The Japanese Rustic Life in 1950s . 6

The nature, culture and living in a small village in Japan just after the last world war, reflected through the boy’s eyes.

Chapter 6 A CATTLE SHED (1954)

 by Y. Otsuki (Sendai, Japan)

After the boy had grown up, he visited ANNE FRANK HOUSE on the way to attending an international conference held at Amsterdam, the Netherland.  While walking around each room, he spontaneously shed tears and felt depressed.  How Anne must have been seized with fear, how uneasy she must have felt living in hiding without knowing what the future held for her, how fearful she must have been in the car going to the concentration camp.  She might have even thought she would survive if she could hide for just another year.  Such sad scenes came to his mind one after another, moving him immensely.  After his tears had dried up, he left with what he considered was probably the standard feeling of sympathy that most people had after visiting the house.
On the way back to his hotel, he was looking at the leaning houses of Amsterdam and ruminating on how he felt.  He then realized that his tears had not been caused by such typical feelings of sympathy, but for altogether more personal reasons.
At that time, he had changed his job to seek an opportunity to develop what he decided would be his life work – a new solar battery.  His new company consigned him to the development of electronic parts, and in exchange he would also be able to work on his solar battery project.  His developments for the company were successful, though his own work did not progress as expected.  In comparison to other projects promoted by big institutions with ample investment, many researchers and advanced apparatus, he was struggling with a paucity of resources.  On occasions, he was even forced to improvise with kitchen utensils he had brought from home.  He always felt that he seemed to be walking along a country road pulling a cart, while other researchers rushed past him in fast cars on the highway or flying in planes.  While looking around the rooms in Anne’s house, he was reminded of his own predicament and how he felt trapped, and felt a similarity to Anne’s situation.  This was the real reason behind his tears, he concluded while walking along the streets of Amsterdam.

“No, No, that can’t be the reason I cried”, he had been telling himself throughout his stay in Amsterdam.  He was still turning it over in his mind when he was walking in Schiphol airport.  The reason why he was so troubled is that he had been brought up to believe that it was shameful for men to cry in public. (Recently, it seems to be different.)  And he felt his tears had stirred some vague memory, but he couldn’t put his finger on what it was.
‘Yes, that’s it!’ He muttered to himself while walking toward the immigration gate.  He had a sense of relief on the way home after finishing his work there, which resembled the feeling of freedom he had when he left his village with his mother pulling a cart loaded with their belongings to town when he was a boy.  That scene naturally reminded him of that village and the suffering he suffered at the hands of bullies there.  Leaving there held the prospect of escape from the bullying.  In the town he fortunately never went through anything as bad again, but the trauma he experienced in the village would have an effect on everything he did in the future. His student life was also affected but he was able to get by in daily life because he was able to hide behind other people to some extent.  However, such passivity was a considerable obstacle to surviving in a tough society, especially in the business field, so he tried to overcome it as much as possible. Imagining how tough Anne’s life must have been brought back memories of the trauma, which caused the tears.  Yes, that was definitely the reason.  He felt ashamed for the tininess of his capacity to overcome his negative experiences and also felt small because of the selfish nature of his reaction.
Still dwelling on it and feeling quite pathetic, he again shed tears at the immigration gate, causing the officer to look at him suspiciously.  He felt ashamed again.

