Newest Japanese Rice Field Art Sends Living Messages of Hope

The 2011 crop of “Tanbo” rice field art is bolder and more beautiful than ever before. This year, though, Japan's artistic rice farmers are going against the grain by growing messages of hope and perseverance meant to encourage a nation fed up with natural and unnatural disasters.

So-called “Tanbo” (rice field) art is a relatively modern phenomenon dating back to the early 1990s. The practice originated in northern Japan's Tohoku region when rice farmers discovered that different colored strains of rice could be planted in such a way as to form patterns when they matured.

Over the past two decades, tanbo rice field art has been steadily refined to the point where extremely intricate images displaying a wide range of colors and shades have literally sprung up across Japan as the nation's rice crop nears harvesting.

The images are best seen from high above, making their creation at ground level seem all the more astonishing. The closest artform tanbo rice field art can be compared to is perhaps the mysterious Nazca Lines of the Peruvian altiplano, which are many centuries old.

The Tohoku region is slowly but surely recovering from the devastating March 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear crisis. As such, many of this year's tanbo creations include messages of encouragement in Japanese, usually along the lines of “Ganbarou (“good luck, you can do it!”) Iwate”. No simple explanation is possible for the above example, however, which spells out “I Love Panasonic”.

Located in northeastern Japan, Iwate prefecture suffered the most severe damage and loss of life from the deadly tsunami spawned by the magnitude 9.0 earthquake. Recovery has been difficult but inland rice farms suffered much less than the coastal fishing industry where it's estimated almost 10,000 fishing vessels were lost.


Since the purpose of tanbo rice field art is to be seen first, eaten later, care is taken to situate the compositions in fields that afford an advantageous point of view.

In northern Japan especially, most people will see the artwork from the windows of passing trains as the tracks are often constructed on a raised pediment to preclude against flood damage. The composition above even incorporates a train into its “good luck!” design.

While well-wishing is the predominant theme of 2011's tanbo rice field art, there are still plenty of traditional images being composed and planted. Many of these draw upon historical themes enjoying renewed popularity in Japan's annual, year-long Taiga TV drama.

This year's drama, “Gou”, revolved around the changing fortunes of the three princesses whose uncle was legendary warlord Oda Nobunaga, and who lived in the late 16th and early 17th century. The amazing image above seems to feature both the princesses and the tsunami, indicating the vital connection Japanese feel with their long and "interesting" history. (images via Nobi's Tanbo Art Page)