Till recently the Japanese had neither manufactures nor foreign commerce, neither have they yet any flocks of sheep and goats, any droves of geese, turkeys, or pigs. Even cattle are comparatively scarce, and neither their flesh nor their milk is in general use, beef being still regarded as a luxury, and milk rather as a medicine than a food. The pasture meadow and the farmyard are alike lacking. Here, far more than in the West, agriculture in its narrower sense has been all in all, forming the basis on which the whole social fabric rests. Justly, therefore, in feudal times, did the peasantry rank next to the Samurai or gentry, and before the merchants and mechanics. Even under the new regime, more than half the population is engaged in field labour, and nearly half the national revenue flows from that source. There are no large landed proprietors. As a rule, each farmer or peasant tills his own field with the help of his sons and often his wife and daughters; and the land is really his own, for the doctrine that everything belongs absolutely to the Emperor is, of course, only a convenient legal fiction. No wonder that he works with a will.
In this land of mountains, barely twelve per cent. of the entire surface can be cultivated, and even the cultivable portion is not highly fertile by nature. It is made so by subsoil working, by minutely careful weeding, by manure judiciously and laboriously applied, by terracing, and by an elaborate method of irrigation. The whole agricultural system came from China, and has altered little since the earliest ages. The peasantry are the most conservative class in the nation, and their implements still strangely primitive,-the plough in common use, for instance, differing little rom that of Egypt in the time of the Pharaohs. The hoe is in great request. Spades of various shapes, harrows, and sickles are also used, together with an extremely rude type of flail and stamping-trough; but Japanese rural economy knows nothing of wagons or wheelbarrows.
The Chinese and Japanese enumerate five cereals as the staples to which agricultural labour should be devoted. These are rice, barley, wheat, millet, and beans. But rice ranks above all the rest,-equal in fact to all the others put together. These others are grown chiefly as winter crops, when the rice-fields have to lie fallow, or else in small patches, or on the higher ground, which want of water or a harsher climate renders unfit for the cultivation of the more important commodity.
The preparation of the rice-fields-"paddy-fields," as Europeans often call them-is extremely arduous, involving not only much hoeing, but the construction of perforated mud dams and a whole system of terracing, whereby water from a neighbouring stream is led gradually down from field to field;-for all high-class rice requires flooding, only an inferior sort being grown in the dry. Various manures are employed. The commonest is night-soil, whose daily conveyance all about the country apparently causes no distress to native noses. The seed is sown in small beds about the end of' April, and it sprouts in five or six days. Early in June, the young shoots are plucked up and transplanted in rows. The generally lifeless fields may at that time be seen full of men and women standing knee-deep in the water and mud. Then comes the hot summer. What traveller in Japan will not recall, as the most characteristic feature of the summer landscape, those fields of vivid green, separated-chessboard-like-into squares which fill a gradually widening valley flanked by hills that rise abruptly, as if the whole had been cut out by the hand of man, as indeed it has through centuries of terracing?
The rice-plant blossoms early in September, is reaped in October, and then hung up on short poles. Threshing is done either with the primitive flails above mentioned, or with a sort of large comb or heckle. Many Europeans believe that two rice crops are produced in the year. This occurs as a solitary exception in the province of Tosa, where the warming effect of the Kuro-shio, or Japanese Gulf Stream, makes itself felt with special energy. Elsewhere such a thing is rendered impossible by the length and severity of the winter.
Japanese rice is highly esteemed throughout the neighbouring countries, on account of its glutinous nature. The manner in which it is cooked makes it exceptionally palatable and nutritious, quite different from the Indian process which leaves each grain separate and dry. Every one lives on it who can afford to do so; but as a rule, the peasantry cannot. Wheat, barley, and especially millet, are the real staples throughout the rural districts, rice being there treated as a luxury to be brought out only on high days and holidays, or to be resorted to in case of sickness. We once heard a beldame in a country village remark to another, with a grave shake of the head: "What! do you mean to say that it has come to having to give her rice?"-the unexpressed inference being that the patient's case must be alarming indeed, if the family had thought it necessary to resort to so expensive a dainty.
The market price of rice is quoted on 'change at so much per hyö ("bag"); but the retail vendors sell it at so many shö and gö per yen (Japanese dollar). In other words, in large transactions it is a fixed amount of the commodity itself that sells for a variable sum; in small purchases it is a fixed sum that is given for a variable amount of the commodity. The former method of calculation is familiar only to business men. But every pater and mater-familias takes a keen-not to say painful-interest in knowing whether rice is, say, 6 shö 1 gö per yen, or has advanced to 5 shö 9 gö. Four or five grades are habitually quoted, of which the extremes differ about 20 per cent. in price. Japanese rice is exported as a luxury to the neighbouring continent of Asia, which in return sends its poorer quality to be bought cheap by the Japanese lower classes. Hence the apparent anomaly that rice appears alike among Japanese imports and exports.
In the extreme south the sweet potato, which was introduced as late as A.D. 1698, now forms the chief food of the common people. Besides the cereals, vegetables of various sorts are raised, but are eaten chiefly pickled and in small quantities.
Some few of the principal agricultural industries, such as tea, camphor, and lacquer, will be found treated in separate articles.
Books recommended - For a careful general account, Rein Industries of Japan. -For fuller technical details, Dr. M. Fesca. Beiträge zur Kenntniss der japanischen Landwirtschaft, and shorter articles by the same in the "German Asiatic Transactions". -Dr. K. Rathgen Japan's Volkswirthschaft und Staatshaushalt.-The laws and customs of the peasantry are treated with interesting minuteness in Simmons' and Wigmore's Notes on Land Tenure and Local Institutions in Old Japan, published in Vol. XIX. Part I. of the "Asiatic Transactions".