Notes from Japan: A Rural Village in Iwate Province

Tanohata, Japan. If you have a map of Japan, chances are that Tanohata-mura is not on it. Tanohata is not on many maps. Lying northeast of Morioka, the capital of lwate Province, Tanohata hugs the coast of the Pacific and travels up the cliffs that overlook it.   Similar to Columbus, Ohio in latitude, the village of Tanohata is equally provincial.   Just below the most northern island of Hokkaido, host of the ·1972 Winter Olympics, this fishing village numbers barely 5,000.



Tanohata relies heavily on the ocean, beside which it has prospered for over 900 years.   From the Pacific comes the majority of the village’s food supply: fish, shellfish, and sea plants.   These products are gathered daily by the community’s fishing fleet.   Resting in three separate harbors, the individually owned boats comb the ocean for squid, sea urchins, crabs and several different varieties of seaweed.

The ocean has served Tanohata well.   In addition to its food surplus, this often violent body of water has been the traditional communication link between the village and the rest of Japan.   With a new system of roads and tunnels completed in the early 1960’s, however, passenger boat service is now primarily recreational.


Rice also plays an important role in Tanohata, completing the village diet.   Grown in hand-built irrigated terraces, rice paddies stretch far up the mountain side. These rice fields, the result of exhausting manual labor, supply most of the village’s starch needs.   Other starch sources include locally grown soy beans and a small variety of grains.

Founded by the Ainu, Japan’s earliest people, Tanohata now encompasses several smaller villages or clusters of houses in the area.   Many of these groupings, now considered suburbs, end in the consonant ”˜ga,’ which means beach in the Ainu language.

The word “Tanohata” is a combination of two nouns, ”˜rice field’ and ”˜vegetable patch.’   Many village families have lived in Tanohata for over eight centuries.   With greater outside contact now than in the past, however, the homogeneity of the village is already disintegrating.


In Tanohata, as in the rest of Japan, education is mandatory up through the ninth year.   After that level, studies in Tanohata are optional if not a privilege: Aside from passing the entrance examination, a student must also pay a small high school tuition fee.

The Tanohata junior high school is unique in several ways.   Because many students live too far away to commute daily, for example, a dormitory houses several hundred students.   These students return to their homes on weekends.   The school building is nationally recognized, having been designed by one of Japan’s leading architects, a professor at Waseda University, Tokyo.

Teaching English at this provincial institution are two 1977 Earlham College graduates, Sidney and Fletcher Taylor.   Having lived in Tanohata for over a year, both speak Japanese-quite well.   According to these Americans, Tanohata rivals such larger cities as Tokyo because of the “friendliness of the villagers and the unbelievable beauty of the ocean and mountains.”

It is not just the Taylors.   Few people in Tanohata would be willing to trade the simple healthy lifestyle and breathtaking scenery for a life anywhere else in Japan.   According to Sidney, it is “rare for foreigners to be accepted as warmly as we’ve been in Tanohata… We’ve really made some close and unforgettable friends with the farmers and fishermen here.”

On a sadder note, she continued. “I’ll be sorry to leave here next year.”   It seems that neither Sidney nor Fletcher will ever forget the beautiful and friendly little village hidden quietly in the north of Japan.

Jim Luce, a junior at the College of Wooster, is on an off campus program in Japan this year. This is the first of a weekly column.

Originally published in The Voice, College of Wooster, September 26, 1980.

Read other stories by Jim Luce on Japan:


NYC’s Japan American Association Funds Haitian Students Dream of International Study


Yoko Ono Supports Mayor Akiba and Nuclear Disarmament at John Catsimatidis’ Home


2,870 Mayors for Peace: Does Yours Belong?


Japan’s PIKADON Project & Hiroshima Yes! Campaign in New York City


Keiko Tsuyama: Japanese Woman of the World



Park Avenue’s Nichibei Exchange – and the Japanese Flute


Notes From Japan: From Harajuku to Waseda


Notes from Japan: Shinomori – Mediating in the Woods


Notes from Japan: A Rural Village in Iwate Province


Notes from Japan: Hitchhiking Through the Storm to Hokkaido


Notes from Japan: Japanese and English Language Very Far Apart


Notes from Japan: Living with a Former Samurai Family


Notes from Japan: Fat American (Me!) Races 500 Junior High Students


Notes from Japan: From Zen Life in the Country to Tokyo – Help!



For the complete listing of thematic stories, see Jim Luce Writes.


The Editors
The Stewardship Report on Connecting Goodness is the communications platform of The James Jay Dudley Luce Foundation ( There are now more than 100 contributors around the world to this publication.

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