The Sea of Rice

Being a bit of a traditionalist when it comes to haiku, I bristle when I see these compact poems rendered by would-be “poets” who fixate on the 5-7-5 syllabic structure and ignore the other essential elements of this Japanese form: a seasonal reference and some sort of surprise or contrast. Of course, writing a haiku in English is like clipping your fingernails with an ax because of the dramatically different structures of the two languages. Still, I admit to being a dilettante when it comes to both Japanese language and poetry in general.

But, if you think Ireland is green, you should see Japan during the monsoon season. Looking out a train window on the Kii Peninsula one overcast June day, I was moved to write a haiku myself, exercising that other requirement, spontaneity:

Egrets flashing white

Against the rainy greenness

Of the sea of rice.

Bashō it wasn’t, but close enough for government work. It did what it was supposed to do, cementing in my memory for these 40 years that moment in time, that rich contrast in colors, that emotion I felt. Most importantly, it got me really thinking about rice. Which is where this whole rambling is headed.

Someone recently asked me why the peoples of Asia, crowded together as they are, seemed better equipped to handle the whole coronavirus mess. I told them the simple answer was rice. As I went on to explain, using the Japanese example, the people there were initially nomadic hunters and gathers. The importation of wet-rice cultivation from the Asian mainland many thousands of years ago dramatically altered that. People settled into one place and villages sprang up around this static source of food. So far, nothing much different than how things unfolded in the rest of the world.

But, rice is an incredibly labor-intensive crop. Extensive waterworks are required to flood and drain the paddies needed to grow this crop. That requires constant maintenance, much more than a single family can undertake. Planting and harvesting are also collaborative efforts. While mechanization has now taken over, until very recently it “took a village” to grow rice. Thousands of years of a system requiring everyone in that village to contribute their labor and to equitably share in the rewards built the basis for social discipline, which today remains the most notable feature of East Asian culture.

So, unlike our country, where people whine and moan about exercising the most minimal bit of discipline, like social distancing or wearing a mask, when the likes of South Korea and Taiwan were faced with this coronavirus threat, they were able to get it under control quickly, with minimum loss. Because they could count on their populations to listen and conform to the necessary protocols.

But, you might say, who would want to live in a society where individualism is replaced by groupthink? Funny you should mention that, because the differing responses to the current virus pandemic provide a disturbing snapshot of the longer-term challenge facing the prevailing system of Western liberal democracy and the direction it now seems headed. As the planet warms, and plagues and natural disaster become the rule rather than the exception, collective action will be required. A showdown is building between these two competing modes of social organization as to which will be better able to adapt and cope with this rapidly approaching, new reality.

Just something to ponder when you next enjoy that extra rice with your Chinese takeout.

© 2022, David B Bucher

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