How much rice did the early Japanese produce and eat?

Carbonised rice grains have been found from over 100 sites, for example at Itazuke. Rice stalks have been found at other sites, like Karako Kagi. Some of the quantities recovered have been huge. 350,000 rice grains (approximately 50 litres), 2,100 grains of millet and 130 beans were recovered from no.59 pit house at Hashihara in Nagano prefecture. They had been preserved when the house burned down. Two large restricted-necked pots in the house had been used for storing these grains.

Cultivation experiments and historical records from the ancient period have been used by Terasawa Kaoru, Watanabe Tadayo and Sasaki Komei to estimate the yield of dehulled brown rice per 100 square metres. They suggest that yields were around 100 kg or less. Sato Yoichiro suggested that yields were 260 kg. Kito Hiroshi used historical documents to estimate yields at 124 to 149 kg during the Edo period. Modern yields of dehulled brown rice per are 518 kg per 100 square metres.

Terasawa has suggested that people in the middle and late Yayoi periods needed millets and acorns in order to cover around 30 to 50% of their daily energy needs (around 2,000 kcal a day). Acorns have been found from over 150 sites, including at Karako Kagi, where a pit with acorns was discovered. Millets such as foxtail millet (Setaria italica) and common millet (Panicum miliaceum) have been found from over 100 sites.

It has been found that people used a wide range of food resources to complement their rice-oriented subsistence. Many of these had also been used in the preceding Jomon period.

Historical documents and drawings of the medieval period suggest that food cultures varied between villages and towns, by social class, and between daily and ceremonial uses. The following teaching materials can be used to answer the question –

How can we understand the nature of food culture after the introduction of rice cultivation?

Fig. 01

Itazuke, Fukuoka prefecture, from the Early Yayoi period

This village was on a hill, enclosed by an oval ditch, 110 metres from north to south and  81 metres from east to west. There was a causeway through the south-western section of the ditch. Unfortunately, the surface of the inner area has been scraped off by land development, so that pit dwellings and other facilities could not be identified. However, 12 dwellings and 20 storage pits have been reconstructed using examples from other excavated settlements from the Sawara Plain in Fukuoka that were similar in size to Itazuke.


Fig. 02

Footprints in a Yayoi period paddy field at Itazuke

Below the hill, paddy fields with drainage facilities dating to the initial and early Yayoi period were identified. In the paddy field of the early Yayoi, rows of footprints were found showing a person had slipped but then kept on walking (confirmed using forensic methods by a police laboratory).


Fig. 03

An excavated dam at Itazuke

The excavated dam of the early period is estimated at over 10 m long, and had a double layered log pile of around two metres in height. This was used to control the withdrawal and discharge of water from the main water way.


Fig. 04

Reaping knife from Itazuke

Carbonised rice grains were found at Itazuke, and pollen analysis revealed many weeds in the paddy field as well as on the field supports that form the square-shaped fields for the rice. The rice was harvested with half-moon-shaped reaping knives.


Fig. 05

Ofuro archaeological site, Gunma prefecture

Ofuro is located at the foot of the Haruna volcano. A rescue excavation revealed approximately 2,600 square paddy fields. These covered approximately 10,000 square metres. The Kofun period paddy fields were covered with volcanic ash from Mt. Haruna at the end of 5th century. The fields are the same date as the settlement at Mitsudera 1 and a group of kofun mounds at Hotoda. It is possible that these paddy fields were developed by the local ruling group which occupied the elite residence of Mitsudera 1 as this is only 1 kilometre north-east of Ofuro. Two other, later volcanic eruptions also laid down pumice and ash, so that the fields eventually lay 2.5 metres below the present ground level. Large sections of the site are separated by main dikes (70-90 cm wide and 15-30cm high), and these sections are in turn divided by narrow dikes (20-30 cm wide and 5-10 cm high) into hundreds of small square paddy fields of around 2.5 x 1.5 metres. A small grid over a flat surface allows an equal supply of water to the paddy fields. Clusters of small oval depressions are footprints like those from Itazuke.


Fig. 06

Plan of excavation area B at Ofuro, Gunma prefecture

Keep title but replace current text with: ‘The paddies at Ofuro fall into three types: small gridded fields (areas B-1, B-3 and B-5), linear strips (B-4) and open areas (B-2 and B-6). The excavations revealed an area being prepared for rice paddy before the rice was planted in the spring. The large open areas had a bumpy surface, and show the first stage of digging the field. These were then divided into linear strips (B-4), which were then divided into the smaller gridded fields. The eruption of Mount Haruna which covered the whole area in ash must have taken place in spring, prior to planting the rice, to preserve the landscape in this state. There were no traces of buildings in the excavated area, and these fields were some distance from the settlement, suggesting a different form of landuse pattern to that seen at Itazuke.


Fig. 07

Wooden farming implements

A variety of organic artefacts such as wooden farming implements and food remains are found at lowland sites, such as Karako Kagi in Nara prefecture and Asahi in Aichi prefecture. In spring, people turned the soil in the paddy fields with hoes, forks and spades. Only then would they plant the rice. Wooden rice pounders were used to process the rice once it had been harvested.


Fig. 08

Spring and autumn in a rice growing landscape

There are many processes involved in the cultivation of rice. Harvesting took place in autumn. This was done using stone reaping knives. The harvested rice was stored in granaries with raised floors. The rice had to be threshed and cleaned before cooking.


