Plenus “kome” Academy

Rice and Regional Culture

From the period that rice-growing was brought to Japan approximately 3,000 years ago, right up to the present day, our ancestors toiled to find a way to grow a large amount of rice on narrow terrain.

Japan is described in the Kojiki, a record of the country’s development into a nation, as the “Country of Lush Reed Plains,” a reference to the bountiful growth of rice and an indication of how rice has symbolized Japan since ancient times.

In this corner, we will introduce you to Toyama’s diverse rice culture through its history, culture, and beautiful natural scenery.

Toyama Prefecture

Toyama Prefecture’s Climate

An Ideal Climate and Terrain for Growing Rice

Toyama faces the Sea of Japan, and is bounded by mountains on three sides. Several rivers flow from the mountains to form alluvial fans, resulting in large plains. Additionally, the land satisfies a number of conditions that make it well-suited to growing rice, such as a hot and humid climate in the summer, and a rich supply of meltwater from the Northern Alps.

The area suffered numerous floods throughout history, and a notable contributor this trend is the fact that many of the rivers are concentrated in the east, where there is only a short distance between the mountains and the sea. It is also said that the severe natural conditions of the east are a large part of why it had many medicine peddlers and migrant workers.

Meanwhile, the western Tonami Plain was the granary of the Kaga Domain. During the Edo Period, the Kaga Domain was a leading producer of rice, and it was known as the domain that yielded one million koku of rice. The bountiful Tonami Plain produced just over 250,000 koku of this total, roughly one fourth.

In areas with few plains, it is difficult to making a living from farming alone. Lifestyles in the Himi and Niikawa regions were split between farming and fishing, and the main industries in the Gokayama region, deep in the mountains, consisted of traditional sericulture, papermaking, and gunpowder production.

Toyama plains
Snow in Gokayama
A Himi fishing village

Due to winter snows, farming would switch to single crops, and in every region, people worked eagerly to increase rice yields per tan (a unit of measurement for rice fields, equivalent to approximately 1,000 square meters). During the Edo period, the domain’s administration pushed rice production more aggressively with policies to promote rice-growing, and to this day, 96% of the arable land in Toyama Prefecture consists of rice paddies, and rice makes up a notable 68% of the value of the prefecture’s agricultural product shipments (with the natural average at 19%). (Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries: From 2018 Statistical Survey on Crops and 2017 Statistics of Agricultural Income Produced)

The Dispersed Settlements of the Tonami Plain

The Tonami Plain of western Toyama Prefecture is an alluvial plain created by the Shogawa and Oyabegawa rivers. The plain is dotted with approximately 7,000 farming households surrounded by small groves of trees, creating a vista of dispersed rural settlements.

A notable feature of the dispersed settlements of the Tonami Plain is that each of the households has worked the land surrounding their homes to grow rice. Having the farmland around one’s house was very efficient for performing daily farm work.

Another notable feature is that, as mentioned earlier, each house is surrounded by a grove of trees. These small groups of trees surrounding the houses are called “kainyo” or “kaina” in the local dialect. During the winter, the trees protect the houses from cold winds and snow, and at the start of spring, they keep the strong south winds at bay. The fallen leaves and branches from the cedar trees were used as valuable fuel for daily cooking and heating baths. Additionally, cedar trees, zelkova trees, bamboo, and other plants and trees from the groves supplied the materials needed to build or renovate houses, or to make tools.

In this way, the people of the dispersed settlements cultivated the farmland around them to grow rice and vegetables with which to sustain themselves, and used the groves of trees around their houses to supply materials necessary for daily life—a lifestyle that was extremely close to being entirely self-sufficient.

View of Dispersed Settlements (Courtesy of Tonami City Education Committee)

Edo Period Agriculture Policy

Reform of Agriculture Laws

In 1651, new policies to reform agriculture law were instated in the Kaga Domain to stabilize the domain’s income and ensure diligent work by farmers.

  1. The feudal retainers of the domain would no longer take the annual rice tax directly from farmers, and instead the domain would collect rice taxes en masse and then give the feudal retainers their portion.
  2. Yields were specified for each village, and they would not be changed annually.
  3. Tax rates, which could vary even within a village, were changed to an average tax for each village, and this would be made permanent, without annual changes. As such, the domain would give villages rice during years with poor harvests, and this would repaid during years with better harvests.
  4. Paying the land tax would be the collective responsibility of the village.
  5. The tomura (overseer of villages) gained more authority and became responsible for encouragement of agriculture and tax administration.

Land Tax Notification for Kosugi Village
(Courtesy of Tonami City Education Committee)

These land tax notifications set the yield, tax rate, and miscellaneous taxes for each village, and were issued to each village after being pressed with the feudal lord’s seal.

While these changes stabilized the annual income of farmers, the domain would also gain a great deal of influence over them. For feudal retainers, direct payment of their salaries reinforced their relationship of patronage with the feudal lord.

