Planting songs

The importance of rice to the culture of Japan would probably take a lifetime to research – and then some! This ancient grain is part of art, mythology and religious belief, as well as an everyday staple of life. Here’s a peek at just one of the many traditions …

On May 20 Princess Akiko of Mikasa participated in rice-planting  in Niigata Prefecture in Japan. The rice-planting event was held by Shinyu-sha, the association established by Princess Akiko which encourages and fosters Japanese traditional culture.

akiko of mikasa

Princess Akiko (standing) during this year’s rice planting.

girls planting paddy:
only their song
free of mud

Konishi Raizan (1654-1716)

The same day Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko sowed dry-land rice and millet at the Imperial Palace. Both the couple’s sons and their families also participated in what is a long-standing tradition.

The Emperor followed this up on May 25 by planting more rice at the palace – the last time he will carry out this duty as Emperor. Akihito abdicates on April 30 next year, after 30 years on the throne, in favour of his older son Crown Prince Naruhito.


Emperor Akihito plants rice at the Imperial Palace in 2018.

The sajiki (dictionary of season words) at Gabi Greve’s World Kigo Database says: The Emperor, embodying the god of the ripened rice plant, plants the first rice of the spring and harvests rice from the plants of the autumn. In one of the most solemn Shinto ceremonies of the year the Emperor, acting as the country’s chief Shinto priest, ritually sows rice in the royal paddy on the grounds of the Imperial Palace.

the beginning of all art –
in the deep north
a rice-planting song

Basho (tr David Barnhill), read more about this hokku


Rice planting woodblock by Kasamatsu Shiro (1898-1991)

a whole field of
rice seedlings planted – I part
from the willow

Matsuo Basho (tr Haruo Shirane)

The above poem is another from Basho’s travelogue, Narrow Road to the Deep North. Here is the passage, and an alternative version of the poem, as translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa:

I went to see the willow tree which Saigyo celebrated in his poem when he wrote, ‘Spreading its shade over a crystal stream’. I found it near the village of Ashino on the bank of a rice-field. I had been wondering in my mind where this tree was situated, for the ruler of this province had repeatedly talked to me about it, but this day, for the first time in my life, I had an opportunity to rest my worn-out legs under its shade.

When the girls had planted
A square of paddy-field,
I stepped out of
The shade of a willow tree.

Read the entire document.

again a baby frog
at the edge of the rice-paddy
in the rain

Shimobachi Kiyoko (tr Koko Kato)

June 15: Just found the following while searching for something else and thought it was a natural fit for this post.

Looking at Mount Fuji,
     The rice-planting girl
Adjusts her hair.

Anon., from Japanese Life and Character in Senryu by RH Blyth (1960)

Postcard from Japan

It was a hot day in Kanazawa on Japan’s west coast on November 11 – the coloured leaves were telling us that it was autumn, but …

Following a tour guide around the famous Kenrokuen (literally: Combining (ken) six (roku) garden (en) – it combines the six main themes in a Chinese-style stroll garden), rated as one of Japan’s best three gardens, Haiku Husband noticed a ‘Basho Memorial’ on the map. Fujio-san was more than willing to lead us there. And here’s what we found.

A rock inscribed with a Basho poem in the Kenrokuen. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The neighbouring signboard reveals the haiku was written by Basho in Kanazawa in 1689 but doesn’t include an English translation. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Fujio-san came to the rescue with a translation, shortly afterwards offering the RH Blyth version:

brightly red is the sun
still heartlessly hot
but autumn is in the breeze

The haiku is from Basho’s classic travelogue Oku no hosomichi (Narrow Road to the Interior/ Narrow Road to the Deep North).

The following is translated by Donald Keene from The Narrow Road to Oku (Kodansha, 1996, with illustrations by Miyata Masayuki):

After crossing Verbena Mountain and the Valley of Kurikara, we reached Kanazawa on the fifteenth of the seventh month [old calendar]. We shared lodgings with a merchant named Kasho from Ozaka …

redly, redly
the sun shines heartlessly, but
the wind is autumnal

Nobuyuki Yuasa provides the following version. His entire translation of Narrow Road to the Deep North may be read at the Terebess Asia Online website.

Red, red is the sun,
Heartlessly indifferent to time,
The wind knows, however,
The promise of early chill.

I found the following uncredited translation on a website that sells Japanese calligraphy and rather like its more spare, modern feel:

bright red,
the sun shining without mercy –
wind of the autumn

although would make this edit to the last line: wind of the autumn

Another uncredited translation from Haiku of the Forest website:

bright red
the pitiless sun
autumn winds

And, finally, a translation by Dorothy Britton from A Haiku Journey (Kodansha, 1980), her version of Oku no hosomichi:

How hot the sun glows
Pretending not to notice
An autumn wind blows!

Her translations of haiku, by the way, always rhyme. In her Introduction she writes: “Rhyme is a device unsuited to the Japanese language, but in English it helps to suggest the formal elegance achieved in the original by those elements impossible to translate, which the poet James Kirkup so aptly calls ‘the subtle play of sound and meaning’.”

As a side note, Dorothy Britton (Lady Bouchier) died in February of this year, aged 93. Her life story is fascinating. She was born in Yokohama to an English father and American mother and from the age of 13 was educated in the US and Britain, returning to Japan after the American occupation began and meeting her English husband, Sir ‘Boy’ Bouchier. Her memoir – Rhythms, Rites and Rituals: my life in Japan in two-step and waltz time – was launched in London just a few days after her death (she had been planning to attend).

“She led a life of extraordinary variety, working as a composer, musician, writer, poet, radio and television presenter, postal censor and translator. Bilingual from birth, she found the immense joy of blending in with people of different cultures, and this is the remarkable and remarkably frank story of a life lived to the full by the doyenne of British residents in Japan,” the Japan Society of the UK writes.

Read more detail about her life in this obituary.