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Once scenic 'tanada' rice terraces in Japan overgrown with weeds following abandonment

The Kanayama Tanada terraced rice fields in Ichinoseki, Iwate Prefecture, which attract tourists for the scenic beauty, are seen in this image provided by Yo Sakurai.
Minehiro Nakashima, professor emeritus at Waseda University and adviser to the Rice Terrace Research Association, speaks about the future of terraced rice fields, in Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward on March 23, 2021. (Mainichi/Kenji Noro)

TOKYO -- "Tanada" rice terraces in Japan are regarded as nostalgic landscapes due to their age-old beauty. Throughout the months of April and May, the paddy fields are filled with water, and rice planting begins, making those months the perfect time to view the scenery. However, many such rice terraces across the country have been abandoned and are in a state of dilapidation.

    The rice terraces feature rows of rice fields created on a mountainside or a sloped plane of a valley, resembling a flight of stairs. The scenic terraced rice fields are also called "senmaida," which translates as "a thousand paddy fields."

    The Mainichi Shimbun carried out a survey targeting 107 municipalities nationwide with 134 rice fields which were certified in 1999 as "top 100 rice terraces in Japan." (The total number is actually over 100.) The questionnaire found that about 40% of the rice terraces had been left unmanaged, or had diminished in size. I visited some of these sites to understand the current reality of terraced rice fields in Japan.

    Minehiro Nakashima, 87, professor emeritus at Waseda University, and adviser to the Rice Terrace Research Association, estimates that in 2019, there were approximately 150,000 hectares of rice terraces across Japan, which accounted for 6% of the approximately 2.39 million hectares of rice fields in the country.

    Following Japan's rice acreage-reduction policy which began in 1970, there were a significant number of cases where rice farmers abandoned or began to grow different crops in their fields -- a trend that was spurred on by depopulation and an aging society. Nakashima estimates that now, the area of the terraced rice fields has dropped to about half of that in 1970.

    While rice terraces are difficult to maintain and manage compared to fields on plains, it is said that high-quality rice is produced in them, as the large temperature differences between day and night allow the rice plants to ripen slowly, and the crops grow in good water as they are located near the water source. Terraced paddies also fulfill the role of preventing floods and landslides by storing water flowing down from the mountains. The Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries authorized the selection of the 134 rice terraces in a bid to push forward the preservation and maintenance of terraced paddy fields, which have such functions.

    The Kunimi no Tanada, a terraced rice field that is said to have drawn many tourists in the past, is seen in an abandoned state with a sign collapsed on a roadside in this photo taken in March 2021 in Nasukarasuyama, Tochigi Prefecture. (Mainichi/Kenji Noro)

    In February, the Mainichi Shimbun sent a questionnaire to the 107 selected municipalities to ask about the current state of their 134 terraced rice fields, and obtained responses from 101 municipalities regarding 127 rice terraces. The survey found that 61 rice terraces, or 48%, had seen no change in size from the land area at the time they were certified by the agriculture ministry. Meanwhile, the area of 37.8%, or 48 rice terraces is said to have decreased.

    Six locations, or 4.7%, had been left "unmanaged," the Mainichi survey found. One such spot was Kunimi no Tanada, located in the city of Nasukarasuyama, Tochigi Prefecture. A sign asking visitors to mind their manners had been knocked down on the roadside, while a great part of the area was covered in weeds and thickets. The sight made it hard to believe that a paddy field used to be there. Yoshio Komori, 85, who still continues rice farming, said, "There used to be beautiful terraced paddies here, which were even used for filming movie scenes." He murmured, "It's sad that such scenery has turned into groves."

    According to the website of the agriculture ministry's 100 selected rice terraces, Kunimi no Tanada has an area of 2.1 hectares, and "consists of 50 rice fields farmed by 10 farming households." However, rice is currently being cultivated at only four of these rice fields, including three fields belonging to Komori, who produces just enough for his family to eat. In 2018, owners of the rice terrace left the Japan Tanada Liaison Council, which comprises municipalities and other bodies hosting ministry-selected rice terraces.