Minka kenro zu (Ten) (“Study of the Labor of Commoners (Heaven)”) (Courtesy of Ishikawa Public Library)
Artwork depicting agricultural work

Management of Farming Villages by the Tomura

The Toyama and Kaga Domains entrusted administration of agriculture to a class of village officials called “tomura,” who functioned in role similar to that of a mayor for several villages collectively. In day-to-day communities, they were representatives of the farmers, and in terms of governance and organization, they were agents for the feudal retainers who controlled the villages. The tomura worked to increase the productivity of villages by taking command of development of new fields, providing instruction in agricultural techniques, and furthering the spread of practical learning such as calculation and measuring.

Kaneko Family Document
(Courtesy of Tonami City Education Committee)

Two generations of the Kaneko family (Soemon and Zenkuro) served as the first tomura, from 1616 to 1635.
Afterward, the headman of Otamura Village served in the role until the early 1700s, after which point other village group leaders took charge of village administration.

Takeshima Residence - Outer Wall, South Side
(From the “Toyama Prefecture Tomura Residence: Takeshima Residence” website)

The outer wall has a total length of over 100 meters, with a beautiful stone wall of 70 meters covering the south-western side.

A History of Battling Against the Water

View of the Shogawa River (Photograph courtesy of: Shogawakyo Tourism Cooperative Association)

Located between the Shogawa and Oyabegawa rivers, the alluvial fan of the Tonami Plain benefited from fertile soil and a bountiful supply of water brought down from the mountains, but at the same time, the land was also frequently flooded like other regions of Toyama Prefecture.

The great earthquake of 1585 formed a new eastern course of the Shogawa, which previously had the Senbogawa river as its mainstream. In order to prevent flooding of the Shogawa and further the development of the Tonami Plain, the Kaga Domain closed off various branches of the river that had, until then, been flowing westward, and began work to unify them with the new eastern course of the river (the modern Shogawa river). This was a major undertaking, with work beginning in 1670 and ending in 1714.

However, major floods would often cause the dikes the domain had built to collapse, and reinforcement work continued until the end of the Edo Period. In 1807, pine trees were planted to reinforce the foundations, and locally, these were called “matsu kawayoke” (“pines protecting against the river”). This nickname is still used to this day.

Taisho Period matsu kawayoke
Surviving matsu kawayoke
(Both photographs courtesy of Tonami City Education Committee)
Changes in the Flow of the Shogawa River
The Shogawa river splits off into several branches, which produced an alluvial plain. The main branch of the river often overflowed its banks and frequently changed its course during major floods. From antiquity to the middle ages, the main branch’s course flowed toward the north-west, entering the Oyabegawa river near Tsuzawa. However, approximately 600 years ago, a major flood changed the course of the main branch, causing it to flow into the Nojirigawa river. Later flooding gradually moved the Nakamuragawa, Aramatagawa and Senbogawa rivers to the east, and the current Shogawa river became their mainstream about 400 years ago. It was about 300 years ago that the dikes were built, defining the course of the river.

The Rice Culture of Toyama

Features of Toyama Cuisine and Their Origins

The staple crop of Toyama’s agricultural industry is rice, and the region has had a close relationship with rice throughout history. This care and attention toward rice has created a unique dietary culture.

Because rice was sold or used for land tax, there tended to be a lack of first-class rice for use at home. In order to conserve the best rice as much as possible, it was only eaten on sacred occasions, such as during the New Year or in rites and festivals. For daily rice consumption, people cooked rice of lesser quality and ate porridge, dumplings, and katemeshi (a grain mixture including rice) made from broken rice or its flour.

  • Zoro
    A porridge made from the flour of broken rice.
  • Dago

    Dumplings made from the flour of broken rice. These would be eaten served on top of cooked rice.

    These dumplings were very common in farming villages to the extent that the villagers were called “dumpling-eaters” in comparison to the “porridge-bellies” of the towns.

  • Mochi
    Mochi was often eaten in the castle town of Toyama.
  • Imogai-mochi and imo-ohagi
    Imogai-mochi is a mixture of taro cooked with non-glutinous rice and mashed together, while imo-ohagi is a mixture of taro mashed with rice that has already been cooked.
(All photographs courtesy of Rural Culture Association Japan)
Rice, Fish, and Water

The three things Toyama people mention when they proudly talk about the local food are rice, fish, and water. Notably, Toyama is home to the plentiful fishing waters of Toyama Bay, in which one can catch cold-water fish coming from the north, as well as fish coming from the south, from the Tsushima Strait, providing a ready supply of fresh fish.

