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Friday, July 12, 2002



Cultivating tradition


Seventeen boys and girls from Furusawa Elementary School are up to their shins in mud. June is the traditional rice-planting month in the Isumi area of Chiba Prefecture and for the past three years, the local fifth-graders have tried their hands at planting rice the old-fashioned way.

News photo
For Maggie Slaton, rice planting is one way to understand local farming practices.

Today the children are planting a fragrant long-grain rice, called koari mai, originally from India. There are other exotic "heirloom" varieties, such as a highly nutritious Chinese black rice, a red rice from Kyushu, a sweet, green variety used for making mochi and a very rare bonsai rice from Tohoku. In a small plot, there is also an ancient variety sown from seeds unearthed at a Jomon Era excavation site in Gunma Prefecture.

Joining the children in the rice-planting fun is Maggie Slaton, a Texas native, who works as an assistant language teacher in the local school district. At university, Slaton studied global food and water sustainability, issues that she has maintained an interest in during her travels in Asia observing local farming practices. Last autumn, after tasting the sweet, green rice at a local mochi party, Slaton was eager to try her hand at planting.

"Rice and rice cultivation are an important part of Japanese culture," says Slaton. "And getting out in the mud with the children has given me a whole new appreciation of Japan's rice-growing tradition."

According to Yukio Tezuka, biology teacher at Ichinomiya Commercial High School and director of the Isumi Nature Preservation Association, such ancient rice originally played an important role in Shinto religious rites. It is believed that sekihan, a Japanese rice dish traditionally eaten on ceremonial occasions, was originally made using red or black rice.

Tezuka, who is one of the advisers for the heirloom rice project, points out: "With the many varieties of food now available and the mass-production techniques of modern rice cultivation, young people have lost an appreciation of rice's traditional significance. By planting rice the traditional way and taking part in its cultivation all the way to harvest, we are able to experience firsthand the roots of Japan's rice culture."

Slaton's interest in rice and traditional Japanese foods began before she came to Japan on the JET Program. She was influenced by books on health and nutrition, and by her aunt, health and fitness consultant Debra Kerns, whose clients include several well-known Hollywood personalities. In her English classes, Slaton discusses the importance of the traditional Japanese diet.

"It is surprising how many people in the Western fashion and entertainment worlds regularly eat traditional Japanese food, such as miso and brown rice," says Slaton. "They are just a part of the growing number of people who have realized the health benefits of a grain- and vegetable-based Oriental diet."

The JET Program is an opportunity for people to overcome cultural stereotypes, and Slaton is eager to point out that the image of Americans as being meat and bread eaters is not entirely true.

"American food is not just high-calorie fast food and sweets," she says. "We have a cosmopolitan culture made up of people from all over the world, and this influences the food we eat. While growing up in Texas, we had access to a wide variety of rice dishes, such as Tex-Mex, Spanish, Creole, Chinese and Indian."

When Slaton first arrived in Japan, however, she was surprised by the diet of many of the people she met. "There are a lot more chemical preservatives and additives and high-calorie foods than I expected," she says.

Slaton also mentions an important fact about American history that is little known in Japan. "The country's founding fathers, such as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, actively sought out the best rice available from around the world. Highly prized rice from Italy, North Africa and China became an important cash crop in early America and was aggressively exported to Europe."

Slaton also points out that in recent years, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has changed the recommended diet plan for the American public toward a menu rich in grains and vegetables.

"It is interesting that in Japan, a high-calorie and animal-protein style Western diet is recommended," Slaton says, "while the U.S. government's diet guidelines are actually based on the traditional Japanese diet emphasizing grains and vegetables."

The students have finished today's rice planting and have selected a few seedlings to take back and cultivate in a small garden behind their school. By August, when the rice flowers are in bloom and the fields are a chorus of colors, the unusual beauty of the rice fields will take on a magical quality. Come late October, the rice stalks will be heavy with various colored grains, and the children will return to the field to harvest the rice. Later, they will enjoy a harvest festival where they will pound the mochi rice the traditional way with a heavy wooden mortar and pestle.

"The fifth-graders can experience firsthand the process of rice cultivation, while enjoying the fruits of their labor," says Tezuka. "And in this way they can feel a connection to the life process and the food they eat."

As for Slaton, she will complete a year on the JET Program in July. From September, she will work as an English teacher on the Peace Boat, funded by a Japanese nongovernmental organization devoted to increasing international awareness, as it sails around the world. "

"Food and water sustainability are very important global issues," says Slaton. "The Peace Boat will allow me to experience how people around the world are dealing with these issues."

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