Japan from the inside out

Finish that bowl of rice and you’ll get into a good school!

Posted by ampontan on Monday, May 18, 2009

IT’S PADDY PLANTING TIME again in Japan, and thousands of colorful rice-planting ceremonies are being held throughout the country to mark the start of the season. Last year we had a post that focused on several of them. Rather than reinvent the wheel, I’ll just offer the link to that post and describe another ceremony that’s a bit different from the others.

juken rice planting

This one was held specifically to plant rice that will be sold as a good luck charm to those taking school entrance examinations. It was held at a wet paddy in the Kameoka district of Takahata-machi, Yamagata, on the 15th. The Yamagatans have been planting and selling the rice as brain food since 1991, when the ceremony was cooked up by the local branch of the National Federation of Agricultural Cooperative Associations. The crop is grown on a 1.5-hectare paddy that yields about eight tons of rice, which should be more than enough to get the local hopefuls into the school of their choice. After being harvested in the fall, it will be sold in five-kilogram bags.

What makes the Kameoka rice more of a cinch than a crib sheet? Daisho-ji, a Buddhist temple in Takahata-machi, is the home of one of Japan’s three great statues of the Monju Bosatsu, the Bodhisattva of wisdom. Students throughout Japan have paid homage to that divinity for centuries because Monju, as the personification of the Buddha’s teachings, is a symbol for wisdom and enlightenment. One of the priests from Daisho-ji blesses the seedlings before they’re planted, and he’ll put the double whammy in for the examinations by blessing the rice itself after it’s harvested.

Once the priest takes care of business, a group of 15 people plant the rice by hand, as you can see in the photo. And that’s the intriguing part.

Those ladies ankle deep in the muck are wearing the traditional outfits of miko, or the maidens at Shinto shrines who serve in roughly the same role as altar boys at a Catholic church. Bending over to their right is a Shinto priest. In fact, in this photo Daisho-ji more closely resembles a Shinto shrine than a Buddhist temple. It’s also the case that most of the rice-planting ceremonies are Shinto affairs.

Confused? The Japanese aren’t. This has got to be one of the most naturally ecumenical places on the planet. And the Buddhist priests don’t mind bringing a divine spark to a profit-making enterprise as long as it’s in the cause of higher education.

But then again, who wouldn’t want to do their part to promote the cultivation of knowledge as well as grain? In fact, it’s a shame that ceremony is held way up north instead of down here in Kyushu. I’d be glad to tutor those girls for the English part of their exams!

2 Responses to “Finish that bowl of rice and you’ll get into a good school!”

  1. NB said

    “Confused? The Japanese aren’t. This has got to be one of the most naturally ecumenical places on the planet.”

    Not to pick bones, but I think in religious terms, generally “ecumenical” is a cooperation of groups within a religion, and “tolerant” is used for cooperation between different religions like Shinto and Buddhism.

  2. ampontan said

    It’s a good point, but ecumenical’s first definition in the Webster’s I have is “inclusive”, which is what I meant. Then it says, especially Christians.

    Tolerant is definitely not the word I want. Roget’s lists “all-inclusive” as a synonym for ecumenical, so I’ll stick with it.

    I thought about changing it to catholic, but that might be confusing.

    There’s an even better word out there that I can’t quite recall. It’s not as common as tolerant.

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