Firefly Squid
Japanese glass shrimp
Trout sushi, a Toyama specialty

Toyama trout sushi is a kind of pressed sushi in which the trout is seasoned with vinegar, without fermenting it. It is usually served wrapped in bamboo leaves.

top:Nihon sankai meisan zukai - Ecchu Jinzukawa no masu
(“Pictures of specialties from Japan’s mountains and seas: trout from the Jinzukawa river in Etchu”)
(National Diet Library collection)

left:Trout sushi, a Toyama specialty
(Photo provided by: Toyama Trout Sushi Cooperative Association)

bottom:Trout sushi, a Toyama specialty
(Photo provided by: Toyama Trout Sushi Cooperative Association)

A Major Consumer of Kombu

A large amount of produce from Hokkaido has entered Toyama, a port of call on the shipping route between Hokkaido and Osaka. Both kombu and herring made their way to Toyama in this way, and people there love to eat rolls made using these ingredients.

Herring and kombu roll
Kombu produced in Rausu

The Birthplace of Rice Seeds

Toyama is a major producer of rice seeds. Rice seeds of approximately 50 different cultivars are exported from Toyama to 44 prefectures across Japan. There are various theories about how this trade began, but some say that production began with encouragement by the Buddhist priest Shakunyo, who built the Zuisen-ji Temple. In the late Edo Period, Toyama’s medicine peddlers would take on contracts to serve as middlemen for the rice seed trade, and Toyama rice seeds became prized throughout Japan.

Toyama rice seeds have a number of indicators of high quality: they have a high germination rate of over 90%, they are very pure genetically, they are very fertile, and they suffer little damage from disease and pests. This makes them trusted by customers in the agricultural industry across Japan.

To maintain this high quality, prefectural agricultural laboratories select cultivars suited to Toyama’s climate, perform research into cultivation techniques, and disseminate their findings. At the Agricultural and Forestry Promotion Center, seed inspectors appointed by the prefectural governor examine seed fields. Additionally, once the seeds are harvested, agricultural cooperatives carry out examinations of the produce, and perform germination tests, DNA appraisals, and so on. Only rice seeds that pass these rigorous inspections are accepted as Toyama rice seeds.

Toyama’s medicine peddlers were instrumental in making Toyama into Japan’s leading producer of rice seeds today. Medicine sales flourished during the reign of Toyama Domain’s second feudal lord, Masatoshi Maeda, who promoted the industry. The medicine peddlers had a distinctive arrangement with their customers: they would leave medicine at each household and visit once or twice a year, at which point they would take payment for the medicine used and replenish the customer’s stock. As peddlers, they would also serve as middlemen for trade of lotus seeds (the plant was used as green manure) and share agricultural techniques and tools, making them contributors to the development of rice-growing in Japan as well.

Wicker trunk (a trademark of Toyama medicine peddlers)
(From the Kaneoka Collection at the Toyama Prefectural Civic Center Branch Yakushu quotient of the mansion KANAOKA House)

“Yasungoto”: The Yotaka Festival

The Yotaka Festival is an ancient tradition of the Tonami region of Toyama, in which people pray for an abundant crop of rice. This is a way of resting after having seeded the rice paddies—or “yasungoto” in the local dialect. The festival is well-known in the region as a vivid hallmark of early summer on the Tonami Plain.

“Yotaka” refers to brightly-colored lamp floats of about 6 meters in height and 9 meters in length, which participants carry as they march through the streets.

Yotaka lamp floats
(Courtesy of Tonami City Education Committee)

Background of the Rice Riots

Rice, Toyama’s major product, was loaded on to boats at the coast and shipped to its various destinations. It was usually poor people from fishing villages who handled the loading work, and when high rice prices made life difficult, they asked for charity in the form of donations. The wealthy classes knew that rice shipments would be held up without the work of the laborers, so they quickly adopted the practice of providing the charity the poverty-stricken workers asked for. In the fishing villages of the coast of Toyama, people could only buy as much rice as they needed to feed themselves each day, and as such, rice made up a huge portion of household budgets. If this “charity” was left unpaid for some reason, it would quickly result in a major disturbance. As the men would go as far as Sakhalin and Hokkaido to fish, it was largely the woman left to look after their homes who took the role of demanding charity.

Photograph of female workers carrying rice, circa 1935 (at Uozu beach): Iwao Nozawa
(Kitamae no kioku (“Memories of Kitamae”), Mitsuo Imoto (Katsura Shobo))
Comic drawn by Ippei Okamoto depicting the rice riots
(Meiji-Taisho no bunka (“Culture of Meiji and Taisho”) (Support:Hakubunkansinsya), National Diet Library collection)

After the First World War, a struggling economy and the effects of the Siberian Intervention caused the price of rice to soar. In July 1918, a movement petitioning for aid to the poor started in coastal areas of Toyama—and it was most certainly not a riot, but rather something that was understood locally as a known custom. However, with the influence of newspapers describing the movement in exaggerated terms as “a rioting army of women” or “an uprising of women,” the disturbance fueled the Japan-wide rice riots, which first sparked in Okayama.