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Climate of Japan — Dr. Hepburn's tables — Hottest and coldest months — Monsoons — Gales of wind — The rainy season — Earthquakes — Agriculture — Rank of the farmer — Rocks and soil — Cultivation of winter crops — Seed-time and harvest — Curious mode of harvesting — Summer crops on dry land — Mode of planting — Manures — Crops requiring irrigation — Cultivation of rice — Other crops — Animals few in number — Waste lands — Crops and seasons.
IN the preceding chapters of this work I have noticed, from time to time, the operations of the Japanese husbandman. But the agriculture of Japan is a subject of considerable interest, and one which is worthy of more than a passing notice. In order that it may be better understood I shall first endeavour to give an account of the climate of the country.
The empire of Japan covers a space of about 15 degrees of latitude, and is placed between 30° and 45° north. It consists of four large islands, namely, Kiu-siu, Sikok, Nipon, and Yesso, and occupies a position on the eastern side of Asia not unlike that of the British Islands on the west of Europe, only considerably further to the south. Like China it is liable to extremes of temperature — to excessive heat in summer and great cold in winter — such as are unknown on our side of the world within the same degrees of latitude. But the sea, surrounding and running between the various islands, prevents the extremes of heat and cold from being so great as they are on the mainland. Hence Japan is a much more healthy and agreeable place of residence than China, at least for the English and other inhabitants of the more temperate parts of Europe.
My remarks on climate, and the tables of temperature, &c., which I shall bring forward, apply more particularly to the island of Nipon, near the capital and centre of the empire. At Nagasaki, on the island of Kiu-siu, in the south, the winters are less cold than at Yedo; while at Hakodadi, in Yesso, they are longer and more severe. The Russian traveller Golownin tells us that at Hakodadi the first snow fell about the middle of October, but soon melted; winter set in about the 15th of November, with deep snow, which lasted until April. But making these allowances for the differences of latitude, the information which I shall give of the climate of Nipon will present a fair idea of that of the country generally. I am indebted for the following tables to Dr. Hepburn, an American medical missionary in Kanagawa, and they may, I am confident, be fully relied upon.
In looking at the annexed table it will be seen that July and August are the two hottest months in the year, having a maximum temperature of 92° and a minimum of 63°. In January and February, which are the two coldest months, the temperature ranges between 18° and 59°. In some seasons it probably sinks considerably lower than it did in 1860, and no doubt it may usually be marked much lower than this in the more northern island of Yesso.
The heat of the summer months tempered by sea breezes is easily endured, while the cold of midwinter has a bracing effect upon the constitutions of both natives and foreigners. The latter seem peculiarly healthy in Japan, and instances are not rare in which invalids from China, who have visited the country on account of their health, have been speedily cured. In March, April, and up to the middle of May (the commencement of the rains), the climate is very delightful. The autumnal months are generally of the same description; although the sun is sometimes hot in the middle of the day, yet an umbrella is not required; the air is cool and agreeable, and the evenings are most enjoyable. At this time of the year the sun, for days, and sometimes for weeks together, rises in the morning, runs his course, and sets in the evening in a sky on which not a cloud has appeared.
The monsoons which blow steadily along the eastern coast of Asia are not so decided in their character in Japan as they are in China. Still, however, northerly and easterly winds prevail from September to April, and southerly and westerly during the remainder of the year. Like China this country is frequently visited by those fearful hurricanes or cyclones, commonly known as typhoons, which unroof houses, tear trees out of the ground, and wreck many a goodly vessel at sea. It is also remarkable, more than any country known to me, for the suddenness with which gales come on. The morning may be calm and beautiful, yet long before noon it may be blowing a furious gale of wind.
In Japan the rainy season is much more decided in its character than it is in China. The hearty way in which the rains come down reminded me more of the season in Upper India, amongst the southern ranges of the Himalayas, than of' that in China. But the rainy season in Japan is short when compared with India. It usually commences about the middle of May and lasts to the middle or end of June; and a glance at the table will show that these two months are by far the wettest in the year. This is the time when the monsoon is changing from north to south. The southerly winds come up loaded with moisture which they have acquired in their passage over the sea through warm latitudes. This moisture is suddenly condensed into thick fogs as it comes in contact with the land, which has been cooled down to a low temperature by the long-continued northerly winds.1
In 1860 but little snow fell on the low lands, although it was plentiful upon the adjoining mountains. But if Dr. Hepburn's table shows little snow, it is most prolific in earthquakes. In June there were no less than eleven shocks, and during the year the total number felt was thirty-two! When we take into consideration the number that occurred during the hours of sleep, which were not felt and registered, we may have some idea of the activity of the volcanos which lie under this extraordinary country.
