The intangible cultural heritage of agriculture and food, via Unesco – rice ritual in Japan
UNESCO – the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization – has a deep and wide view of traditional knowledge and practices of sustainability. Not readily apparent inside the labyrinthine UN system, Unesco’s Culture sector has within it the section on Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH), which helps preserve, conserve and revitalise these practices.
The term “cultural heritage” has changed content considerably in recent decades, with much of that change having come about thanks to the conventions developed by Unesco. Although “cultural heritage” is usually seen as monuments, buildings of antiquity and sites of historical importance or natural significance, it also includes traditions or living expressions inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendants, such as oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, rituals, festive events, knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe or the knowledge and skills to produce traditional crafts.
In this framework, the UNESCO 2003 Convention on the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage brings together such knowledge – sometimes well documented and living, sometimes in grave danger of being extinguished. These are organised under what are called the Lists of the Convention. In this series, I will pick out those practices and expressions of knowledge that have to do with cultivation systems, agricultural ecologies and the community cultures surrounding food.
The first in this series is ‘Mibu no Hana Taue’, the ritual of transplanting rice in Mibu, Hiroshima, Japan. This was inscribed in 2011 on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
‘Mibu no Hana Taue’ is an agricultural ritual in which people worship the deity of rice fields, and pray for a good growth and abundant harvest of the rice crops for the year through ploughing fields, and transplanting rice seedlings. The Mibu community, located in a mountainous area of Western Japan, has developed and transmitted “Mibu no Hana Taue.” Both the Mibu and neighbouring Kawahigashi communities have been areas of rice cropping for a long time.
‘Mibu no Hana Taue’ is carried out on the first Sunday of June every year after actual transplantations in the community are completed. Villagers gather at a large rice field, specially kept in reserve for the ritual. The deity of rice fields is welcomed, and a series of agricultural works such as ploughing, preparation for the transplantation and the actual transplantation are demonstrated in the presence of the deity. On the day of the ritual, villagers bring more than a dozen cattle to Mibu Shrine to be dressed with elaborately decorated saddles called Hanagura and a colourful necklace.