With two candies in his pocket, Ojii1 goes to the ūji batake2 just like every other day. But everyone in the family knows. It’s not ūji tōshi season, and the acreage has shrunk so much there’s no need to visit the field every day. In fact, Ojii spends more time chatting with other ojii in the fields than he does working. Still, he goes to ūji batake every day.
As a child, when Ojii’s eyes lit with excitement, I knew ūji tōshi season had come. Ūji tōshi starts with drawing lots at the local community center. The lots decide the order by which each family will bring their ūji allotment to the refinery for processing each day. The announcement goes “Families with numbers __ to numbers __, you’re up” and farmers know they have to cut the cane, prepare it, bundle it, and put out a sign indicating their lot for the delivery truck drivers, all by the appointed day.
In the field, Ojii is the law. He decides who cuts the cane, who removes the leaves, who bundles, and who carries, and he also decides how many canes to bundle. Too few and the workers will have to make too many trips, but too many means shoulder and back injuries. Ojii calculates the weight of the cane against the strength of the workers and then declares, “__ to a bundle!” The call for lunch and snack breaks is also Ojii’s to make.
Ūji tōshi is hard for the women working in the kitchens, too. They have to prepare hearty meals like tibichi—pig’s feet—and sōki—sparerib soup—to shore up the men’s strength, and all sorts of snacks for the fields—nobody wants to eat the same thing every day. Farming wives also have to take the tastes of high schoolers hired part-time for ūji tōshi into consideration. The annual ūji tōshi is especially important for high schoolers working to earn money toward equipment and travel for after-school activities. (I’ve heard that a certain high school even purchased a baseball pitching machine with part-time ūji tōshi money.) Boys in particular get more than just part-time jobs from the ūji batake. That’s right: girlie mags. I don’t know who throws them in the ūji batake or why, but those fields also serve as a secret extracurricular library for those boys.
For kids and teenagers, ūji batake is a place to make happy memories, but for those who make their living by ūji, there’s more to it.
Ojii says, “It was different back before there were land reforms or combines. We made the round trip carrying ūji over bad terrain over and over. Couldn’t take a day off, even if it rained, even if our backs hurt.”
That’s how Ojii raised six kids. Of course he was always worried a typhoon would sweep in and ruin the crop, but he also had the pride of receiving public commendations for his excellent farming practices.
Ojii won’t stop going to the fields.
Okinawa has thousands of ojii like him.
With two candies in his pocket, Ojii trundles off to the ūji batake just like every other day.
- Old man, grandfather
- Sugarcane field