Having thus given some idea of the climate of Japan, of "its summer and winter, its seed-time and harvest," I shall now endeavour to give a description of its agriculture. As a profession agriculture does not hold the same rank in Japan as it does in China. The Tycoon does not here mark his sense of its importance by putting his hands to the plough and throwing the first grains of rice into the ground, as is done by the "Son of Heaven." In social rank the farmer is said to be below the Buddhist priest, the soldier, the merchant, and even the petty shopkeeper. We are told that he is but the serf of the great landed proprietor, and that he is heavily taxed and kept in a state of complete degradation. I am not in a position to deny these statements, but I can affirm, from personal observation in many parts of the country, that the farmers and their families live in good comfortable-looking houses, are well clothed, well fed, and appear to be happy and contented. It is just possible, however, that they may be a wealthier class in the territory adjoining the Imperial cities, such as Nagasaki and Yedo, than in that of the vassal princes and feudal lords of the soil.
The geological formation of the country and the composition of the soil vary greatly in the different districts. In the island of Kiu-siu, in the south, and also in Sikok, the upper sides of the hills are generally barren, with rocks of clay-slate and granite protruding. On the lower sides of the hills and in the valleys, where cultivation is carried on, the soil consists of clay and sand mixed with vegetable matter. On the south side of Nipon, Mr. Alcock informs us, the hills are formed of "sandstone and sand, and the valleys and plains seem little else." About three days' journey to the south of Fusi-yama, "the dark rich soil of the volcanic regions first appeared." In the country round the capital the soil is of a blackish-brown colour, composed chiefly of vegetable matter, and bears some resemblance to that which is found in the peat-bogs of England. This description of soil, as I have already noticed, is not confined to the low valleys, but is also met with on the tops of the hills.
The agricultural productions of Japan may be divided into two great classes, namely, the winter and the summer crops. The winter crops consist of wheat, barley, cabbage oil-plant (Brassica sinensis), and other cabbage for the table, together with buckwheat, peas, beans, onions, and English potatoes. The three first-mentioned may be considered as the staple winter productions. All these crops are cultivated on land which is above the level of the rice valleys. The wheat and barley are sown in the end of October or beginning of November; these soon vegetate, and cover the hill-sides with lively green during the winter months. The seed is sown in rows, about two feet three inches apart, and is dropped in the drills by the hand in patches, each containing from, twenty-five to thirty seeds, these patches being about a foot apart from each other in the drill. As the land has been carefully cleaned and prepared previously to sowing, scarcely any further labour is necessary during the winter and following spring.
Early in the month of April the hill-sides are yellow with the flowers of the cabbage oil-plant, and the air is filled with its fragrance. About the 10th of May the wheat and barley are in full ear, and the seed-pods of the cabbage are swelling and coming fast to maturity. The latter ripens near Yedo about the end of the month, and the oil harvest begins. The plant is not cut like corn, but is pulled up by the root, and laid on the field where it has been growing. When it has lain for a few days to dry, a convenient space is cleared in the middle of the prostrate crop, upon which mats are laid, and the labourers (women chiefly) take the stalks, handful by handful, and tread out the seeds upon the mats. In the beginning of June fires are seen all over the country, and smoke fills the air. The rape-seed has been harvested, and the farmers are now engaged in burning the stalks and other refuse on the land, with the view of getting the ashes for the summer crops which are now being sown to take the place of the rape.
The barley harvest commences in the first days of June, and in 1861 was in full operation on the 5th of that month. The corn is cut with a small hook exactly like that which is used in China. A portion of this is carried home to the farm-houses at once, in order to be secure from the weather, which is rather moist at this period of the year. Here the heads of corn are separated from the stalks by beating them over a bamboo grating. The bamboo, being flinty and sharp, cuts off the heads at every stroke, and leaves them to fall through the grating to the ground. In the court-yard of every farmhouse there is a broad flooring of chunnam, hard and smooth, on which the corn is laid and thrashed out with a flail, in the same way as in the olden time in England.
