ritual–in some places, such as Iruma, this is known by the more flowery title Hanataue.

However, to make them festive, sometimes you have to bring in a little outside amateur help. That’s where I got to come in!

Last year I joined a fellow CIR and an ALT, as well as some visiting students from Tokyo and a large group of Chinese women, in the Iruma neighborhood on the mountainous outskirts of Unnan. We, as well as a handful of local young women, were playing the role of the Saotome (the young maidens) who perform back-bending labor while the young men stand around in frilly pink hats singing songs with the little kids. However, the people who do the most work are probably the old men having to fix all of our poorly planted seedlings behind us! It takes even more people than that to actualize this annual event, and on that note, I’d like to extend a huge thank-you to Matthew McDonough for all these great photos!! Thank you, Matthew!

The event started with the musical procession up to the rice paddy, and the Shinto priest’s ceremony to pray for a successful harvest.

There had been one practice for the event beforehand, with the men and children practicing their rhythmic song and the ladies practicing working in unison. We had this sort of game plan to work with:

This is the one photo on this entry that I took, seeing as I was sort of preoccupied. Everything else is credit to Matthew McDonough.

However, while the men and children all looked and sounded great, chanting to the beat of bamboo continually struck by the lead chanter…

…I can’t say we ladies started out quite as coordinated.

We didn’t have as many words to learn ourselves, but there were a couple parts of the song when the lead chanter would sing (in thick, thick Izumo dialect): “How about giving your backs a break?” and we would respond (likewise in Izumo dialect), “Sounds good to me!” After a brief stretch, he’d continue and we’d put our backs back into it. As we went on, I think we all got a lot better at coordinating our movements.

For everyone one of the Saotome, I wouldn’t be surprised if there were at least two retirees with fancy cameras.

After finishing one half of the paddy, we went back for another dip to plant the other half, and the old men kept the rice seedlings coming.

When the planting and singing was finished, we Saotome washed the mud off in the mountain stream nearby, which I’m sure would have been much more quaint and picturesque if it weren’t so crowded with photographers asking us to look their way. It seems there is a big photo contest every year for the event, and I can imagine the competition is pretty stiff! After they all go home, however, the core group who organized the event, as well as all the singers and planters and re-planters who took part, all cleaned up, changed, and gathered for a little feast. Before going home, we were given rice from that paddy which had been planted in the previous year’s Hanataue ritual. I hope the rice I planted last year will prove to be just as tasty! Grow up big and strong this year, too, little seedlings!