Reviving traditional crops and food culture is vital to repairing people’s relationship with the land.
Kana Koa Weaver Okada
The seed that we sow now
The awa seed we sow in the tenth month
(chant) Yo-ya-te-ba Yu-ya-na-u-re
If they grow well, we will have a good harvest
Sa sa Hou-nen Hou-saku
Sa, sa, a year of good harvest and abundance
All the beautiful crops
May they flourish; may the world be good.
“Hou-nen-no-ayagu (Song for a year of abundance)” — A song praying for an abundant crop harvest, in the Miyakoan language (Myakfutsu) spoken by about 20,000 people on the Miyako Islands southwest of Okinawa, and classified as “definitely endangered” by UNESCO.
Okinawa Prefecture is an archipelago made up of 160 islands located at the southern tip of Japan. It consists of multiple regions such as Yaeyama, Miyako, and Okinawa, and it is part of the Ryukyu Islands arc, which stretches from southwest Kyushu to Taiwan. Each island has its own linguistic lineage, stories, and rich cultural traditions, often characterized by a female-centered society, ancestral worship, and an animistic worldview. Agriculture used to be considered a sacred activity, involving collaboration with more-than-human beings.
Agriculture used to be considered a sacred activity, involving collaboration with more-than-human beings.
Currently, however, Okinawa is facing a rapid biocultural extinction. Multiple layers of colonization, from Japanese control in 1879 to U.S. military occupation after World War II, have undermined the biocultural basis of the islands, and the ongoing attempts by the state and multinational corporations to commodify seeds and other resources are further accelerating the loss of diversity. Farmland that used to produce native millets has been turned into monoculture sugarcane plantations, while people are experiencing increasing rates of diabetes and a shortened life expectancy, extinction of native crops, and loss of ceremonies and languages.
In the past several years, multiple movements have started to sprout on the islands that aim to revitalize traditional foodways and protect native crops. Such movements encompass the public and private sectors and community organizations, each of them being organically intertwined and growing simultaneously. Emerging projects include, among others, the revitalization of languages and ceremonies, the production of traditional millets, the launch of native seed libraries, the rematriation of seeds from universities and museums, the revival of traditional foodways by restaurant chefs, educational programs on traditional knowledge, school garden programs, and a people-led process to create a regional ordinance for local seed diversity protection.
“I feel the time has come to bring back what we have lost in the past decades,” says Naoko Nakasone, a chef, playwright, and activist based in Naha, the capital of Okinawa Prefecture. In 2011 Naoko founded the vegan café Ukishima Garden in Naha, where she serves dishes made from local organic vegetables and grains. In the process of searching for native ingredients from the Okinawan Islands, she realized that most native millets — awa foxtail millet (Setaria italica), takakibi sorghum millet (Sorghum bicolor), mochikibi proso millet (Panicum miliaceum), as well as barley (Hordeum vulgare) and beans, among others — have nearly gone extinct along with the associated ceremonies. This led Naoko to launch the Okinawa Millet Association in 2017, a farmers’ organization that aims to revitalize the native millets of Okinawa, together with farmers from other islands.
Naoko and the Okinawa Millet Association work with farmers to grow, harvest, and distribute native millets. “In 2021,” says Naoko, “we received an increased number of requests for native millet seeds. Millet revitalization is expanding. In addition to Kudaka Island and Hateruma Island, where we started, now Tonaki Island, Kohama Island, Aguni Island, and the Itoman and Kitanakagusuku regions on the main island are growing native millets.” The Millet Association also supports seed rematriation by collecting seeds from universities, research institutes, and museums. People of different ages are involved in the process, enabling the intergenerational transmission of native crops and cultural knowledge.
“In Okinawa,” Naoko points out, “native millets, particularly awa millet, were preserved not only for practical use but also because people saw sacred values in them.” While numerous varieties of millet went completely extinct in Okinawa, native awa millet was preserved, if only for ceremonial purposes, often by Tsukasa or Noro women, the elder priestesses of each of the islands’ villages. At the annual harvest festival on many islands, freshly harvested bundles of awa millet played a central role as offerings during the ceremonies. Many villages have their traditional recipe for Miki, a sacred sake made from native awa or other millet varieties, to be offered to the deities.
‘Native millets were preserved not only for practical use but also because people saw sacred values in them.’
Naoko’s work focuses not only on reviving traditional millets but also on creating a healthier society by repairing people’s relationship with the land. “I first encountered millet-based foods when I experienced illness,” says Naoko in explaining her motivation. “My body healed by eating traditional millets. Many people in Okinawa are now suffering from illnesses such as diabetes, which increased after the introduction of the modern Western diet. We must bring back the roots of our food culture. This is my act of ‘healing the world’: to plant, grow, and eat the native millets.”
On Taketomi Island, in response to the longing that Elders have expressed for their traditional cuisine, a tourist hotel is revitalizing the island’s native millets, soybeans, and herbs, working together with elder farmers and children. Tanadui (Seed Saving Festival) is the main festival on the island, celebrating the year’s harvest. The festival includes a traditional performance, in which people offer a bundle of awa millet and prayers to the deities, wishing for a good harvest in the coming year. “For the first time in many years, during this ceremony we were able to offer the awa millet grown on the island,” explains Hayato Koyama, a young staff member at the hotel. “Through the process of growing plants, we are learning how to connect to nature, culture, traditions, and people.”
