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excerpt from "on rice, the spark of life"
"...Because when rice first arrived in Japan, it represented a sort of miracle.
I never considered its significance in this way until I was staying with a friend called Samon in rural Akita, the northeast of Japan whence my ancestors hail. He lived with his young family in a hamlet sandwiched between small but steep mountains, a smattering of a dozen farmhouses amid a basin of fields. The sun would rise from behind the mountains at a different angle depending on the time of year, which would determine their work for the day. Samon was from Akita city and had met his wife travelling. They had moved to this hamlet in their early 30s, a courageous decision given they were the first people to 'move in' to the hamlet in anecdotal memory.
One night, Samon asked me to imagine - to really imagine, with the depth of my being, the miracle that rice represented.
It was summer in Akita, and we were cooking outside on a fire, drinking sake with friends in the moonlight, lighting senko hanabi ('incense fireworks') with the children and splitting watermelon from the fields, red juices running sticky down our chins and fingers. Surrounded by dark mountains among these fields inhabited for centuries, folk with whom I must at some point in my lineage share blood, it was easy to embody that resonance of antiquity he encouraged me to imagine.
Japan was a hunter gatherer culture in the prehistoric Jomon era, relying on foods foraged from the forests - acorns, greens, etc - as well as deer, wild boar, and shellfish. Rice was a relatively modern introduction via Korea and China, probably arriving in Kyushu around 1000BC and gradually spreading across the archipelago over the following centuries. Rice was a crop that all they had to do was plant, nurture and harvest, in order to guarantee a food source throughout the whole year. To the indigenous folk of Japan so reliant on the uncertainty of hunting and foraging for their survival, it must have been a sort of existential relief we can't fathom in our modern world.
Farming rice by hand is no joke - the task was traditionally entrusted to women, because it involves a lot of 'low-down' work. It's low enough, though, that no matter how short you are, you still have to bend over double to reach the weeds. It isn't uncommon to see women in their 80s or 90s in Japan with deformed spines for this reason. I had weeded some fields in this traditional fashion, and had found it difficult to stand up straight for a few hours afterwards. I imagined that pain manifold over, and the idea that their sustenance and their family's was dependent on such work, and couldn't fathom anything much more brutal.
And yet that was the easier and more reliable alternative to the precarious existence of hunter-gatherer life. No wonder that rice became an object of worship, worthy of guardianship from the inari gods, to whom a third of all Shinto shrines are dedicated. No wonder that rice became the symbol of life. It became the flow of currency in the Edo era, a means of taxation and synonymous with wealth. And it is prepared as an offering every day to the gods in shrines across the land, in praise and in sacrifice to ensure a successful harvest.
Farming rice also came of course with a need to be aware of and in sync with the cycles of nature. The paddies needed to be filled, and waterways needed to be channeled in collective effort and compromise. Our ancestors needed to know the land, to know the sun, to know how to read the clouds and predict the rains and winds. They kept guard of their crop as they would a child. They understood the interrelation of the land with the heavens, and where they stood in amongst that.
There was a deep stirring in me as I felt this mixture of relief, praise, gratitude, and oddly, guilt - for at the age of 24, this was the first time I had taken a moment to actually imagine the hardship my ancestors had experienced to simply survive. I felt into the strength, courage and determination it must have taken them to do whatever they could do improve the lives of their imagined conceptions, children and grandchildren and their children into infinity. When felt, not just thought, it is difficult not to cry.
This is true of all of us - we all come from lineages as long as the existence of earth itself, and perhaps long before. We all descend from a long line of peoples who did what they had to in order to give Life to their children. Imagine all of the love that involved. All of the grief, all of the joy, all of the pain, running through bodies and bones, all of the stories stored in collective memory, all to create you, existing here, in this fractal shard of space and time."