    In March 2021, Yoshio Komori is seen overlooking the Kunimi no Tanada, a terraced rice field in Nasukarasuyama, Tochigi Prefecture, that was selected by Japan's agriculture ministry as one of the top 100 rice terrace spots in the country but which is now abandoned and covered in weeds. (Mainichi/Kenji Noro)

    Komori himself thinks that he can grow rice for only another one or two years. He said that although the local government asked him to continue rice farming somehow, "It's difficult as I'm old, and have no successor." Surrounding Komori's rice fields is an electric barbed wire fence to keep out animals. "These days, boars emerge and knock the rice plants down. In the past, there were many people in the community, so we had no need for anything like this," he said. The community's population has dropped to under a half of its previous level over the past 20 years.

    The Nishiyama Tanada in the Miyagi Prefecture city of Kurihara is another terraced paddy that was "left unmanaged," according to the survey. On a sign that read, "selected among the top 100 rice terraces," a description introduced the spot as "fulfilling various roles, such as offering beautiful scenery as well as being home to various animals and plants." However, as with the other abandoned site, the area was covered in weeds.

    According to the 65-year-old head of the local ward, there have been rare cases of tourists visiting the site, with knowledge that it was certified as a "top 100" rice terrace. The municipal chief said some of them ask local residents where the scenic spot is, only to be disappointed to learn that the site is in its dilapidated state. The ward chief said that "there has been some talk among the community that the sign should be removed."

    The Nishiyama Tanada is seen in Kurihara, Miyagi Prefecture, in this photo taken in March 2021. In spite of a sign introducing the terraced paddy fields as a scenic spot chosen by Japan's agriculture ministry, tourists who visit it are apparently disappointed by its abandoned state. (Mainichi/Kenji Noro)

    There was, however, a case where a terraced rice field survived an impending crisis of there being no successor to tend it. While the Kanayama Tanada in Ichinoseki, Iwate Prefecture, did not make the agriculture ministry's top 100 selection, it is considered beautiful. Takaki Kanayama, 83, who owned around 50 rice fields, gave up farming in 2019 due to old age. It was around this time that he met Yo Sakurai, 28, who was from the same local area. Sakurai, who established the organization "play farm," with four young volunteers in the community, received farming instructions from Kanayama.

    Sakurai said that he felt a strong desire to preserve the terraced rice field somehow, as he "was moved by Kanayama's skill in creating ridges between fields with just a hoe, along with the rice terrace's beauty." In 2020, rice cultivated in the terraced fields was adopted as a hometown tax gift of the city.

    There are also regions that have adopted a rice terrace "owner system." Under this system, individuals living in urban areas become owners by paying membership fees, while the rice fields are usually managed by local farmers. The owners visit the sites to help out at several stages, including planting, reaping and harvesting rice. The owner system has reportedly been implemented in around 90 regions across Japan.

    Yo Sakurai, representative of "play farm," who helped to preserve the Kanayama Tanada, is seen in Ichinoseki, Iwate Prefecture, in March 2021. (Mainichi/Kenji Noro)

    A law initiated by lawmakers that pushed for the local promotion of rice terraces went into effect in 2019. Having terraced rice fields designated under this law makes it easier for farmers to receive subsidies, along with suggestions from the national government about how to make good use of the terraces. According to the Cabinet Office, as of April 15, 2021, 642 regions across Japan were designated under the law. A Cabinet Office official commented, "We received far more applications than we expected. This is a law promoting not just terraced rice fields, but also the whole community, so we'd like people to actively make use of it."

    Nakashima, an adviser to the Rice Terrace Research Association, said, "Terraced rice paddies were made by opening up sloped land that was not suitable for rice farming, based on people's desire to eat rice. I hear people say things like, 'It's not easy to get rid of rice terraces made by ancestors.'"

    He expressed hope for moves to preserve terrace paddies and said, "I'd like farmers to take advantage of legislation and the owner system to pass down their ancestors' property to the next generation."

    (Japanese original by Kenji Noro, Regional News Department)

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