By removing the wooden and paper doors which divided the house into rooms, the farmer’s house became a big open hall of tatami mats. There was a stage about a foot high at one end, from which tables were set up in several long lines. Food was placed for each person on the tables under strong lighting that made the room as bright as daylight. In the garden, people not personally invited to the wedding party, who were mainly children, were waiting to see the bride. The guests were wandering around the tables trying to find their seats by checking the nameplate by the food.  Before long, almost all the guests were seated in their allocated positions and waiting for the appearance of the leading characters – the bride and groom and the matchmaker(s). (usually a couple).  All of a sudden, a man started shouted angrily.
“This is the wrong seat. It can’t be mine.“ The atmosphere in the hall became  extremely strained.  The host of the party ran over tohim in a panic.  Everybody knew that something like that couldeasily spoil the party. He shouted louder and louder with increasing rage. Somebody whispered, “He always behaves like that. He really should try to act his age.” Although the people around him tried to calm him down, he would have none of it and the atmosphere worsened. Then somebody got up and went over and started to talk to him. The bright lights made everybody feel uncomfortable as theywatched to see what would happen.  After a while, he gradually began to lower his voice and the atmosphere settled down. The party then returned to its planned course. For the author, the place where one sits at such events is not completely without meaning, but some people pay undue attention to it, because they feel it signifies the position a person holds within the family clan.  And the person who persuaded the man to quieten down was the head of this kindred clan.
Just after the last world war, the USA adopted various policies to weaken Japan in order to hinder it from becoming a military power again. This started with constitutional reform. The main point of the constitution is its pacifist stance, which completely renounces war. (The author would like to assert that this constitution, longing for peace in the world, is something we can be proud of.)  In addition, they made policies to restrict the economic recovery of Japan by such things as dismantling the big financial combines, inhibiting the munitions and aircraft industries etc. The USA paid special attention to the agricultural industries.

The Japanese economy had been based on agricultural industries (mainly the rice crop), and the class system.  The feudal class system was nominally abolished in mid-18th century, but effectively, the economic and blood relationship of lord and vassal was maintained in farming society.  There were three classes of farmers: big landowners, who consigned tenant farmers to work their land; small landowners farming for themselves; tenant farmers. Among these classes, the big landowners and tenant farmers were the majority.  As big landowners were generally the heads of the clan hierarchy, they reigned over the tenant farmers both economically and from the point of view of clan relationship. They were able to grow crops efficiently with a very low labor cost, in the same manner that countries governed by the colonial policies of European countries had been able to. The Japanese economy was supported by this mass production farming. The USA effectively saved the majority of tenant farmers from poverty by making the landowners sell the land to them cheaply, thereby democratizing farming society. This was actually aimed at weakening the economic power of farming by reducing its scale, and it met with great success. Even now, the international competitiveness of Japanese agriculture remains thoroughly weakened, and the rate of self-sufficiency in food production is the lowest by far among developed countries.
In regard to the clan, as is probably the case in all countries, the first in the bloodline   became the head, and the hierarchy was settled with the development of the clan. With the passage of time and changes brought on by war, starvation, economic collapse etc., its order has disintegrated and become unclear. One way that clan heads have tried to maintain the system is by identifying the order of the family with the seating positions on ceremonial occasions like weddings, funerals, the formal exchange of new year greetings, and other religious and community meetings.
With the onset of industrialization, other than the eldest son, a farmer’s children tended to leave the village to get jobs in factories, and then their offspring stayed in the cities.  Now annually, in the long holidays like New Year, the beginning of May, and mid-August, many people who originally left rural areas simultaneously return to their birth places to see their parents. This ”racial” migration results in long traffic jams. ( Similar phenomena are seen in Korea, China and among people working in the EU, like Turks.)  They usually tend to go back to the home of the parents on the fathers’ side, and increasingly less often pay a visit to the home of the clan head while they are there.   This indicates that the extended family system has very much declined, bringing about the abolition of feudalism and the establishment of individual equality. On the other hand, this weakening of family solidarity has lead to other social problems with things like children’s education and care for the aged, and a general decline in social communication.

Silk is a long protein filament made of silkworm cocoon. Its production is said to have started in China between 3000-6000BC. Successive Chinese dynasties made sericultural know-how secret and exported only silk fabrics to foreign countries, along a route that became known as the Silk Road. Around the 4th century AD, the manufacturing method of sericulture circulated around India and Japan, and reached western countries in the 6th century. There is a story that a king of Turkestan took a Chinese bride in order to gain the secret of silk’s production. He is said to have asked his wife to hide silk worm eggs in her hair, and so sericulture came to the Western world.