Another portion of the crop was harvested in a most curious way, which I think must be peculiar to Japan, for I have neither seen .it nor heard of it in any other country. On the 10th of June — so says my journal — fires were observed blazing all over the country, and dense masses of smoke were seen rising from every cornfield. This time it was not the burning of rape-stalks, for they had all disappeared, having been converted into their elements of earth and air, the former of which was already entering into another form and was supplying food for the summer crops. It was the bearded barley which was now going through the crucible, the object being to separate the heads of corn from the straw and awns. This was done in the following way: — The corn, having been tied up in small bundles or sheaves, is removed to a convenient spot on the edge of the field. When the burning is to begin the workman takes a sheaf in one hand, and with the other applies fire to the upper or corn end of the sheaf. It immediately ignites, the awns go off in a blaze, the heads of corn snap from the stalk and fall to the ground. Lighting another sheaf, the workman throws the first away in a blaze, regardless apparently of the value of the straw, and so the operation goes on. As the beardless heads fall to the ground the fire goes out, leaving them slightly browned by the operation, but with the grain unharmed.
Straw is largely used for the flooring of rooms, and is laid under the matting, but, judging from the quantity which is burned in this way, it cannot be so valuable to the Japanese as it is to us. The object in thus burning the barley is, no doubt, to economise the space which is available for shelter, for, if the grain were left exposed to the rains which fall at this season, it would soon germinate and spoil. Every evening these heads of corn are packed up in baskets and carried home to the farmstead, where they are threshed out by the flail on the chunnam floor, as I have already described.
The wheat harvest is later than the barley, and became general about the 23rd of June. The varieties of both wheat and barley did not appear to me to be first-rate, but probably they may be more suitable to the climate of Japan than those of the higher qualities cultivated in Europe. There were two or three varieties of wheat, one of them a red kind, said to have been imported from the United States of America. By the 1st of July both barley and wheat harvests were over in Nipon, and the summer crops were already progressing rapidly on what had formerly been cornfields.
The summer crops consist of two classes, one which is cultivated on the dry hill or corn land, and another which succeeds best in the valleys which can be irrigated. The first of these consists of soy and other beans of that class, French beans, hill rice — a kind that does not require irrigation — cotton, oily grain (Sesamum orientale), the eggplant, turnips, radishes, carrots, onions, gobbo (Arctium gobbo), cucumbers and melons, ginger, yams, and sweet potatoes.
No time is lost in getting these crops into the ground. The corn, I have already observed, is grown in rows, and some time before it is ripe the spaces between the rows are carefully weeded, stirred up, and manured with burnt ashes. The summer crops are then sown or planted between the rows of the ripening corn, and have made considerable progress in their growth before it is harvested. In this way a longer season of growth is secured. When the corn has been cut, the stubble, after a short time, is hoed up and drawn to the side of the new crop, where it rots and forms manure.
The manures which are used for these crops consist chiefly of burnt ashes at the time of sowing, and of night-soil diluted with water during the period of growth. Night-soil and urine are carefully collected and deposited in large earthen jars, which are sunk on the sides of the fields.
Sweet potatoes are preserved during winter in a square plot of ground in the farm-yard. This is surrounded with a straw fence, and covered over with paddy husks and straw when the weather is cold. Early in May, — the winter covering having been removed, — the potatoes begin to grow rapidly, and send out numerous young shoots, which are made into "cuttings," and transplanted at once into the fields. This transplanting commences about the end of May, and continues all June. When these cuttings are put into the ground, they seem to form roots and grow as easily as couch grass. But then this operation takes place during the rainy season, when the sky is often cloudy, and when the air is charged with moisture, — a circumstance which fully accounts for its success.
The second class of summer crops are those which grow chiefly in the low valleys, and require irrigation during the period of their growth. Rice, the staple food of the people, is one of the principal of these, and by far the most important. The variety in cultivation is, I think, superior to the kinds met with in China and in India, and is probably the best in Asia.
The rice-lands generally lie fallow all the winter, and consequently yield only one crop in the year. In the last days of April, or about the first of May, little patches of land are prepared in the corners of the fields as seed-beds for the young paddy. Here the seed is sown thickly, sometimes having been steeped in liquid manure previously to its being sown. It vegetates in a wonderfully short space of time — three or four days, if the weather be warm and moist, as it generally is at this season of the year. In the mean time, while this is vegetating in the seed-beds, the labourers are busily employed in preparing the land into which it is to be transplanted.
In China the rice-land is usually prepared by the plough and harrow, drawn by the bullock or the buffalo. These animals are rarely seen in Japan employed in this way; at least, they did not come under my observation. The rice-lands are prepared almost entirely by manual labour. A strong three-pronged fork, having the prongs bent like a hoe, is used for this purpose. The land is then flooded, and manured with grass and weeds cut and brought from adjacent waste ground, and used in a fresh state, as I have already described. The surface of the fields is then made smooth, and is considered ready for the young rice in the seed-beds.
