Author: Toshihiko Nishio, Rice Farming System Researcher
Translated and edited by: Shinji Kawai, Faculty Research Assistant, Department of Horticulture and Alice Formiga, Assistant Professor, eOrganic Director
Publish Date: Spring 2018
Improvements in agricultural technology and breeding helped struggling Japanese farming communities in the early 20th century. In the 1990s, Dr. Nishio Toshihiko, a Japanese rice breeder and scholar, published over 150 stories about these innovations. Many of the cultivars and techniques he discussed in the stories are familiar to Americans, such as the Fuji Apple, the 20th Century Asian pear, and vegetable grafting. By showing how these discoveries derived from careful observation, patience, and in some cases, serendipity, we hope that farmers will realize how ordinary people can contribute to the advancement of their local agricultural communities and beyond. This is the first in a series of stories to be featured in Oregon Small Farm News.
Born in a Garbage Dump: the “20th Century” Asian Pear
The “Nijisseki” or 20th Century” Asian pear was discovered in 1888 by a thirteen-year-old farm boy named Kakunosuke Matsudo in the village of Yatsuhashira (now called Ohashi, Matsudo City). This cultivar, which would take the twentieth century by storm, was then a small, rugged looking seedling that he spotted in the garbage dump of a neighboring relative. The story began when the boy decided to take the distinctive seedling home, and transplant it in his family’s orchard.
The Matsudo district had been a pear growing area since the Edo Era (1603-1868) and Kakunosuke’s family had recently started a pear orchard. Kakunosuke was probably influenced by his family’s enthusiastic plans to pursue a bright future by growing pears.
Kakunosuke’s real contribution came later, however, with his careful nurturing of the tree and his decision to introduce this superior cultivar to the public. The seedling was susceptible to diseases such as alternaria black spot (Alternaria kikuchiana). If Kakunosuke had not kept it healthy, it would surely have died off. But after 10 years, the tree finally bore fruit. When Kakunosuke tasted it, he found that it was sweet and juicy. He immediately named it “Shin Daihaku” or “New Large White”, and he resolved to make it more widely available. This new cultivar would surpass the popular heirloom known as “Daihaku” or “Large White”.
In 1904, the well-known agricultural magazine Kohnoh Zasshi, published an article entitled “The Introduction of an Amazing Pear Cultivar, Shin Daihaku”: “It is a pleasure to have the opportunity to introduce this new cultivar to the public. We believe that it will be grown in many regions, it will be rigorously marketed and it will boost the happiness of the people by pleasing their taste buds…its taste is superb, sweet and juicy. It is almost as sweet as European pears, and does not leave any fleshy residue in the mouth. It should truly be called the perfect pear”.
While this praise may have been excessive, the pear must really have exhibited outstanding flavor. In 1904, it was renamed “20th Century” by the editor-inchief of the Kohnoh Zasshi magazine, Torajiro Watase, after consultation with Tomochika Ikeda, a professor at Tokyo Imperial University. Since the Russo-Japanese war had just broken out, other names such as “Triumphant” and “Victory Song” were suggested; however, they settled on “20th Century”.
Kakunosuke sold seedlings from his orchard, which he renamed Nishiki ka-en, or Brocade Orchard. He sent fruit to experts at agricultural colleges, and he exhibited his pears at trade shows. After “20th Century” became famous, many high-ranking agricultural officials visited his orchard. Because of these visits, the surrounding roads were improved, which was a boon to local residents.
Once the Russo-Japanese war ended, the acreage of “20th Century” increased nationwide, assisted by the booming economy. At the end of the Meiji Era (1868-1912), plantings of the variety spread in Tottori, Okayama, Nara and Niigata Prefectures. At the time, one seedling cost 25 sen, while the “Chojuro” pear that was released around the same time cost only 4 sen. In spite of its high price, “20th Century” sold very well.
While running his nursery business, Kakunosuke also published his writings in order to promote the fruit tree industry. He produced “Grape Cultivar Descriptions” that was also a catalog for his nursery, and this journal was published until 1943. Later, the name changed to “Grape and Pear Descriptions” and then “Fruit Descriptions”. These journals contained his essays on the fruit industry and cultural techniques.
Tottori Prefecture and the Ina District of the Nagano Prefecture are well-known “20th Century” production areas. Planting in the Tottori Prefecture began in 1904 with ten seedlings that Eiji Kitawaki of Matsuho Village purchased. In the Ina district, Tadakatsu Momosawa of Iijima Village had already planted 4 acres by 1925.
A negative trait of “20th Century” is its susceptibility to alternaria black spot. At the time, Bordeaux mix spraying was common, but Tottori and Nagano prefectures have less rainfall during the spring, so less spraying was required there. By contrast, planting acreage in the Chiba Prefecture, where rainfall is excessive, increased very little. Once disease control in the region was established, however, the planting acreage rapidly increased. Better spray timing and the use of waxed bags to cover the fruitlets enabled better control. The latter idea was developed by Umenojo Bokura, who was a technician at the National Agricultural Research Station of the Ministry of Agriculture and Commerce.
The “20th Century” pear reached its peak planting acreage, to over 6,000 hectares between 1972 and 1988, when it was the most popular Asian pear cultivar. Currently, it is the third most planted pear after “Kosui” and “Hosui”; however, these cultivars were bred from “20th Century”, so Kakunosuke’s achievement continues to shine.
The original tree was designated as a national monument in 1935. Kakunosuke had passed away during the previous year at the age of 59. He was known as a diligent and kind man, who enjoyed sharing hard liquor with visitors! The tree was described by a teacher at the Chiba Horticulture High School, Taizo Miki, in 1930:
“The tree was trained on the pergola, and the trunk circumference 40 cm above the ground was 90 cm. The main stems initiated from 1.5 m high, and the canopy spread 7.6 m from east to west, and 7.9 m from north to south. Due to its advanced age, there were not many new shoots, and it appeared to be declining in health. The peak of its production was approximately 1918 and the tree produced 1,500 fruit, but it was reduced to 800 by 1930”. Oregon Small Farm News Vol. XIII No. 2 Page 7
In 1944, the tree was burned in an air raid along with the entire orchard. It survived for a few more years, and died in 1947. A monument stands on the site. Due to land reform in the postwar era, the area became residential, and now the location is barely recognizable in spite of place names such as 20th Century Hill and Former Pear Town. There is a small playground called 20th Century Park which is a nice gathering place for children.
Although traces of “20th Century” are disappearing, local residents keep the memory of Kakunosuke alive. In 1990, an exhibition in his honor took place at the Matsudo City Cultural Center, which lasted for seven weeks. Today, there is a special exhibition room devoted to the pear cultivar, in which a burned fragment of the original tree attracts visitors. Matsudo residents take pride in the fact that the “20th Century” was discovered in their city.