Life squared

Greecejapan_Tanbo

text and photo by Grigoris A. Miliaresis

It’s just a square divided in four by a cross in its center (田) and it was the first ideogram I learned; actually, I learned it myself but then, as is usually the case with all things related to Japanese culture –not just ideograms, I learned it wrong and had to relearn it. And when I did, I also learned why it is one of the most important ideograms and, according to some, the oldest of the symbols used in the Japanese language. Because it depicts the basic food source for the people of this land almost since its inception –and not just for them but pretty much for all peoples of East Asia: the rice paddy, the muddy square pieces of land you see almost immediately after you exit the big cities and which in the beginning of every summer are flooded so they can receive and nurture the grain of life.

Even in a country as industrialized as Japan, neither the “tambo”, the paddies nor rice cultivation methods have changed much in the last 2000 years; if seen from a high place, you can easily understand that the square ideogram depicts them almost perfectly. Of course in many occasions the water-buffaloes have been replaced by small tractors and of course in many occasions harvesting is being done by (equally small) combine harvesters but everybody knows that especially planting has to be done the same way it was done when 田 was invented: by hand and each seedling separately, walking in the water from morning till evening for days. And it has to be this way because every seedling is crucial for the best crop.  

Tanbo are everywhere; as is 田 –in expressions and names of places and people (when the emperor Meiji made last names, a privilege hitherto reserved for the samurai, mandatory for everyone many chose it for their names since it was an important part of their micro-geography). And everybody knows their calendar; actually, the old names for two of the months, May and June are related to the planting of rice and the watering of paddies. Because all these words besides being signifiers are also arks of collective memory; even if some day rice got substituted by bread in the Japanese’s diet, it will remain verbally identified with the concept of “meal”, conveying to the new generations what their ancestors learned in the most wild and inhuman way: that in these islands at the end of the biggest land and at the beginning of the biggest sea, life is always born in the mud of the tanbo.

Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes in the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years. 

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