Life in a Wet Rice Farming Village

Rice farming spread from Kyushu eastwards and northwards to Shimane’s coastal plains and mountain valleys through two major routes: the “Sea of Japan” road along the Japan Sea coast and the “Mountain Road” over the Central Japan mountain ranges and the Yayoi village began to emerge in various regions.

The Yayoi farmers chose their rice field sites carefully. Initially, they preferred to choose not the swampy lowland locations that would be submerged by water most of the year, but high terraces or valleys backed by a hill or mountain were chosen. The Itatsuke site in Fukuoka was a settlement on a high terrace encircled by an oval moat.

However, as rice farming spread, and more and more land was cleared for farming, the Yayoi farmers needed more territory and moved into the alluvial plains. The mountains that surrounded the valleys and alluvial plains separated communities from each other, so that over the era various chiefdoms consolidated their control in marked territorities (such as Yamatai, Yamato, Kibi, Tsukushi, Izumo, etc.) in geographically distinct regions or areas.

A diorama of an early rice farming scene at the Tokyo National Science Museum (in Ueno) Photo: Heritage of Japan

A diorama of an early rice farming scene at the Tokyo National Science Museum (in Ueno) Photo: Heritage of Japan

Immigrants must have arrived in northern Kyushu, in Japan from the Asian continent with their wet rice farming knowledge and advanced irrigation techniques at their beginning of the Yayoi period. This is clear because the technology did not show gradual innovations or advances but even the earliest Yayoi rice fields were already a complex system of canals, dams, paddy-field walls, and water intakes and outlets” to irrigate their fields. The immigrants had brought with them, new customs and traditions as well as their knowledge of how to make metal tools (iron and bronze). (While wet rice or paddy fields were cultivated and wet-rice agriculture flourished,  dry-field agriculture was practiced as well elsewhere in Japan.)

Wooden stakes were used to outline or divide the rice fields which were enclosed by embankments walled with wooden planks. The Yayoi villagers dug ditches that sometimes doubled as defensive moats. Canals were built to ensure a constant and controllable water supply system for irrigating the rice paddy. At Itatsuke, the canals had a dam for collecting water with an outlet for letting water into the rice field. Also amazing were the drainage canals that had been constructed under the rice fields so that the water could be recycled and channeled back into the rice fields.

The Yayoi farmers had learnt by the 3rd century A.D., that they could improve their rice yield by transplanting rice seedlings from seedbed into paddy field in orderly and weedable rows. When the farmers created new rice fields or built their waterways and canals, they worked closely and cooperated with one another.

A diorama of irrigationworks during the Yayoi Period, National Museum of Science (at Ueno) Photo: Heritage of Japan

A diorama of irrigationworks during the Yayoi Period, National Museum of Science (at Ueno) Photo: Heritage of Japan

They cultivated the fields with wooden rakes and hoes. The most common material used for making farming tools was hard oak wood. Stone hoes and reaping knives were used for harvesting rice. Some reaping knives were made of wood and shell but during the late Yayoi period, an iron edge was added to reaping knives made of wood.  Reaping knives were often used together with the crescent-shaped sickles used for cutting at the base of the entire rice stalk.

Few iron farming tools have been found, either because iron was still too scarce to be used for farming or because iron from the tools were constantly recycled and re-used. However, during the later part of the Yayoi period, iron tools began to replace stone ones. Iron provided sharper cutting edges so improving food production. The tools were durable and made tasks such as clearing of land for agriculture more efficient.

Other wooden tools such as eburi or paddy field smoothers, ooashi or paddy field trampers, paddy field sandals and others were found at the Toro site in Shizuoka prefecture. Other objects also found at the Toro included ground stone arrowheads, ground stone axes, spades, fire-making mortars, weaving looms, and small boats for rice fields. There were also stone sinkers for fishing nets and fish-hooks made of antler. Deer scapulae used for divination, indicated that the shaman religion played an important role in the society.

They harvested the rice and stored the rice in storage jars in underground storage pits or in elevated storehouses (similar to those in southern China). At excavated sites like the Toro Ruins, a Yayoi farming settlement located in a coastal plain in Shizuoka prefecture, pottery recovered consisted of storage jars, cooking jars, pedestalled dishes and serving bowls.

During the earliest Yayoi days, storage jars and a type of cooking pot that emerged in Kyushu and that had spread to southwestern Japan were clearly influenced by Korean mulmun plain pottery. But in other areas of Japan, Jomon styles of pottery modified or were incorporated into the Korean-influenced storage jars and cooking pots that were associated with agricultural uses.

