Kagoshima's Unique Rice Field God Statues
The Ta-no-Kami of Southern Kyushu
Ta-no-Kami, or rice field gods, are a unique treasure of southern Kyushu. They can be found by rice fields, or sometimes on the grounds of shrines where they’ve been moved when their fields have been overtaken by developments.
Throughout the rest of Japan there are no specific Ta-no-Kami statues. The gods of agriculture, farming, and peasants are honoured by placing a stick, a stone, or a flower near their rice paddies. In contrast, the people of southern Kyushu have been crafting stone statues of rice field gods, which they affectionately call Ta-no-Kan-saa in local dialect, since the beginning of the 18th century. Interestingly, these statues are only found in the former domain of the Shimadzu clan.
Why Only in Southern Kyushu?
Growing rice in the volcanic soil of southern Kyushu has always been a challenging task, yet people needed to eat and taxes needed to be paid in rice. Seeking help from the gods, artisans carved Ta-no-Kami out of welded tuff, a type of stone formed by very hot, compressed volcanic ash. The statues they created include a wide range of characters: bald Buddhist monks or Jizo, Shinto priests with distinctive long sleeves, or even peasants wearing big round hats — standing, seated, or playfully dancing — and often holding a bamboo rice scooper and bowl.
In some communities, farming families still take turns honouring their Ta-no-Kami by carefully applying makeup-like paint, providing the god with delicious food and drink, and keeping them in the place of honour in their tokonoma, the alcove in Japanese houses set aside for seasonal decorations. Some Ta-no-Kami are brought along to community hanami, flower viewing parties, where they join in with the festivities, being offered food and plenty of shochu, the local spirit distilled from sweet potatoes.
Years ago, when a new rice field was created, the farmer would search out the most productive rice field in their area, and he would steal — or rather, borrow—its obviously powerful Ta-no-Kami and place it by his new field. If he were to keep it for more than three years his crops would fail, so before then, the Ta-no-Kami would be returned to its original field accompanied by music, a parade, gifts of rice, shochu, and/or chickens, and great festivities.
Ta-no-Kami have traditionally been honoured during several festivals: the beginning of the year festival, sluice gate opening when the fields are flooded, rice planting, protection of crops during the summer, and finally, the harvest festival. After the harvest festival, the rice field gods return to the mountains as mountain gods, where they hunker down during the cold winter months.
If you get the chance to visit southern Kyushu, why not make some time to hunt for Ta-no-Kami statues? The variety and playfulness of the images is delightful!
Diane Neill Tincher
A resident of Japan since 1987, Diane has spent the last 26 years in Kagoshima where she raised her many children, educating them at home in English to complement their learning in Japanese at the local schools.
Now that her children are grown, she has delved into new realms of learning. When she is not leading tours of the ancient roads of Japan as a tour leader, her endless curiosity and many and varied interests motivate her to read, study, and research.
Diane’s love for rural Japan has inspired her to write the stories behind lesser-known places, events, and traditions. These articles can be found at More Than Tokyo.