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What’s Napoleon Doing in a Japanese Rice Paddy?

by Sheron Long on September 26, 2013

Japanese rice paddy art of Napoleon on his white horse (2009), showing creative inspiration by the villagers of Inakadate (Image by Captain76)

Across the summer of 2009, this image of Napoleon emerged in a rice field in Inakadate—
a slow reveal for an emperor used to making a grand entrance!
(Image by Captain76)

He’s Growing from Creative Inspiration and Some Seeds!

In fact, Napoleon grew from several different kinds of seeds that sprouted in different colors. They became the “paint” on this giant canvas depicting the French emperor.

Origins of Tanbo Art

Known as tanbo (rice paddy) art, or tambo art, the idea originated in 1993 with Japanese villagers in Inakadate. They had a creative inspiration—grow a huge image in the rice paddy behind town hall.

The fascinating result was a depiction of Mount Iwaki. Across the next 20 years, the idea spread to other Japanese villages, and images became more complex revealing other landscapes and larger-than-life figures of the Mona Lisa, Japanese warriors, Napoleon, and characters from novels and comic strips.

Japanese rice paddy art (2007), showing creative inspiration of villagers in Inakadate

Tanbo art (Inakadate, 2007), patterned after “The Great Wave Off Kanagawa,” the famous
woodcut print by Katsushika Hokusai, drew 240,000 visitors.
(Image courtesy of Le Citron Jaune)

Taking Root in France

In southern France, the marshy lowlands of the Camargue are home to black bulls, pink flamingos, and wild white horses among a rich diversity of flora and fauna.

Wildlife in the Camargue region of southern France where the first rice paddy art in Europe has appeared (Images © Sheron Long)

Black bulls grace the ranches of the Camargue, flamingos migrate there each year inhabiting the marshes and waterways, and white horses are, well, always horsin’ around.
© Sheron Long

Amidst the wild landscape, rice paddies abound. It is here that France produces over 100,000 tons a year of white, red, and brown rice. Both Japan and France are world players in rice production.

The Camargue is also home to Le Citron Jaune, the National Centre for Street Art, which backs the creation of shows and performances in public spaces. Its director Françoise Léger, who was familiar with tanbo art, put two and two together and had the idea to create it in the rice fields of the Camargue.

Rice paddy near Arles, France (Image © Sheron Long)

Rice paddy near Arles, France
© Sheron Long

The project is part of the outdoor events during Marseille-Provence 2013, celebrating this area in southern France—a crossroads since Roman times—as the European Capital of Culture for the year.

A creative idea is often born from combining two known ideas, but Léger’s creative process also involved research. In an interview (in French) with Wikibee, Le Citron Jaune explained:

  • Léger traveled to Japan for laboratory experiments to see if the strains of rice would grow in the Camargue climate.
  • She returned with four varieties of rice to use in the French canvas.
  • The project in the Marais (marshes) du Vigueirat, a nature preserve for the flora and fauna of the Camargue, would become the first installation of tanbo art in Europe.

The Art of the Matter

A good design comes first. Blending  the Japanese tanbo art form with its French setting, artist and cartoonist Pierre Duba decided on an image suitable for the Camargue—a woman riding atop a black bull.

Design for the rice paddy art in the Camargue region of France showing creative inspiration by Pierre Duba (Image courtesy of Le Citron Jaune)

The design by Pierre Duba reflects both French and Japanese cultures.
(Image courtesy of Le Citron Jaune)

After the design came the art of the planting, directed by  specialists in agriculture and landscapes from Japan—Tomohito and Nagisa Minowa and Hiroyuki Maya. For the mid-June planting, the field was divided into cells matching the design, thereby facilitating hand placement of the different strains of rice seeds.

French Rice Paddy on June 15 at the time of planting the field for the tanbo art  (Image courtesy of Le Citron Jaune)

French rice paddy in the Camargue on June 15 at the time of planting the tanbo art
(Image courtesy of Le Citron Jaune)

Across the summer, the image began to emerge.

Progress of French tanbo art across the growing season, showing creative inspiration for growing rice paddy art from seeds

As the rice grows, the colors of its shoots define the image of the bull.
Photos taken (L-R) on July 8, July 15, and August 27
(Image courtesy of Le Citron Jaune)

Initially planting to use the colors of the different strains of rice, tanbo artists also consider how the rice colors will change as harvest approaches. The field on September 22 at the time of harvest looked like this:

Frech tanbo art, showing creative inspiration for growing rice paddy art from seeds

French tanbo art on September 22, the day of the harvest
© Sheron Long

The Cultural Heart of the Matter

September 22 brought a celebration of the harvest and of the cross-cultural collaboration that had made the project possible. Families, friends, and dignitaries from France and Japan gathered to see a violinist and two dancers perform in the rice field.

Violinist playing by the French rice paddy art, and providing creative inspiration for the harvest. (Image © Sheron Long)

The violinist strikes a chord with the crowd.
© Sheron Long

As the violinist Takumi Fukushima played, the dancers in fox masks emerged from the brush, frolicked, and approached the rice field.

Performance at French rice paddy art, showing creative inspiration for the harvest (Image © Sheron Long)

Can you find both “foxes”?
© Sheron Long

Shedding their masks and shoes, the two dancers, Chiharu Mamiya and Yutaka Takei, entered the muddy field to perform a riveting dance in which they portrayed life’s emotions felt by people of every culture.

Dancers moving through French rice paddy art and providing creative inspiration for the harvest. (Image © Sheron Long)

Two dancers make their way through the rice paddy art
as they portray universal human emotions felt throughout life.
© Sheron Long

After the performance, Mamiya and Takei led the attendees in a harvest ritual, thanking the sun and the rain for the bountiful rice as they circulated around the field and sang in both French and Japanese. A few lines:

Pour le soleil,                For the sun, (French)

Arigato.                        Thank you. (Japanese)

Pour la pluie,                For the rain, (French)

Arigato.                        Thank you. (Japanese)

And then the harvest began!

A muddy rice paddy where people step to harvest grains grown in rice paddy art  (Image © Sheron Long)

Squish! Squish! There’s no terra firma in a rice paddy.
© Sheron Long

Harvesting the rice grown in rice paddy art (Image © Sheron Long)

Wishing for gloves! When harvesting by hand, the first step is
to break off the spikelets that contain the grain.
© Sheron Long

Harvesting grain grown in rice paddy art (Image © Sheron Long)

Teamwork makes the harvest easier.
© Sheron Long

At the harvest, buckets and buckets were filled, but more than grain was gathered that day.

Oh, I see—the creative inspiration of tanbo artists in Japan and the creative inspiration of artists and organizers in France bore fruit filled with the seeds of respect between cultures.

For information and inspiration about Provence and the Camargue region, contact VisitProvence.com. Also visit these sites for  events and activities, environment (French only), and nature visits to the Camargue National Reserve. 

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