In regard to Japan, hemp was the only material for clothing before silk was imported.  And then, as domestic products of silk were lower in quality than imported material, it was very expensive and was used mainly by the noble class, including the emperor and his family, until the 17th century. At this time, the quality of domestic silk was improved and its use spread amongst high class Samurai and the rich merchant class. In the Edo era(1600-1867), the shogun(head of the Samurai) governed the country, and the nationwide economy came to be practically controlled by the merchant class. From that time, the merchant class clearly became richer than the Samurai class. Whenever the government faced economic failure due to starvation or overspending, it ordered the people not to wear silk as an example of financial restraint. The merchants then wore clothing with an outer layer of plain cotton and a lining of gorgeous silk, which became the vogue.
So what did commoners wear? Although paper had been used for clothing before the 10th century, they basically used to endure the cold weather wearing unwarm hemp clothing, until the mass production of cotton spread in the 16th century.

The new government, started in1867, found that the former government had almost entirely exhausted the national treasury. The policy of abolishing national isolation and opening the door to foreign countries was decided by the former government just before the revolution, and this lead to the nation facing the threat of aggression by western powers, as China had at that time. Therefore, obtaining armaments became the most urgent task for the new government, so they started to develop sericulture to finance the army. At that time, farmers nationwide were engaged in its production. Incidentally, the farmers in the boy’s district had already been raising silkworms from the 17th century.

The silkworm metamorphoses 4 times in the steps of egg  larva  pupa  moth, and the larva sheds 4 times to accommodate the growth of the body. Then, after the final shedding, the larva vomits a very thin thread from its mouth to make a spherical oval shelter (cocoon) around it and becomes a pupa. In a state of near-sleep, the pupa transforms into a moth, which bites and tears the cocoon to come out.  The silk worm is a domesticated creature and unable to fly or escape from predators, so there is no chance that it could survive in the wild. The moth lays about five hundred eggs after mating and dies after about ten days.

There are four production periods – spring silk (April – June), summer silk (July), autumnal silk (August), late autumnal silk (September and October). In the approximately one month it takes for the production of the silk cocoon, farmers raise larvae into pupas to make cocoons and kill them by drying, and then ship the cocoons to the silk mills. These production processes – feeding the worms 5-8 times a day till the cocoon forms, removing excreta, cleaning the beds, treating the cocoons, cultivating the mulberry, collecting the leaves and shipping the cocoons – involve a lot of hard work.
In the 19th century, when silk production was at its peak, about 25% of farmers in Japan were occupied in the business and silk mills were built all over the country. One of them was the Tomioka silk mill, which functioned as the main factory for developing production techniques and transferring them to other factories. It was registered as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2014, from the viewpoint of its cultural importance in the industrial modernization of Japan.
Now, sericulture in Japan has declined to the point where the number of silk farmers is only about five hundred. This was partly due to losing out to Chinese silk in cost competition, but mainly because all the major applications of silk have been replaced by chemical fibers. The farmer described at the head of the Youtube version(the boy’s father’s father) had already given up silkworm farming a long time before and tried many other kinds of agriculture like forestry, tobacco and konjac (a kind of root)cultivation, dairy farming etc. Affected by the abnormality of the policies of the ministry of agriculture and its affiliated organizations, his case has been common among farmers in Japan. In other words, the US policy mentioned earlier was so influential that the Japanese government has not been able to rebuild a competitive agricultural sector. Of course, many farmers have made prosperous businesses through their own endeavors, but their number is still too few to allow Japanese agriculture to survive among world competition. At present, the government is pushing work forward to conclude the free trade agreement(TPP) with many countries around the Pacific rim.  This would be advantageous to some industries, but there is a concern that it would deliver a fatal blow to agricultural businesses.
The End

<<< Showing again the story presented in Youtube >>>

The terrain was hilly, three hundreds feet above sea level and covered by tall dark green trees.  The pathway ran along a deep ravine meandering through the bottom of the forest.  The small terraced fields of rice and other crops located here and there spread from the ravine to the top of the hill. There was a village of several farming houses in an open area and other individual houses dotted around the village at a distance of about three hundreds feet from each other.