Fig. 09

Iron-edged farming tools

Iron tools and iron tips for the hoes, spades and axes combined with wooden hafts became more popular from the late Yayoi and Kofun periods. Using iron edges enabled deeper tilling and iron axes were more effective in cutting down trees for land development. Also, iron-tipped horse-drawn ploughs appeared from the late Kofun period.


Fig. 10

Pots for used for storing and cooking rice

It is thought that seeds of rice for the next year were stored in large restricted-necked pots. Deep pots were used for cooking of rice.


Key question

  • How can we understand the nature of food culture after the introduction of rice cultivation?

Secondary questions

  • How important was rice?
  • What were the effects on society of the introduction of rice agriculture?

Archaeology shows that regional and seasonal variation in food was an important aspect of ancient Japanese cuisine from prehistoric times – and continues to be so today. Foraging for wild food is now very popular in many parts of the world, even in developed economies. Even when agriculture becomes established, wild foods make an important contribution to diet. The following teaching materials can be used to answer the question –

How important was Jomon food collection as a basis for later activity in the Yayoi and Kofun periods?

Fig. 11

A pit with acorns at Karako Kagi

Wild nuts continued to be an important foodstuff, even after the introduction of farming, and remains of acorns have been found from over 150 sites in the Yayoi period according to Terasawa. There was also millet cultivation in the Yayoi period. Grains like foxtail millet and common millet have been found. However the quantity of these is much less than rice.


Fig. 12

Perforated wild boar mandibles from Karako Kagi

Hunting was also a common activity. Wild boar and deer were major targets. Hunting was not only to get meat, but also to exterminate animals that could destroy farmland. Deer like young rice and wild boar will crop the rice stalks. Nishimoto Toyohiro has suggested that bones of wild boar from the Yayoi sites of Karako Kagi and Asahi included domesticated pigs (from the sizes and shapes of the bones). These pigs may have been imported from the continent. There are very few chicken bones excavated from Yayoi sites, and some think that chickens were imported not for their meat and eggs but for waking people up in the morning! From Karako Kagi, the head part of a clay figurine of chicken was found.

Bones of wild boar, pig and deer were used for various rituals. At Karako Kagi, perforated mandibles of wild boar were hung up on wooden sticks.


Fig. 13

Yayoi Oracle bones?

From some sites, shoulder blades of boar and deer were used in rituals to predict the future. This technique, called ‘scapulamancy’ is first known in East Asia from early Chinese sites like Anyang, where questions were written on the bones, and the red-hot end of a heated stick was pressed onto the bone, causing cracks to appear. These cracks were then interpreted to predict the future. What questions do you think these Yayoi people were asking? Maybe something to do with the weather, or future harvests?.


Fig. 14

Yayoi pottery from Asahi

This beautiful assemblage of pottery from the large defended settlement at Asahi in Aichi prefecture, includes dishes and cups on pedestals, fine jars with narrow necks, and a series of small vessels. What do you think they were used for? Some archaeologists think they were used in special ceremonies, possibly involving feasting and making offerings, and perhaps the different colours and designs were significant.


Fig. 15

Reconstruction of a Yayoi meal from western Japan

Meals of the Yayoi period in western Japan included: (1) boiled brown rice mixed with assorted mountain vegetables, (2) grilled red sea bream, (3) stewed taro, baby bamboo and Yayoi pork, (4) soup with orient clam and octopus, (5) grilled abalone[/cm_tooltip_parse]s, (6) dried balloon fish and dumpling of common millet with perilla seeds, (7) dumpling of foxtail millet with Japanese basil and boiled mountain vegetable bracken.


Fig. 16

Reconstruction of an Epi-Jomon meal

We have no clear evidence of rice cultivation from Hokkaido in the Epi-Jomon period, nor from the Ryukyu islands in the Shell Midden period. Both the north and south islands continued the subsistence practices of the Jomon period. In Hokkaido, archaeologists have found bones of salmon, bear, deer, seal and shells of abalone. Meals of the Epi-Jomon period included:  (1) wine made from arguta, (2) soup with cod and sea weed, (3) assorted delicious sea foods with crabs, oysters, abalones and scallops, (4) dried salmon, (5) dumpling of starch from lily bulb with salmon caviar, (6) seal steak and walnut biscuits, (7) walnuts and acorns.


Fig. 17

Reconstruction of a Ryukyu islands meal

In the Ryukyu Islands, shallow coral reef lagoons provided a wide variety of delicious seafood. Meals of the Rykyu islands included: (1) soup with clam and wild vegetables, (2) turtle soup, (3) shellfish and eggs of turtle, (4) baked great green turban (Turbo marmoratus) and turban shell, (5) sliced raw fish of steephead parrotfish (Chlorurus microrhinus), (6) boiled palm crab, (7) boiled meat of wild boar and grilled fish of snappers and striped surgeon fish (Acanthurus lineatus), (8) boiled taro and dumpling made from pounded down acorn, (9) acorns, (10) wine of screw pine (Pandanus fascicularis).


Key question

  • How important was food collection, as carried out in the Jomon period, in the later periods, once agriculture was established?

Secondary questions

  • What kinds of food were eaten in the Jomon period?
  • What similarities and differences in food were there between north, central and south of Japan?