Yamagata Prefecture—The Voice of Experience

TEXT: Adam Fulford – PAINTINGS: Jasmine Fulford

Until well after the Second World War, life was very tough for many people in the Japanese countryside.

In the part of regional Japan I know best, a mountainous area in rural Yamagata, as soon as the harvest was completed in autumn, thoughts would turn to the onset of a bitter winter. An intense period of preparation would ensue, as households made sure they had sufficient food and fuel to last the whole family until spring.

And when winter came—in a location where it’s not unusual for four metres of snow to build up—children too would be expected to do their bit by getting up on the roof to remove accumulated snow. Even the youngest members of the family would be assigned chores and it went without saying that they would be expected to do them.

Nonetheless, countries everywhere focus on studying English, a language with the image of being highly versatile. In reality, the majority of people visiting Japan include more than just English speakers, but from a variety of linguistic and cultural backgrounds. Yet, in Japan only the study of English is promoted. Let’s take a look at how language is used by visitors to Japan.Some middle-school children would live in dormitories. For some, the junior-high school was 10 km or more from home, but they would miss their families so badly that once in a while they would slog through the snow for four or five hours, battling up and down three mountains just to spend an evening at home.

If a boy or girl had the misfortune to come down with appendicitis, there was no ambulance to call. Groups of friends might pull the ailing child on a sledge to a distant hospital.


When the warmer months came, people would go into the surrounding hills and come back with loads of sticks and other vegetation, fuel for home and livestock. Cows and horses were not just beasts of burden but a source of fertilizer. When the weather got hotter, weeds would sprout in the paddies. Before the days of herbicide, they’d push weeding devices or pull weeds by hand. Backbreaking work, and snakes to contend with, too. In August, horse flies and other vicious insects would proliferate. But still you were out in the fields, sweating to get the food needed for the cold months ahead.

The 1950s and ‘60s brought wrenching change. Fertilizers, pesticides and machines helped to break the chains of enslavement to manual work. Roads were built, and motor vehicles reached remote communities for the first time. Electricity spread. More homes started to accumulate the items known back then as the Three Sacred Treasures: TV, fridge and washing machine. The more convenient life became, the more radically it was transformed. Those roads weren’t simply a way for vehicles to get in; they were a way to get out. People went and never came back. Community bonds weakened. Customs were neglected. The hills became overgrown and inaccessible. The old ways were forgotten.

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