AMPONTAN

Japan from the inside out

The Tokyo harvest

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, September 25, 2012

THAT’S not just any old hayseed harvesting those rice plants — that’s the Emperor of Japan. He put on his boots, grabbed a sickle, and got right to work, cutting down about 100 plants. The man’s no stranger to farm chores. He planted the seeds, too.

Bet they don’t do that at Buckingham Palace.

He grew two kinds of rice, one a variety of mochi. Reports say this Palace harvest was that of a typical year. The crop will be used in ceremonies as well as eaten at the palace.

It’s a simple photo, but the combination of rice and the Emperor lies at the heart of the Japanese identity. Inose Naoki, a prolific non-fiction author who also serves as the Vice-Governor of Tokyo, briefly describes one of the ceremonies at which the rice will be used.

Many of Japan’s holidays have a rather complicated history. Labor Day is originally associated with the Niinamesai (Harvest Festival), which is connected to the Tenno (Emperor).

Even those people for whom the name Niinamesai does not register should recall seeing on television the Tenno cutting the rice in the paddy at the Fukiage-gyoen (gardens) at the Imperial Palace. The Niinamesai is a festival to celebrate the rice harvest and offer a prayer for an abundant harvest in the coming year.

The Tenno’s rice harvest is a symbolic performance. The Tenno, whose spiritual power has been strengthened to the maximum through the Chinkonsai (Shinto service for the repose of the dead) held the previous night, conducts a ceremony at the Imperial Palace for offering the harvested grain to the divinities. The Daijosai is conducted when the new Tenno ascends the throne, and is best understood as a version of the Niinamesai on a larger scale.

The Tenno system has continued even with the changes to the Constitution after the defeat in the war and the transfer of ultimate sovereignty from the Tenno to the people. When decisions were being made on new holidays, the Niinamesai was offered as a candidate, adapted as a day to give thanks for the new harvest. The associations between the name of the holiday and the Tenno gradually grew weaker, and the holiday was established as a day to honor work, celebrate production, and to have the citizens extend their thanks to each other for the work they do.

A poem in the Man’yoshu suggests the Niiname was once a ceremony conducted in the home. The name Niiname is not to be found among the harvest festivals held throughout the country in the early modern period, however. In short, it is best considered a ceremony restored under the Meiji Tenno system.

Here’s a previous post on ceremonial rice harvests by younger and prettier farmhands.

But the Imperial Palace doesn’t have the only paddy in central Tokyo. Here’s a plot in the Ginza district on the street right behind the Tiffany & Co. outlet.

The leader of the group that came up with the idea explained:

“The environment in which we can grow rice is Japan’s treasure. Nothing is possible without that environment. I want people to value this Japanese environment.”

There’s also a paddy on a rooftop in Akihabara, the consumer electronics district. The plot’s been managed since 2009 by an NPO whose slogan is, “You can even do it in the middle of Tokyo.” They plant the rice in June, so it shouldn’t be too much longer before it’s time to harvest their crop, too. Pressed into service as temporary agricultural workers are the maids in the district’s maid cafes, as well as voice actors.

Here are the pretty maids all in a row at last year’s harvest. They don’t swing a sickle, but they do approach the task with typical Japanese aplomb.

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One Response to “The Tokyo harvest”

  1. William Timms said

    Actually, Prince Charles is an enthusiastic farmer. Although not much goes on in Buckingham Palace.

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