Kameji Abe and the Historic Rice Cultivar Kameno-o (Tortoise Tail)

Author: Dr. Toshihiko Nishio
Translated and edited by: Shinji Kawai and Abigail Huster, Department of Horticulture, Oregon State University

Publication: Spring 2021

Improvements in agricultural technology and breeding helped struggling Japanese farming communities in the early 20th century. Since the 1990s, Dr. Toshihiko Nishio, a Japanese rice farming system researcher, published over 150 stories about these innovations. 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.

Aamarume Town, Home of Farmer- Breeders

Many years ago the author traveled to northern Japan to visit the town Amarume, which
is now called the town of Shonai. Shonai is the birthplace of the cold tolerant rice cultivar Kameno-o, which literally translates to Tortoise Tail.

The first stop was at the Amarume Town Museum. The building was full of historical farming equipment such as horse drawn plows. What caught the author’s eyes, however, were the portraits of farmer breeders hanging on the wall. From the 19th century to the early 20th century many farmer breeders came from the larger Shonai district, including seven from the small town of Amarume. These farmer breeders developed several important rice cultivars including widely planted ‘Toyokuni.’ Another important
cultivar from the area is ‘Morita Wase,’ which served as a parent to two elite cultivars currently planted today. The passion that this tiny village had for developing new rice cultivars was impressive. This drive, combined with the cool summers of the region, created the perfect environment for the development of cold tolerant rice.

A New Cold Tolerant Cultivar

The man behind the Kameno-o rice cultivar was named Kameji. He found the first ears of rice that would later lead to Kameno-o in 1893, when he was twenty five years old.

As the story goes, it all began when Kameji made a visit to a shrine in a nearby village. While he was traveling, cool summer temperatures hit the area and devastated the rice fields. On his way home, Kameji noticed a few ears of rice still standing. It was customary at the time to plant relatively cold tolerant cultivars near the entryway of irrigation channels. This year, the cold snap was so severe that only three plants of this cold hardy rice were left. Kameji collected the surviving plants and from there on out he continued to select for cold tolerant.

Although the well-known tale makes it sound like the discovery was simply a stroke of luck, there was more to it than merely being in the right place at the right time. Kameji’s notes about the origins of Kameno-o rice indicate that his discovery of the cold hardy plants was quite intentional. He might have visited the shrine, but the real purpose of his travels was to search for cold hardy rice germplasm with the intention to breed a cold tolerant cultivar.

Adaptation To New Farming Systems

While legend has it that Kameji simply stumbled upon Kameno-o rice, his work didn’t end there. After finding the parent plants, he conducted many trials to evaluate different planting densities and fertilizer rates, all the while selecting for adaptation to the currently evolving agricultural practices. At the time when Kameno-o rice was developed major changes in rice cultivation systems were underway. Farmers were shifting their production systems from water-saturated paddies to dry

fields, increasing cultivation depth, and learning to apply more fish and soy meal fertilizer to achieve higher yields. They were, of course, also looking for fresh cultivars adapted to these new cultural practices. Kameno-o was the first cultivar with these new adaptations that was available to growers in the cool summer region.

Kameji owned 1/5 acre of farmland on which he grew rice and vegetables. He was always eager to try new methods and was an early adapter of the new dry rice field cultivation method. His pursuit of a new rice cultivar was a natural extension of his innate curiosity and drive to innovate. Not long after Kameji’s breeding project, a severe rice crop failure took place throughout northern Japan due to another summer cold snap. While
other rice varieties failed to produce ears, Kameno-o still produced a decent yield. The news spread quickly, and Kameno-o rice was soon grown widely throughout the region.

The King Became A Tortoise

The process of naming a new cultivar can be interesting. Kameji originally asked his friend to name his new rice variety. The friend came up with the name ‘Kameno-ou,’ which means “the king of rice that was created by Kameji.” However, Kameji wasn’t comfortable with such a self-aggrandizing name and shifted it slightly to ‘Kameno-o,’ which changes the meaning completely to “tortoise tail”.

Nonetheless, Kameno-o was the king of rice. It was planted widely in Tohoku and Hokuriku regions from the end of 19th century until the early 20th century. By 1925 the planting acreage, including on the Korean peninsula, reached 200, 000 ha. Its popularity stemmed not only from its cold tolerance, but also for its early maturity, high yields, and exceptional flavor.

In terms of leaving a legacy, Kameno-o also deserves to be called a king. Its immediate offspring ‘Rikuu No.132’ is one of the so-called Big Three varieties that became the foundation of modern rice breeding work and is the parent of many modern premium cultivars. After peak production around 1925 Kameno-o was eventually replaced by its own descendant, ‘Rikuu No. 132’.

In his later years of life Kameji formed a land reform cooperative dedicated to agricultural development in his hometown.

His legacy also includes the following haiku with his poet name, ‘Drunkard by Blossom’:

Thoughts ahead

Slow travel

Gazing rice plants

This gem of a poem reflects the essence of Kameji, a man who loved rice farming and could be found roaming the fields on a daily basis. After great contributions to the well-being of cool region rice farmers, Kameji left the world in 1928 at the age of sixty-one.

At the end of the author’s tour of Amarume, he visited a shrine near the site where Kameji found the few surviving ears of rice that eventually became Kameno-o. While the main shrine is for a historical political figure, there is also a monument to commemorate the birthplace of Kameno-o rice. When the author put his hands in the spring flowing out there, the water was icy cold. How fitting that the gift of cold tolerant rice would come from this very place!

Continued Fame As A Rice Wine Ingredient
Surprisingly, Kameno-o is a popular rice variety to this day. It is no longer used for direct consumption but rather as an ingredient in rice wine. There are more than 30 breweries across the nation that use it to make aged rice wine. There is a Japanese cartoon called ‘The Rice Wine of Natsuko’ which portrays a female brewer trying to create a legendary sake from Kameno-o rice. Although the variety was not bred specifically for rice wine production, for some reason it fascinated many brewers. Nostalgia could be a contributing factor. Since Kameno-o lodges more easily than modern cultivars, it does requires some special management to produce today.

Nonetheless, the Kameno-o Summit was held every year from 1997 through 2006, bringing together rice farmers and rice wine breweries. The event drew more than 500 people from across Japan to toast each other with sake born of Kameno-o.