Under the clear autumnal sky, the boy, his mother and sister were walking up a narrow slope between the fields up to a farming house.  As they had been walking since visiting a graveyard about one mile far from there, they were sweating even in the cold wind.
At the end of the slope, five stone steps lead to the yard of the farming house.  The boy glanced up to the yard while following his family up the steps and shouted, “ What’s that?”  A big greenish snake of about five feet in length was crawling slowly in the center of the yard.  He cried, “It’s a Japanese rat snake.” (Elaphe climacophora) He was usually not afraid of snakes because he’d been used to the sight of them since he was a baby, but it was so big and bulging with the chicken eggs in it that he felt he might be swallowed up by it and unintentionally clung to his mother’s hand.  His mother and sister, however, did not seem to mind at all and sat at the edge of the veranda talking to the farmer’s family. Even the dog did not bark at it.
One member of the farmer’s family told him, “ That snake is the guardian god of this house.  It never does any harm to our family – and it’s a better mouser than this cat, though it sometimes swallows eggs, like today.  It is one of a pair of Japanese rat snakes that live in the attic of the warehouse.  On warm days you can sometimes see them hanging down the wall of the house from their nest basking in the sun.  Of course, they sometimes make a trip over to the attic of the main house to catch rats.”  Though the boy understood what he said, he could not easily get rid of his fear of the big snake.  Farming coexisted harmoniously with animals and plants like that.

As one of the rites in Japanese Buddhism, almost all families visit their family grave in the week around the equinox.  By faithfully observing this rite, they believe that they will be able
to go to join deceased relatives in heaven after death.

The boy’s family had also regularly visited his father’s parents’ grave, before calling on their family.  They walked into the house from the bright open air and became unable to see well for a while because the lighting was poor in the room.  They stood on the soil floor for a few minutes and then their eyes gradually became accustomed to the dark inside .The living room was about 40 square yards, 70% of which was wooden flooring and the remainder soil.  The floor at the center of the room was cut to make a rectangular fireplace about six feet from east to west and four feet from north to south. The wooden panels and pillars in the room gleamed black from the smoke of the fireplace and daily wiping.

The charcoal fire in the ash floor of the fireplace warmed the chilly autumnal air and heated food in the cooking pot suspended from the ceiling.  The seats around the fire were specified for each member of the family – the western seat for the master, both northern and southern places for other families, while the eastern part was for the youngest housewife, where she took care of the fire and cooking.  When they had guests, the southern part was allocated to them, and the family was seated in the northern position.
The boy’s family sat there and bowed to each member of the farmer’s family. Other children were not present.
After making small talk for a while, the women brought in small trays full of special dishes from the kitchen.  On the autumnal equinox day, it is a custom to serve rice cakes topped with various sweet pastes and powders.  In this region the toppings are usually cooked soybeans, azuki-beans, sesame, walnut, parched soy beans powder, etc.  Actually, not only sweet dishes but also salty dishes such as rice cakes covered in natto and dipped in a soup of vegetables and soy source.  But then the main dishes were sweet, because sweet dishes were considered a luxury due to the high price of sugar (imported at that time), and were only served on special occasions. Additional dishes were served again and again until the guests couldn’t eat any more.  The boy had a silly thought that the snake must feel similar when it swallowed prey.

