The Burning Rice Field

A Tale From Japan

Japanese character meaning "water"

Long ago in Japan, there was a tiny fishing village on the edge of the sea. Next to the village was a tall wooded mountain. A short walk up the mountain there was a terrace, a flat area where people from the village could grow their rice. Near the rice lived an old, old man and his young grandson.


Each day some of the workers from the village would push their boats off the docks and row into the sea, searching for a few fish to add to their rice. Other workers would walk partway up the mountain to their terraced rice fields, where they worked hard and long in the hot blazing sun. Rice grew well in this sunny field above the sea.


Late one afternoon the boy sat with his grandfather on the balcony of their house, watching the people in the village below. The boy watched as the villagers prepared their dinners of rice with vegetables and hopefully some fish if the fishermen did well that day.  When the wind blew the right direction, he got a whiff of the woody smoke from the fires and the mouth-watering scent of cooking food. He could hear the laughter and shouting of children, playing hide-and-seek between the houses. He wished he was down there playing with them, but grandfather said it would be dark soon, and he must stay on the mountain.


Suddenly the old man and the young boy felt a mild shock and their house rocked three or four times. The boy was startled and looked around quickly. The old man had felt many earthquakes before. He was not at all frightened until he looked toward the sea.


The water was dark green and rough. It looked different somehow. The sea was running swiftly away from the land! The puzzled villagers stopped and ran to the shore to watch. But the old man had seen one such sight as a little child. He knew what the sea was about to do. How could he warn the people? He had no big bell to ring. He could never yell loud enough for them to hear.


(Note: This was in the days before telephones or sirens. No policemen, no firemen, no 911 to call.)


The old man urgently shouted to his little grandson. "Grab a stick from the fire! Quick! And follow me!"


The boy was puzzled, but he was taught to always obey, so he pulled a stick from the fire and followed the old man as he ran to the fields. The old man yelled, “Set the rice on fire!”


“What?” the little boy gasped. “We can’t.” Why would his grandfather do such a terrible thing? He couldn’t destroy the people’s food!


The old man was already burning the rice. The dry stalks caught on fire quickly, crackling and spreading to other stalks. Red flames were shooting upward; smoke was rising in great columns.


“Now! Burn the rice now!” the grandfather shouted. “Oh, grandfather,” cried the boy with tears rolling down his cheeks as he threw his burning stick into the rice.


The wind blew the flames and sparks across the field. The fire was rising higher and hotter and brighter, eating and destroying all the food and hard work of the villagers.


The villagers from below raced up the mountain, mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers. All were carrying buckets of water and joined in the race to put out the fire in the burning fields. When they reached the fields, they stopped. They were too late. All the rice was completely burned.


“What have you done?” they shouted angrily at the grandfather, stomping their feet and waving their fists.


"Look toward the sea," said the old man, "and know my purpose."


The people turned and looked, and far out at sea, they saw a great wall of water swiftly sweeping toward them. It was the returning sea! The people shrieked, but their voices were lost in the thunderous booming, as the wall of water struck the mountainside below them, smashing down on their houses, their boats, their docks and their stores.


When the cloud of spray disappeared,

the people saw a wild sea raging over

their village. Again the wall of water

struck, and again and again, with less

force each time. At last, the sea fell

back to its normal home beyond the


The people were speechless. Their

village was gone. Nothing was left but

a few straw roofs floating on the water.

But every man, woman, and child was

safe high up on the mountain.


Now the people understood why the old man had set fire to the rice. "He saved us!" the village leader cried. "The old man is the most clever and helpful man in the world. He has saved us from a tsunami."


From that day on, the little boy understood that things are not always what they seem to be, and that which looks cruel can sometimes be the greatest kindness.


Take home message: If you are near the beach or the bay, and there is an earthquake, get to higher ground! Even if the earthquake is small, go up away from the ocean. DO NOT hang around to watch the tsunami! Be smart. Tsunamis are bigger and faster than you are. If we get an earthquake on the Oregon coast, scientists tell us we have 15 minutes until a tsunami will happen. Only if you are high and safe on a hill, then you can watch a tsunami


The rest of the story: This is based on a true story from Japan. The old man’s name was Goryo Hamaguchi. The village was named Hiro. The tsunami happened in 1854. After the tsunami had destroyed the village and the fire destroyed the rice, the people needed money and food. Mr. Hamaguchi was rich. He used his money to pay the people to build a huge sea wall between the village and the sea. Many years later, another tsunami hit and did not destroy the village.

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