“Seeds are like gems that form a bridge between our past and our future. It is such a joy that we can pass them on together,” says Michiko Noike, the owner of Yukaruhi [“good day” in the Okinawan language] Seed Library, which was launched in Naha in 2019. By 2021, they carried 134 varieties of seeds, and more than 150 people had visited the library. The space serves as a community learning venue, where people share their knowledge, stories, recipes, and skills along with the seeds.
‘Seeds are like gems that form a bridge between our past and our future.’
Michiko Oyamori, an Elder Knowledge Keeper of Hateruma Island, created a school in 2021 to pass down local traditional knowledge. She teaches about the traditional lifestyle, plant use, foodways, ceremonies, and stories that have been handed down in her village. “I feel I was guided to do this work,” says Michiko. “This knowledge is what I was gifted by the island, so I have to give it back — to the island, and to future generations.”
As a woman born in a special family lineage on Hateruma Island, Michiko Oyamori serves not only as a Knowledge Keeper but also as a ceremony conductor in her village. There are over sixty ceremonies per year, and each is directly connected to seasonal cycles and farming practices. Currently, there is no official successor to her position, but young mothers in the village came together to learn, support, and maintain the sacred space. “This is an extraordinary situation,” Michiko says, “considering how crops and associated cultural traditions are rapidly disappearing on the other islands. If we all can keep on learning, and continue our commitment from the heart, I think the ceremonies will never cease.”
In old ceremonial songs in the Yaeyama region and other parts of Okinawa, there is a phrase, yu-ba-na-u-re or yu-ya-na-u-re. The sound yu stands for “grains of (native) millets” and na-u-re means “to grow healthily, to flourish, produce a good harvest, or abundance,” which represent the highest values in relation to people’s sustenance. At the same time, yu also means “the world” or “society,” and na-u-re means “to fix, mend, repair, or heal.” Songs that contain this phrase are sung as prayers to grow healthy native millets or to create a better world, suggesting an inseparable connection between those two. “The most valuable thing,” says Michiko Oyamori, “is that our planet Earth be healthy . . . To make that possible, I think it is important for us to find a way for all the diverse beings on Earth to respect one another and coexist.”
Relationships are at the basis of all life, and humans are entirely dependent on other life forms on earth to survive. The diversity of life shapes the nature of relationships, and relationships are reflections of daily practices that sustain life. It is not only the seeds nor just the traditional ceremonies that need to be revived but also, and above all, the forms of relationship that people used to have.
In Okinawa, seeds were originally considered as gifts from “the other realm” — gifts that people reciprocate in various ways. Old stories describe how grain seeds are brought, or have drifted ashore, from Nirai-Kanai, which may be referred to as “the other realm.” This realm, in contrast to where we live daily, usually is located in the sky, the underground, or far away in the ocean. It is the place where our spirits come from when we are born and where the spirits return to when we die. It is where deities and ancestral spirits reside, and ultimately it is a source of all creation. There is no separation between the two realms: spirits, deities, and life forces constantly travel between them. Prayers, dance, and ceremonies are vehicles of such interactions. Seeds are no exception: they are exchanged between the two worlds through ceremonies, bridging and connecting the different realms.
On Taketomi Island, seeds are brought by deities that sail across the ocean from faraway Nirai-Kanai. Every year before the planting season, people hold a ceremony to welcome those seeds, which are sacred gifts, with reverence. During the ceremony, the deities distribute crop seeds to humans, promising an abundant harvest for the year. To reciprocate the gift, people offer songs, dances, prayers, and Miki sake, and promise to fulfill their responsibility to the land. In the following seasons, people hold numerous ceremonies that are related to every step of farming practice, including sowing and growing those seeds, praying for fewer pests or wind, and harvesting, among others. Ceremonies are led by female priestesses of the island. Some ceremonies involve prayers and songs that continue all night long. Throughout the processes, people collaborate with the deities, natural forces, and all the living beings on their land.
Although the ceremonies have been declining over the past decades, remaining practices suggest that such collaboration used to form the basis of people’s livelihood, with prayers, songs, and dances being woven into everyday life. On the one hand, these ceremonies hold practical purposes (such as exchanging seeds periodically via ceremonies to maintain the quality of seeds, community building, and more). On the other hand, they are the embodiment of multigenerational memories that see all beings through the lens of “gift.”
Ceremonies are venues for agreements between deities and humans: for deities to promise to provide everything humans need to survive, and for humans to promise to do their part to reciprocate the gifts. Prayers are based on gratitude and reverence towards the forces that sustain life. They also represent a worldview according to which nothing here on earth belongs to us. Our body, our knowledge, and the plants we grow shall be returned to where they came from when the moment comes.
At a time when the world is facing great turbulence, it is imperative to reflect on the relationship we have with the larger web of life. Each time we sow seeds in the ground, we are given a chance to re-weave our relationship with the world that we live in.
Learn more about Kana’s work at seedfromearth.com
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Kana Koa Weaver Okada is a mother, seed keeper, and scholar based in Berkeley, California, the ancestral and unceded land of the Chochenyo-speaking Ohlone people. Her work focuses on Indigenous seed sovereignty, agroecology, traditional knowledge, and protection of biocultural diversity. Her current project focuses on protection and revitalization of native seeds in Japan.