The structure of farmers’ houses was generally similar in that village.  The two-story house was about 70 yards from east to west and about 20 yards from north to south.  The walls were made of clay, with the northern side being covered by wooden doors, and paper and wooden doors covering the southern side at night.  The first floor was used for living, and the second for farm work such as sericulture, dried persimmon making, and drying tobacco leaves.  The first floor was divided into rooms of 10-40 square yards by paper or wooden doors and except for the living room and kitchen, all the floors were covered by tatami mats.  When they had some gathering like a wedding or funeral ceremony, the doors were removed to make a big hall. Of all the rooms, the one at the west end was considered to be the holiest.  Buddhist and Shinto altars were installed in this room, and were prayed to by the head of the house or his wife every morning.  The head of the house usually slept in this room or the next room, and his first son in an adjourning room. The rooms in the north side were shared by the women, and whether they could have a private one or not depended on the wealth of the family.  The second and following sons had to endure more miserable conditions. It has already been described that the farmhouse was usually a two-story building, but this house had a small room between the ground floor and the first floor. (The author is not sure if this room was a special or common feature of houses in the village.)  The small room, which was utilized as a work room for farm-related tasks, was where the second and following sons had to live.

His father was just a second son and had grown up in this room, which he visited out of natural curiosity about his father’s history while his mother was chatting in the sitting room.  This was his first visit and he was shocked.  The walls, stained by water leakage and traces of insect bodies etc., were randomly covered by calendars, posters of movies, movie stars, and singers, and a small naked bulb was dangling drearily from the low ceiling.  The reek of men’s sweat rose from the futons piled up on the tattered straw mats.  He thought that the inhabitants of this room must fall asleep without caring about the smell because of the hard work they did in the daytime.  In the 1950’s, the farming in this area produced mainly rice, but also silk cocoons, dried persimmon, tobacco leaves, timber etc. This must have entailed a lot of hard labor because all the work was carried out by men, cattle, and horses.  Basically, their room was just like a cattle shed. (The production of silk cocoons will be described later.)

Japanese society and culture have been sustained by farming. In many countries, the main crop is the staple food, which is dictated by the circumstances of each country.   Comparing rice and wheat will simplify this explanation:  With wheat, the yield per unit area of cultivation is lower than rice and reduced by consecutive cultivation every year, so it is necessary to have an extensive area of land.  On the other hand, rice can be produced with a high per unit yield even with annual cultivation, providing there is sufficient labor.  So in Japan, with a narrow area of land taken up mainly by mountains, there is no choice except rice. (The mean yields of main crops per unit area in Japan are as follows; 500-600kg/a(rice), 300kg/a(wheat), 250kg/10a(corn).  ‘a =100m2 ‘.)
This labor-intensive industry in a small area of cultivation brought about a serious contradiction.  That is, every farmer could secure adequate resources just by producing children, but if upon his death the field were to be divided among the children, the resulting area would be too small to sustain a family.  Consequently, the field was given to one person, usually the first son, and other children had no rights to it. Women worked in their girlhood and left their family as brides or workwomen after they became adults.  Men had rather miserable existences, working their whole lives like domestic animals. (Of course, in the modern age men had the option of going to work in factories, but the resultant shortage of farm labor has created other problems.)
The father of the boy was the second son in his family, so he joined the navy to escape the sad life that he was destined for. As soon as the boy stepped into that room, he had an overwhelming sense of despair, remembering his school life and how he had suffered at the hands of bullies.  He just stood there in a stupor.
He had no idea how long he stood there like that.  He became aware of a sound like rain falling hard on a tin roof.   This sound must have been clearly audible when he first entered, but the intense impression of the room prevented him from noticing it.  He recalled that the farmer was breeding silk worms on the upper floor, and that they made a sound while eating the mulberry leaves.  He went up to the second floor and into a large open area of about 600 square yards.  On shelves around the room, there were many shallow round baskets made of woven bamboo, of about 3 feet in diameter and one inch depth.   In the baskets, a huge amount of white silk worms of about 3/8 inches diameter and 5 inches length were feeding.   The sound of an individual worm feeding was barely noticeable but collectively they made a considerable noise.   The unusual scene – the sound, the huge number of bugs and the intense reek -overcame him.  While watching a silk worm eating the mulberry leaves, he started to feel that its brown mouth was suddenly closing on him as if to bite.  Then it seemed to swell abruptly and it somehow became himself.
He lost consciousness.