Rice Art or 'Tanbo' (literally meaning art in the fields) is an increasingly familiar sight in rural Japan, initially instigated in 1993 by community leaders in Inakadate, Aomori Prefecture, 370 miles north of Tokyo. Tanbo is more than a reflection of the financial ingenuity of small agricultural villages faced with an economic downturn, it is an art form symbolic of the compelling spirit of the Japanese people and the ways in which art is integrated in daily life.
For the Japanese, rice is not just an agricultural product, but a source of national pride. The crop, originating from mainland Asia, was first introduced and cultivated over 2,000 years ago in Northern Japan. The legendary first emperor Jinmu, who was believed to be a grandson of the Sun Goddess, was gifted with two grains of rice selected from different fields in Heaven. The story goes that Jinmu was sent to rule the earth—to transform Japan from a wilderness into a land of succulent grains of rice.
Cultivation is and has always been highly labor intensive, its success depending on communal work ethic, and the timely planting and harvesting of crops. Strains have been successfully manipulated to meet the rigors of different regions of Japan, conferring a sense of pride and individuality in each area.
In the 1980's when Japan was economically confident, the central government regularly provided financial encouragement for local communities to 'invest' in celebrating their regional achievements. In 1981 the archaeological remains of 2,000 year-old rice paddies were discovered at Inakadate, giving clear indication that the village was located on one of the oldest rice-growing regions in Northern Japan. The village sought to capitalize on this discovery by building a rice-themed amusement park promoted by a purple character named Mr. RiceRice. Yet in the early 1990's, as with any economic downturn, the financial inducements from the central government ran out, and the park sat unfinished and neglected, falling into disrepair.
But under the leadership of village clerk Koichi Hanada the community of Inakadate sought to bring back interest in the village by creating vast pictures in the rice fields directly in front of the Community Offices. In the first nine years of this endeavor, the farmers repeatedly created a simple 2,500-square-meter design of Mount Iwaki using a minimal palette of yellow and black kodaimai rice planted alongside the local green-leafed tsugaru variety. This annual event helped fuse together the community at a time when the future looked bleak.
The arduous planting and maintaining of the crop required hundreds of workers channeling their ideas, experiences and aesthetic understanding to produce a work of art that spanned the period of several months. Despite the awkward shapes and simplistic geometric composition of this early work, the fields quickly became popular with visitors, and a decision was made to explore more intricate designs.
The now vast 15,000-square-meter designs were once sketched by hand, with willing volunteers wading through fields, brandishing over 6,000 reed sticks to plot out designs under the directorship of a lone megaphone. However, following the 2003 misrepresentation of the Mona Lisa, in which anamorphic distortion caused more than a few giggles, the committee responsible for the project approached the Computer and Art teachers at the local Junior High School to more judiciously design and plot the selected images.
Each subsequent year the designs have been more ambitious, technically better conceived, and increasingly visually striking. Along with this, the selected varieties of rice have been refined to a palette of traditional ki ine (yellow rice) and murasaki ine (purple rice) that respectively become yellow and deep brown plants, and the more modern beni miyako (strong red) and tsugaru roman, an Aomori local variety with a vibrant green color.
This year's artwork depicts two legendary historical figures: Benkei the fearsome warrior-monk on the left, and on the right his young challenger Ushiwakamaru, a living folk hero, and one of the most historically revered samurai warrior-generals. The artwork depicts their first meeting, a time when the innocuous flute-playing child, Ushiwakamaru, used ingenuity, courage and persistence to better the previously undefeated Benkei.
The Japanese aesthetic tradition, perhaps most described by the word 'katachi,' does not separate craft from art. Katachi implies form and design, that art is synonymous with living, has functional purpose, and a spiritual simplicity. It requires the viewer to accept the intentions of the maker into their understanding of the artwork.
The works of art at Inakadate have grown in popularity with upwards of 200,000 visitors attending annually. The lines of people ascending to the viewing point in the village community offices and the squeals of delight they emit when the work is revealed indicate that the intentions of the makers have not gone unappreciated.
However, economically there is still a lot to be done if the village is to take full advantage of the opportunities that their endeavors might bring. The annual budget is estimated at $35,000 per year to cover the cost of land, planting and upkeep. The site requires daily maintenance between May and September, primarily by volunteers who weed the crops, act as guides and welcome visitors to the community office's tower. Donations by visitors currently amount to around $70,000 annually, which whilst adequately covering the costs of the display, does little to further the wider economic recovery of the village. But for the people of Inekadate and for those who travel to view the work, the experience of creating and that of viewing are their own aesthetic rewards.
For the people of Inakadate, the process of plotting the designs, planting the crop and maintaining the fields prior to the eventual harvesting of the rice mirrors their commitment and respect to the land, traditions and culture of their region. Volunteers from as far away as Osaka (250 miles south of Tokyo) travel to Inakadate to offer their services at both planting and harvesting. This concept of harmony is at the forefront of traditional Japanese culture. It references a worldview that implies beauty in studied simplicity, of balance with and within nature. For the Japanese, the process of making a complex task seem like a simple endeavor—like creating a clear picture out of thousands of stalks of living rice—is itself of great aesthetic virtue.
There are several notable sites of Rice Art now scattered around northern Japan, with each village taking a separate focus as its theme: anime characters in Mizusawa, folklore in Shirataka, and animals in Asahikawa on Hokaido Island. Many of the more recent sites present images that revel in kawaii (depictions of folklore given a contemporary twist by being morphed together with manga or anime).
In an effort to share knowledge, overcome technical limitations, and raise debate, the committee in charge of recent Inakadate projects, under the stewardship of Takatoshi Asari, has been proffering guidance on how best to establish a Rice Art venue. Their conceptual expertise have been increasingly sought and one can only hope that the practice and visual sophistication they have been able to attain will serve as inspiration for those locales who wish to explore the rich possibilities of this art form.
With the persistence, ingenuity and courage of the fabled Ushiwakamaru, the small rural community of Inakadate has moved from anonymity to the forefront of an art form set to grow and grow.