Tuesday, October 24, 2006

The Japanese Rice Harvest

Saturday was the day of Hiwada Middle School's school festival. It was scheduled to last until about 3 or 4 oclock, but something was happening that day that I just could not pass up. Today was the final day of the rice harvest.

My friend Sanpei Sensei, who teaches P.E. at Katahira JHS, was in the process of harvesting the rice growing from his modest little plot of soil in front of his house. He lives Northeast of my city, where I imagine most everybody has a rice field. It's quite common for families, especially in rural areas, to own a bit of land (usually about an acre or 2) and do this for a little free food, or make a little cash on the side.

Sanpei Sensei was excited that I could come and help him harvest. I arrived about 1 or 2 in the afternoon, and saw about 5 people out in his field. Initially thinking he had hired some help, I discovered that they were in fact his family! Sanpei Sensei's mother, who I had previously only seen sitting hunched over in her orthopedic seat with a back problem, (I never saw her move during the 5 or 6 hours I previously spent at their home) was out there slaving away with his wife and sons. Meeting this woman 5 months ago, I wouldn't have thought she could even walk very well, let alone carry enormous enormous bags of rice.

As soon as I got there I quickly realized that a ratty t-shirt and my hiking boots would not suffice. His wife's maternal instincts quickly kicked in, and I was outfitted with a thick overcoat and gloves to protect my forearms from sharp rice stems. I would come to be very grateful for this. She also insisted I wear a hat and a face mask, which I would be less grateful for, as it just looked kind of dorky. I also lacked adequate footwear, and wished I had bought some long boots for wading in the mud.

I was set to work learning the most unsophisticated of tasks under the careful tutelage of Sanpei Sensei's son. About 2 weeks before my arrival, the rice was cut from the ground and tied along scaffolds to dry out. Our task was to remove the whole plant from this scaffolding and put it into a machine. The machine looked like a hunchbacked commercial lawnmower with tank tracks. He operated a the contraption that bagged rice, while I was responsible for the vital task of throwing the rice stems into the machine.

The machine then haphazardly spewed dust, dirt, and smoke out the front, used up stems out the side, and poured large quantities of rice into bags waiting in the rear. The bags were arranged on a track, so you could leave them behind as they filled up, seamlessly switching to another bag while you work. It was rather brainless work on my part, just throwing the rice into one side.

As a way of thanking me for an honest afternoon's work, Sanpei Sensei took me out with his family to a sushi restaurant. Sanpei Sensei and I had a good time, but I think his sons thought I was nuts for wanting to help with the rice harvest. For them I guess, it would be like some crazy foreign guy in suburban America who makes a visit to help his friend mow the lawn, clean the gutters and rake the leaves, or some other mundanity. I wouldn't have understood that when I was 16 either.

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