Archive Room “The Fire of Rice Sheaves” –Whole Ansei Earthquake Tsunami Story-
This is the true story of “the fire of rice sheaves,” untold in both old Japanese textbooks and in the story written by Lafcadio Hearn.
The achievement of Hamaguchi goryo “to plan for the relief of a hundred generations” lives on in this story.
1 Well water running dry
On a winter morning about 150 years ago, Hiro-mura village was hit by an earthquake.*
Upon seeing that the sea differed from usual the villagers evacuated to Hirohachiman Shrine, fearing a tsunami, but were relieved to see that no damage had occurred.
However early afternoon of the next day, a villager rushed into goryo’s home and said,
“It's a crisis! The well water has run dry!”
*This is the earthquake to be later known as the Ansei Tokai Earthquake, and occurred at 10:00 am on December 23, 1854 (Ansei 1). Casualties numbered 2,000 to 3,000 across the country.
2 Earthquake! Tsunami!
At 4:00 in the evening, a huge earthquake incomparable to the one of the previous day occurred.
Houses fell down and roof tiles were blown off. People repeatedly heard sounds like the roar of cannons, and dark cirrus clouds rapidly spread.
Finally a huge tsunami rushed toward the village. “Run! Head up the hill! A tsunami is coming!”
Swallowed by the waves, goryo frantically yelled at the villagers and urged them to evacuate to Hirohachiman Shrine.
*This earthquake was later called the Ansei Nankai Earthquake. Thousands of people died across Japan.
3 Fire of life, “the fire of rice sheaves”
The tsunami traveled up the river washing away houses and agricultural fields, and then returned to the sea at frightening speed.
Left around them was a hopeless sight. Adults and children alike were milling around calling for and trying to find their families.
goryo noticed there must be people wandering around in the dark, unsure of where to evacuate to.
Suddenly he thought, “I know, I’ll set fire to the rice sheaves up on the hill, even if it is a bit wasteful,” and he set fire to the rice sheaves. Drawn by the fire the villagers who had failed to escape then started arriving on the hill one after another. “Oh, I was saved because of the fire.” Just as the 9th villager reached the safety zone, a tsunami much bigger than before rushed toward the village and also extinguished the fire of rice sheaves.
*This tsunami was the biggest and after this they repeatedly rushed ashore and then returned to the sea.
4 Hope for life
Villagers who had lost families, houses and their livelihoods in the tsunami were extremely dismayed.
As some of them were about to leave the village. goryo thought to himself, “The village will perish unless somebody does something. What can be done so that people can still live in Hiro-mura village…? Well, I'll build an embankment along the beach. I'll employ the villagers in the project and pay them, and let them use the money to live on. Then they'll have hope in their lives.”
All the rice in storage had run out in preparing meals after the earthquake, but goryo asked his family and employees to cooperate with him in saving the village.
*Goryo’s family had been engaged in brewing soy sauce in Hiro-mura village and Choshi in Chiba Prefecture for a long time, with many people working in their stores and factories.
5 Hiromura Embankment
The villagers of Hiro-mura village felt deep appreciation of the decision made by goryo. They worked hard at building the embankment in addition to farming and fishing. A large magnificent embankment was completed 4 years later. Pine trees were planted along the seaside and wax trees on the embankment.
A long time passed. Huge waves arrived in Hiro-mura village but it was protected by the embankment. And when a huge earthquake* did occur the tsunami that resulted from it did not rush into the village.
The Hiromura Embankment is still protecting the people of Hirogawa-cho today.
*The Showa Nankai Earthquake occurred on December 21, 1946 (Showa 21) and a tsunami 4 m high rushed toward the village but the area protected by the embankment received no damage.
From Vol.10 of the Japanese Reader for Elementary Schools, “Fire of Rice Sheaves”
For Jinjo-ka (Elementary Schools )
Japanese Reader for Elementary Schools, Vol. 10
Ministry of Education
Vol. 10 Fire of Rice Sheaves
“This is serious” Gohei uttered as he exited his house. While the earthquake was not that strong the long slow shaking and groaning noises coming from the earth were eerie and old Gohei had never experienced similar.
Gohei anxiously examined the village from the garden of his house. The villagers appeared to be so involved in preparations for the evening festival to celebrate the rich harvest that most of them were unaware that an earthquake had taken place.
Once Gohei shifted his gaze from the village his eyes grew intent upon the sea. Opposing the direction of the wind waves were moving offshore and a broad sandy beach and dark rocky bottom appeared as he watched.
“Something's happening. A tsunami must be coming,” Gohei thought .
If he didn't do anything all 400 lives of the village would be swallowed in the tsunami. There wasn't a moment to waste.
He rushed into his house and quickly emerged with a large torch in his hand. Outside there was a big pile of rice sheaves.
“It's a bit wasteful but it could save the lives of the villagers.”
Gohei suddenly lit one of the rice sheaves with the torch. Fanned by the wind, they burst into flames. Gohei feverishly ran from one sheave to another.
When he had set fire to all the rice sheaves in his field he threw aside the torch and stood gazing at the sea as if thunderstruck.
The sun had already set and began to grow darkness. But the firelight of the rice sheaves lit up the sky. Because of the fire the alarm bell began ringing at the mountain temple.
“Fire! It’s the Shoya-san's (the village headman) house !”
The young men of the village quickly ran to the mountainside, and then were followed by the elderly, women and children.
In the eyes of Gohei who was watching them from the hill they seemed as slow as ants. 20 of the young men finally arrived at the hill. They immediately tried to put out the fire but Gohei said in a loud voice.
“Leave it be. It's an emergency. Wait until all the villagers have arrived.”
All the villagers gradually arrived and Gohei counted the elderly and youngsters who were continuously arriving one by one.
People gathered around and stared from the burning rice sheaves to Gohei's face.
At that moment, Gohei shouted in his loudest voice,
“Look! It's coming!”
Through the twilight they peered in the direction at which Gohei pointed. A thin dark line had appeared on the far edge of the sea. As they watched it grew thick and broad and then rapidly roared ashore.
Someone shouted, “It's a tsunami!”
The seawater bore down on them like an overhanging cliff and it hit the shore with the weight of a mountain and the roar of hundreds of thunderbolts all striking at once. People jerked away in amazement. And for a while all they could see was spray from the rushing water.
The villagers watched on as the dangerous white water furiously passed over their village.
The sea rolled back and forth over the village two or three more times.
For a while, nothing was to be heard on the hill. Everybody was so shocked that the village had been washed away by the waves and had disappeared!
The rice sheaves were fanned by the wind and once again burst into flames, lighting the darkness of evening. When the villagers finally came to themselves and realized that they had been saved by the fire, they silently knelt before Gohei.