A Tradition in Trouble: Accident Casts Doubt on Future of Ehime Rice Terraces

Society

The Izumidani tanada are among Japan’s most scenic terraced rice fields. However, they are maintained by only three farmers, one of whom recently suffered a serious accident that placed a question mark over the future of the picturesque paddies.

Carrying on a Tradition

The Izumidani terraced rice fields are the pride and joy of Uchiko, an agrarian town in the hills of Ehime Prefecture. Spread along a narrow valley, the stepped paddies are regarded among Japan’s 100 most scenic terraced fields. Just three farmers care for the picturesque paddies, including Ueoka Mitsue, a veteran grower affectionately known as the “terrace guy.” For Ueoka, however, this was no ordinary season.

“My father went to great lengths to create these terraces,” Ueoka says with pride. “I feel it’s my duty to maintain them, and I have so far.” During a normal year he can be seen with his wife Atsue caring for the fields, including supervising groups of students from local elementary schools who come to experience what tending the paddies is like.

Ueoka Mitsue (right) and wife Atsue.
Ueoka Mitsue (right) and wife Atsue.

This January, however, there was no sign of the couple among the terraces as Ueoka was in the hospital. “I had a serious accident that put a big dent in my skull,” he says in a frank tone. “I nearly died.”

The Izumidani terraced rice fields during the September harvest.
The Izumidani terraced rice fields during the September harvest.

The Izumidani terraces in winter.
The Izumidani terraces in winter.

Ueoka Mitsue shows off the scar on his head where doctors operated.
Ueoka Mitsue shows off the scar on his head where doctors operated.

In November, Ueoka was attempting to lower a tiller into a paddy when he lost his balance and fell into an irrigation ditch, fracturing his skull. He underwent emergency surgery that saved his life, but more misfortune was to come. Shortly after the accident, Atsue, who was exhausted from caring for her injured husband, fractured her spine when she accidentally drove her car into one of the rice paddies.

The Ueoka’s are not the only Izumidani caretakers who understand how the steep embankments between terraces often render everyday tasks hazardous. For Shimizu Fukuichirō, one of the other farmers who works on the fields, the heartbreaking accidents have been a reminder of the risks involved in keeping the agrarian tradition alive.

“Looking after the terraces is all well and good, but farmers have to put safety first,” exclaims Shimizu. “Just because you managed the job one year doesn’t mean you’ll be able to do it the next.”

By the time the Ueokas returned home from the hospital, early spring flowers were already blossoming in the fields.

Terrace farmer Shimizu Fukuichirō.
Terrace farmer Shimizu Fukuichirō.

The Izumidani terraces stretch up the valley.
The Izumidani terraces stretch up the valley.

Atsue (left) speaks with her 94-year-old mother, who expressed relief that the family is safely back together.
Atsue (left) speaks with her 94-year-old mother, who expressed relief that the family is safely back together.

In April, Ueoka headed back into the paddies and set about hoeing methodically. Assisted by local schoolchildren at the beginning of the planting season, he managed to get the rice seedlings into the ground just in time.

A farmer floods the terraced fields prior to planting.
A farmer floods the terraced fields prior to planting.

Local schoolchildren help plant rice seedlings.
Local schoolchildren help plant rice seedlings.

Although Ueoka is not quite ready to throw in the towel, he insists that his health comes first. Asked about next season, he says that “I’ll have to think about it when the time comes. If I’m able to get my strength back completely, I’ll give it another shot, but I’m not up to the task right now.”

The Izumidani terraces attract visitors from around Japan and even abroad, but it is uncertain how many more years farmers like Ueoka can carry on the rice-growing tradition.

(Originally published in Japanese on FNN’s Prime Online on July 15, 2019. Translated and edited by Nippon.com.)

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