As any of the locals will tell you, Japan has four distinct seasons. It’s late spring here, which means that some fields are planted and others are being prepared for crops. Today, in this fourth set of pictures from my April 30th bike trip, I’ll show you what some of the farm wives in this country have to go through. As you’ll see, it’s less of a farming club and more of a labour camp for grandmothers.
If you’ve missed the other posts in this series you can read them by following these links: Introduction, Part 1: Snakes, Part 2: Not A Temple. and Part 3: Frogs.
I think the powder this woman is spreading on the field is fertilizer. The green nozzle is attached to her backpack. She shakes the nozzle from side to side to get the powder to flow.
A view of her back. The fertilizer pack is like a giant cake icing bag, but one that’s activated by shaking and gravity rather than squeezing.
Here she is again, putting on her pack after having refilled it at her truck.
This lady seems to be spraying weed killer at the edge of the field. It’s hard to tell from the picture, but she has a face mask, heavy rubber gloves, and a plastic or rubber apron. On her back she has a metal tank that looks like a giant-sized hip flask. There’s some sort of pump-action lever mechanism to make the spray come out. On the other side of her are some onions and some mystery vegetables.
This last picture is of the fertilizer lady in the context of the fields. The shrine where I took the frog pictures is in the woods at the base of the hill. It’s not visible in this photo, but you’d walk right into it if you went straight toward the centre of the picture, through the low brown houses and then through the trees. The grey gate in the right side of the photo is the shrine’s first torii.
I don’t know what to say about the fashion choices in these pictures. The way farmers dress—for protection from the harsh sun—doesn’t surprise me any more, especially after I’ve been out biking without sunblock for a day and come home with a nasty sunburn..
These farms are fairly typical, if a bit small, for the region. When I biked through here late last summer, I saw rows and rows of eggplant, as well as the post-harvest remains of cucumber vines. The small size of the fields—in Saskatchewan some of these wouldn’t even be considered garden plots—probably accounts for the intense manual labour since they don’t seem big enough to justify the purchase of machines.
Which begs the question: what are the men up to? I rarely see them working the fields, aside from driving rice planters or harvesters—each are about the size of a subcompact car—or using radio-controlled helicopters to spray the crops. Their absence in the fields could also be due to the proliferation of Pachinko parlours across rural Japan. Meanwhile, these elderly ladies—I’d guess they are in their sixties or seventies—seem to do most of the work.
[The next post in this series is Rural Kitakyushu: Reservoir Mobs]
Maybe the men and younger women have off-farm jobs.
I occasionally see the men helping in the fields but more often than not I’ll see old women, and I mean really old women—some look like they’re in their eighties—huched over tending the fields, while I see men walking dogs or fishing.
Much like the farming industry in Saskatchewan, it’s an occupation on the decline. Fewer people are staying on the farms, since young men and women want to move to the cities and live a more cosmopolitan lifestyle. They want to buy Louis Vuitton bags, go clubbing, and buy western-style houses or condos.
There’s also the issue of mortality. I’d guess that there are many widows running family farms after their husbands have died and their children have moved to the Tokyo.
Plus, Japan’s population is shrinking. The birth rate has been dropping for a number of years, and has finally been overtaken by the death rate. There are estimates that in the next decade or two, not only will there be an insufficient workforce to pay for upcoming retirees’ pensions, but there simply won’t be enough people in the care industries to look after all the old people. It’s changing the social fabric, as this very xenophobic society contemplates the reality of having to let in foreigners en masse—likely from poor southeast Asian countries—in order to have enough hands to do the unskilled labour.
In fact, on the pension issue, there’s talk among the teachers at my school that many of the forty-somethings will have to work an extra five years because of plans to push the retirement age from sixty to sixty-five.
Thinking about this a bit further, I’ve just realized that in many cases, there’s a good chance that these old farming women’s husbands were killed in World War II, or sustained injuries or had their lifespans shortened by exposure to chemicals during their military service.
The women would have suffered through the bombings as well, and many of them probably worked in the factories in nearby Kokura and Moji, building weapons in support of the war effort.