Rice has traditionally been the main-stay of the Japanese diet. Until the most recent times, many people ate only rice, vegetables and pickles with an occasional piece of fish, chicken or other meat. Since rice provided most of the calories and a good portion of the vitamins and protein required for sustenance, successful cultivation has been a major concern throughout Japanese history. Like the potato, rice can been a rich food although since most people now eat the polished grain, they miss most of the food value; the hull (or skin in the case of the potato) is the most nutritious part.
Rice can be grown in many ways. Some varieties demand little water, but others require
irrigation. Some require extensive application of fertilizer and others require little.
Some are very labor-intensive, but others can be left to themselves much of the time. Most varieties require some protection against birds, insects and rodents. The highest yield per unit of land, however, is seen with rice varieties which require irrigation, large amounts of fertilizer, a great deal of labor, plus protection against predators, especially insects. Lessen any of these inputs and the crop will be reduced.
In traditional times, the main variables to a successful rice crop were labor, fertilizer and irrigation. Good weather is, of course, assumed since even good government could do little against bad weather. The variety of the rice was also important; the right strain for the local conditions produced larger crops. Much of the business of government was to ensure conditions which permitted generous application of the other three variables.
Irrigated rice farming follows a cycle which is as unchanging as any in the
agricultural world. The land must be prepared. This involves building a system of fields on a gradually descending slope with walls around the fields so that water can be controlled and guided to the fields at the appropriate moment. The construction of such a system is a major task requiring huge amounts of capital and labor. Assuming that the land is properly molded, each spring it must be ploughed and irrigated to receive rice plants.
The rice plants have previously been carefully raised in beds which receive special attention to ensure a high degree of germination and quick growth in the first few weeks. The plants are then transplanted into rice paddies with regular spacing which allows each plant to grow quickly to its maximum potential. Fertilizer and water are applied at regular intervals and weeding must be done. In the autumn, water is drained from the field which dries out as the plant ripens. The rice is then cut and hung to dry until the grains are stripped from the stalks.
The stalks are used for a wide variety of purposes ranging from rain-proof cloaks and
sandals to fuels, roofs and floor coverings; some of these uses have, of course, given way to modern devices, like shoes. The rice is further processed: the grains and chaff must be separated and then the rice is usually polished to remove the hard case from the softer, white grain. With the case go the major part of the nutrients which rice contains. In traditional times, poor
people ate the casing as well as the white kernel and benefited more than did rich people who preferred the more delicate white rice. When rice was too expensive, it was mixed with cheaper grains like barley to stretch out the food budget. Few people now eat anything other than white rice although unpolished rice as a health food holds limited popularity.
The labor input to agriculture in Japan has been very high for centuries, leading to
outputs per unit of land that rank among the highest in the world. Much of the labor was quite literally back-breaking. Farmers had to bend over to plant the seedlings, transplant the young seedlings, weed out the parasites, and cut the stalks. Even today, one can see old grannies and grandpas who are permanently bent over at the waist
because of years and years of bending and stooping in the rice fields.
In recent decades, much of the labor required by rice has been provided by machinery.
Small, hand-guided tractors were developed in the 1950s. In the 1960s and 1970s, further technological development brought forward other machines which could harvest rice and even perform the most delicate task, transplanting the young shoots.
Many communities had held that only women had the right touch for transplanting. The new machines were in high demand because when they were being developed, labor was flowing out of agricultural areas into the cities where factories offered higher wages. The machines in part replaced that out-flowing labor; they also served as an inducement to older generations with roots in the rural areas to stay on the farms.
In the past twenty years, some communities have remolded their land to fit the new
machines. Recent machines are bigger and require large fields to be economically rational. To achieve this, huge earth-moving equipment is brought in to push the earth into larger, flat fields. Often the requirement for large fields forces families to pool their land, a process which can strain the social fabric and goodwill in the community.
Since 1970, the government has instituted steps to reduce the amount of land under rice
cultivation. The government’s programs to reduce rice production encourage farmers to move into other crops or pays them not to plant rice. Eating habits have changed so much that less rice is being consumed and productivity continues to increase, creating great surpluses which have to be stored. Under pressure from farmers, a law was passed requiring schools to serve at least three meals with rice each month. Over-capacity, however, continues to be a problem even though the total area under cultivation has been reduced.
Some students of ancient Asia see the irrigation system required by rice cultivation to
be the major stimulus to the development of government and civilization itself. Irrigation systems presumed large communities to construct and administer the system. Such organization, in turn, called forth despotic administrative systems strong enough to direct the population’s every effort. True or not, rice cultivation certainly has required a level of close cooperation and attention of the entire society not seen in Europe. It has also been capable of great output and, hence, wealth. Until the industrial revolution enriched the West, Europeans were impressed at the wealth of the East; that wealth was based on rice cultivation.