Pottery of the Yayoi Period settlement in Yokohama

Pottery of the Yayoi Period settlement in Yokohama

Besides rice, 37 kinds of cultivated plants were known to have been grown, including foxtail millet, adzuki beans and barley. However, rice was the most important food, a fact shown by the high percentage that was recovered from excavations compared to other cereals.

Wild boars were kept in the Yayoi village as during Jomon times. Archaeologists have also identified some excavated bones to be those of the domesticated pig, most certainly introduced from the mainland. The Yayoi people also continued to hunt animals and to fish, and gather wild roots, vegetables and fruit to supplement their rice-based diet.

6 responses to “Life in a Wet Rice Farming Village

  1. ~Why Did They Not Have Fish ?

  2. I read this article and numerous others on your blog. When I write I do not want to adulate your personality or make your work bombastic by affected praise. Your blog has no doubt provided both entertainment and usefulness for a lot of readers and researchers. Likewise, I do not want to give the impression that I patronize you through criticism or English nativity.

    Rather, I would like to ask about your sources on Shamanism in the Jomon culture. I ask this because there has been so much information on Jomon Shamans throughout your posts on their culture, and also because I have noted a good deal of syntactical and grammatical misconstructions, and also the omission of references. Of course this is a blog and not an academic publication, so obviously one can post his information as he sees fit, at leisure and with out rigorous attention to every detail. My concern is merely with validity rather than aesthetic taste or your personal character.

    Of course I would have just asked “what are your sources on Jomon Shamanism” but that might have appeared must less involved.

    Thank you for your work here, again it is useful and entertaining. 🙂

    • >>I have noted a good deal of syntactical and grammatical misconstructions Would appreciate it if you dropped a line in the comment section whenever you find such misconstructions. I have no backup editor/proofreader. You are right in noting that this is a blog, I resorted to this device precisely because it affords me a lower standard of writing and research. Nevertheless, I should explain that the blog was originally (and still is) conceived as a “Why-what-when-how?” history resource for middle level school students and as an interactive resource. And so it was decided that the tone was to be conversational and the “look” should be as uncluttered and streamlined as possible and accessible to younger readers – i.e. uncluttered without footnotes and references. So you will find that the references are instead “hidden” in the form of a link, whenever a theory or view is expressed it is hyper-linked from within the text. As time spent writing the blog passed however, and I began to receive more queries such as yours and from other academics, I decided recently to put up source references at the bottom of each page – so you’ll see overt referencing only for more recent writing. I will try to go back and add more conventional references to earlier writings as when I can.There is never any copying of texts without proper attribution (at least not that I am conscious of). I have also been planning for a while to put up a bibliography for more broader source readings upon which I have drawn general information from, but have just been too busy to deal with editing it out … being swamped with research for at least four topics to do with the Kofun Period/Nara Period as well as all the new information on DNA and genetics. (Maybe your letter will give me a kick in the rear to put up my bibliography page and clean up the references.) On shamanism, it is an ongoing topic of research since I have currently working on a map of the prehistoric mythology of Japan and the Central Asian connections. I think I have already linked quotations on shamanism to the sources. If there are specific paragraphs or pages you are interested in, let me know the specifics and I will track down my sources for you when I am able to. Make sure you let me know the URL page you found my writing on … I should be able to let you know the source off-hand. AileenP.S. BTW, how you did you come upon my blog?

  3. Do you know the provenance of the illustration above? I’d like to use it in a PPT for one of my classes. Thank you! And I love this site — though it may not be a ‘credible’ source according to scholarly standards, it’s the best thing out there by a long shot. And that includes printed work as well.

  4. The illustration is from a curated information panel from the Yokohama History Museum, obtained during one of our visit. You may use it for educational purposes without redistribution for profit which is in line with copyright usage rules. Every effort has been made to cite primary or secondary sources for every idea, theory, report on this website, and the research is backed by funding, with some support from archaeological consultants, and some written content is original. The site has been commended by a few experts on the field of archaeology or history, so it is hard to understand why it should not be a ‘credible’ source of writing. We do, however, make it a point to avoid a stuffy and overly academic tone wherever possible, since the website’s educational goal is to make the information accessible to students of history, including elementary school students from grades 5 and 6 onwards, some of whom may be non-native English speakers.

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