The transplanting of the young paddy commences about the 8th of June. About three inches of water cover the surface of the fields, and the planting goes on with the most astonishing rapidity. The work is performed exactly in the same way as it is in China. A labourer takes a load of plants under his left arm, and drops them in little bundles over the surface of the land about to be planted, knowing, almost to a plant, what number will be required. Others, both men and women, take up the bundles which are thus thrown down, and the planting commences. The proper number of plants are selected and planted in rows, by the hand, in the muddy soil. When the hand is drawn up, the water rushes in, carrying down with it a portion of the soil, and thus the roots are covered instantaneously. Cranes, or herons, follow the labourers in the fields, and pick up the worms. The planting season is at its height about the 21st of June, and is generally over by the 10th of July. On some lands the seed is sown thinly, broadcast, and here, of course, no transplanting is necessary; this sowing takes place from the 15th to the 20th of May.
As the rice valleys near Kanagawa are intersected and surrounded by hills from which streams of water are continually flowing, it is not necessary to irrigate the fields by water-wheels, as in China. The streams are led, in the first place, into the fields near the foot of the hills, where the land is highest. Little ridges of earth or grassy embankments surround the different fields, each having a small space for the ingress and egress of the water. In this manner the hill stream first floods one field to the desired depth, then flows into the next at the point of egress, and so on, until the whole valley is irrigated. Natural or artificial watercourses, with channels lower than the fields, run through these rice valleys, and when the water is no longer required it is led into these, and carried out to the sea. By this means the water is kept always under the most perfect control; and in the autumn, when the ripening crops no longer require its aid, the little points of ingress are closed up, and the stream is allowed to flow in its natural channel.
During the remainder of the summer and autumn the paddy requires little more than attention to the irrigation, and now and then loosening and stirring up the soil between the rows, and removing any weeds. It is ripe and is harvested in November.
Amongst other agricultural productions which grow in the valleys of Japan, may be mentioned, Arum esculentum, Scirpus tuberosus, and Juneus effusus, the latter being used in the manufacture of mats which are so common in the country. In the lakes and ponds large quantities of nelumbium-roots are grown, and are used as a vegetable and also in the production of a kind of arrowroot.
Such is a short account of Japanese farming as it presented itself to me in the autumn and winter of 1860, and spring and summer of 1861. The farms are small in extent when compared with those in western countries, and the homesteads also present a very different appearance to ours. They have no "lowing of oxen or bleating of sheep;" a stray pack-horse, or a solitary ox, may sometimes be seen, but these are only used as beasts of burden. Pigs may sometimes be met with, but they are generally kept in the background out of view; pork, however, is abundant in the butchers' shops. Goats and sheep do not appear to be indigenous; some of the latter have been imported from China, but the experiment of acclimatising them has not yet succeeded. They invariably become diseased, and die off. Cows or oxen are little used in agriculture, and it is probable that the Japanese, like their neighbours in China, have religious scruples as to using such animals for food.
It has been frequently repeated, by writers on Japan, that "hardly a foot of ground, to the very tops of the mountains, is left uncultivated." I have already shown in a previous chapter that such is not the case; that thousands of acres of fertile land are lying uncultivated, and covered with trees planted by nature, and brushwood, of little value. One naturally asks why these lands, which are capable of cultivation, should be allowed to lie in this unproductive condition. Is it because there is more than enough to supply the wants of a people that, for ages past, have been shut out from the rest of the world, and have therefore, while they have not contributed to the wants of others, been accustomed to rely entirely upon themselves for food and clothing?2
I cannot conclude this description of Japanese agriculture without noticing the remarkable connection which exists between the climate and the productions of the country, and how well they are suited to each other. The rainy season does not come on until the dry winter and spring crops are ripe, and ready to be harvested. When the rice-planting begins, and when the cuttings of the sweet potato are being put out, the air becomes loaded with moisture, and the rain comes down in torrents. Every hill stream is filled with water, and thus the means of irrigating the rice-fields are ready to the hands of the husbandman. Such excessive moisture would have been fatal to the wheat and barley and rape, but it gives life and vigour to the paddy and sweet potatoes, and is necessary for their health and luxuriance. The tea-plant, too, which, at this season, has had its first leaves plucked, is revived by the moist air and frequent showers, and is enabled to push forth with renewed vigour, and to yield fresh supplies. And when excessive moisture is no longer necessary to these summer products, the rain ceases, the sky becomes clear, and the, air comparatively dry: Then the process of ripening begins, and a sunny autumn enables the husbandman to gather into his barns the fruits of his anxious labours.
1 Sir John Davis's 'Chinese.'
2 The land in question is suitable for the dry crops only — not rice-land. Rice in considerable quantities is brought from the Loo-choo islands to Nipon.