“Wa” is one of the key values in the Japanese psyche. One tries to understand and accommodates other stakeholders’ viewpoints, opinions and constraints, so that the group can take action smoothly in an effective way.
This value has clearly been applied in the rural communities since rice cultivation was introduced in Japan. As a matter or fact, not only is teamwork required to transform plains or valleys, forests into paddies, but also rice cultivation itself is a collective effort. All farmers in a valley are sharing the same water irrigating the fields. Such water often comes from higher up in the mountains, and is distributed through an elaborate network of channels.
May was the season of rice planting in Kanto. There is only one rice crop in a year in Japan, with the exception of Okinawa. Around late April, rice seeds (grains) are soaked in water and planted on large trays covered with a thin layer of soil, and left germinating in a nursery (a greenhouse) under the spring sun near the field, until the seedlings reach a height of about 15 cm.
Meanwhile paddies are flooded and plowed. Such seedlings (called “Nae” in Japanese) are then transplanted into the rice paddies, by 2 or 3, in rows and columns forming a grid pattern. The distance between seedlings depends on a number of factors (rice varietal, sunshine, etc.). Most farmers (an aging population) now use tractors for obvious reasons, however there are a number of events organized across the country where teams gather to plant the rice “the old way”.
In all events I have seen in Japan by the way, rows of participants plant in front of them, walking across to the other side of the “virgin” paddy. As a consequence though, one has less visual control about the “quality” of the row he/she creates behind him/her (a possible issue when harvesting with a tractor), and puts his or her feet deep in the mud to ankle or knee, right next to the seedlings he/she just planted.
I understand that in other countries (Vietnam for example), planters mostly walk backwards, planting in front of them, with a better control of the rows, and without stepping on their recent work. At the same time, they place the seedlings in their footsteps, a surface that has become very “uneven”. Old photographs of Japan suggest that the method was used here as well!
By law, sake breweries, like all other companies, were prohibited from cultivating rice after the war, and have therefore naturally been kept at a distance from rice farming for decades, buying from individual farmers’ cooperatives. This created a major difference with the wine culture, where the winemaker often grows his own grapes. The legal system evolved though, breweries are now able to contract with farmers directly, or even cultivate their own rice. Naturally, they got active in producing rice planting events, a great way to connect with clients and fans in harmony, and connect clients and employees alike with the precious raw material: sake rice.
Kidoizumi shuzou (Chiba Prefecture) and their lovely team, one of my very regular destinations close to Tokyo, are renting paddies and planting rice in a beautiful small valley, close to the brewery, for the second year in a row. The day was humid to say the least, and pictures illustrate some steps in the process: washing the soil away from the seedlings’ trays and transplanting. If planting is a hard work, cultivation from there is no less hard … unless one uses chemical fertilizers and other products to control pests and weed. Bad habits are difficult to let go, and that hard work definitely is one of reasons why the development of organic rice in Japan is limited (the farming population gets older …). Another one though gets us back to the collective nature of the sector. Because everyone shares the same water, and paddies are located next to each other, it is quite difficult to convince inspectors that no trace of chemicals can be found in one’s own plot of land unless no-one uses any chemical in the area. We actually worked in a paddy that was the first one receiving water from the water retention pond located just above. It helps but is unlikely to be sufficient. Kidoizumi’s sake rice will therefore not be labeled “organic”, but will in effect be “quasi-organic”. A lot of that “quasi-organic” is called “Shizenmai” (natural rice). I see the use of quasi-organic rice as a big trend in sake brewing, and am looking forward to enjoying Kidoizumi sake from that particular rice next year, brewed in harmony with nature.