BETSUKAI, HOKKAIDO – Novelist Hiroshi Tamai, a 79-year-old self-described “peasant writer,” is proud that he persisted with his craft through the toughest years as a cattle farmer in Betsukai, eastern Hokkaido.
In the mid-1950s, the Japanese government sought young people to join a pilot project to cultivate the wild Konsen plateau and increase food output as Japan recovered from war.
With financial support from the World Bank, the project aimed to tame the wilderness with heavy machinery and create a model dairy district in Betsudai.
Young people across the country applied, and the district became Japan’s largest dairy hub.
Loans of around ¥2.5 million, repayable over more than 20 years, were available for applicants to buy 14 hectares of land each, and to purchase herds of Jersey cattle, whose milk can be used for a wide range of dairy products.
Tamai was from Teshikaga, a neighboring town. He aspired to a life of working in the fields on fine days and reading books at home when it rained.
The dream proved short-lived. After a month on a ship from Australia, the Jersey cows were found to be ailing and they produced almost no milk.
Settlers asked the government to let them raise instead Holstein cattle, which produce milk suitable for drinking rather than processing and are adapted to Hokkaido’s cold climate. But the government stuck to the Jersey plan as it wanted the area still to become a production base of milk for dairy products.
So the settlers purchased Holstein cattle on loans raised independently. But brucellosis, a highly infectious disease introduced with the Jersey cattle, dealt an additional blow: a single infected cow could infect the entire farm, and whole herds were wiped out.
With the burden of loans growing heavier, many settlers gave up and abandoned dairy farming. Tamai would see them off at Shunbetsu Station in Betsukai.
But he persisted with his pastoral dream of writing and farming. Tamai would get up three hours before dawn to write, penning novels about the plight of the settler.
“The more we suffered, the more I had to write about,” Tamai recalled. “Writing was my only means of protesting the outrageous reality.”
Although Tamai’s cattle were not affected by brucellosis, he experienced a graver problem in 1972 when his second daughter Toyoko, then a first grader, was involved in a traffic accident and was hospitalized in a town away from Betsukai.
In addition to caring for Toyoko at the hospital, he had to look after his disabled elder daughter at another facility, his wife when she fell sick, and on top of that, his herd of 40 cattle. Late in 1972, four calves died because he was too busy to attend to them.
But his hard work as a writer paid off. Tamai received an honorable mention for his novel, “Moeru Daisogen” (budding prairie), in a contest held in 1987 by The Hokkaido Shimbun Press.
At first, Toyoko wanted to take over the family business but her doctor advised her against it because of lingering effects of the accident. Tamai thus gave up farming in 1989.
He has now converted his home into a private library for local people. It contains some 5,000 books he has read, as well as other publications including literary journals he published along with others in the town.
“Though the natural environment in the Konsen plain is tough, I will stay here and continue writing about poor farmers,” Tamai said.
“I will create new stories from here,” he said of the library, a place that reflects his roles as both a farmer and a writer.