Akinori Kimura’s MIRACLE APPLES – Chapter 8/24

Fri 03 Sep 2010 · 0 comments

Until varieties began to be improved in England in the eighteenth century, apples were a fruit which grew at most to the size of satsuma oranges. As noted earlier, they were used solely as an ingredient in cooking, or to make alcoholic drinks. They were sometimes eaten as they were, but that was probably because in those days they didn’t have the abundance of sweet fruits we have today. The modern palate would find it lacking in sweetness, overly acidic and sour, and anything but the sort of thing you could eat.

In the nineteenth century, this close relative of the wild varieties was called the crab apple, to distinguish it from other apples. Simply saying ‘apple’ would mean you were talking about the improved varieties of larger, sweeter apples. The varieties which had been improved were the ones which became ordinary apples. They may have been larger, but only relative to the crab apple. Europeans tend not to slice apples up and share them as they do in Japan. They prefer smaller varieties, ones they can take whole bites out of. Perhaps eating habits from the days when they ate small crab apples remain largely unchanged in Europe today.

Variety improvements that started in England developed rapidly in the New World. It was the immigrants from Europe following the Mayflower who carried apple trees to the American continent. As it was the seventeenth century, they would have been crab apples. They were probably a fruit which reminded them of their much missed homes in Europe, but they were most highly prized as a fruit that provided juice in place of drinking water, and as the main ingredient in cider. Securing safe drinking water was of paramount importance in the unexplored territories. A pioneer’s garden would always have apple trees, and as they moved westward, the apple producing area spread from east to west with them.

The character Johnny Appleseed then appeared on the scene. Appleseed is a legendary hero known to all Americans. His real name was John Chapman. He planted apple trees. He assisted pioneers, planting tens of thousands of apple trees in the areas they settled. From the beginning of the nineteenth century, the time when Appleseed was going about his work, new varieties of apple appeared one after the other in America. Most of the ancestors of the eating apple varieties directly linked to today’s apples appeared at this time. People who had only ever known small, sour apples, must have been astonished at these big, sweet apples. New variety seedlings were re-imported into Europe, the home of the apple, and the American-born, large apples, enjoyed a worldwide boom.

The consequences of this also reached the shores of the recently colonized islands of the Far East. It was in 1853, eight years after Appleseed died, that Perry arrived in Uraga with four steamships.

Seven years later, Niimi Buzen no Kami, who had travelled to America as special envoy heading a mission to ratify the Treaty of Amity and Commerce between the United States and Japan, brought seedlings of these Western apples back to Japan from America. We do not know if they were a gift from someone in the United States government, or if Buzen no Kami had bought them himself, but there is no doubt that these Western apples were foreign fruits meant as souvenirs for high ranking shogunate officials. These large, sweet, improved variety of apple, would be the pride of a civilized America; a cutting edge, high tech product as we would say nowadays.

Once we enter the Meiji Period, growing of this Western apple started all over Japan. The Japanese government’s Ministry of Home Affairs Industrial Promotion Board and the Hokkaido Development Commission imported Western apple seedlings from America as part of a national policy to develop agriculture and, after propagation by grafting at agricultural experiment stations around the country, distributed them to prefectures throughout Japan.

Japanese horticultural techniques had been very highly advanced since the Edo Period. In the hands of an Edo gardener, propagating the fruit trees from America by grafting would have been a simple matter.

In fact there have been apples in Japan for a long time. They are referred to in a letter of thanks for a gift of apples received by Nagamasa Azai, who was married to Oda Nobunaga’s younger sister Oichi[1]. But those apples were most likely to have been the wild variety that had arrived in Japan via China and which grew in the Tien Shan or Celestial Mountains. In Japan, where water is abundant , there was no custom of replacing water with squeezed fruit juice, or making alcohol from fruit, as there was in Europe. It seems that they were almost exclusively for ornamental use.

The Chinese characters for apple refer to this early Japanese apple. When the apples which had come from America started to be cultivated around Japan, traces of the old Japanese apple faded, and it became known as the wa-ringo, or Japanese apple. Indeed, the same thing happened in Japan as had happened with the original, almost wild apple, which came to be known as the crab apple.

The Western apple was surprisingly vigorous and spread throughout Japan. The Industry Promotion Board began distributing apple seedlings in the seventh year of the Meiji Period (1874). These grew and first bore fruit in about the tenth year of Meiji (1877). Apples started fruiting throughout Japan in the thirteenth year of Meiji (1880). The apples, incomparably more delicious than the Japanese apple, sold very well indeed. It was said that you could ‘earn as much from a single apple tree as sixteen bags of rice’, the land devoted to apple growing increased dramatically and, in the twentieth year of Meiji (1887) there was the first ‘apple boom’. Apples were grown throughout Japan at the time. The scheme devised by officials in the agricultural policy planning of office of the Meiji government was a spectacular success. But it didn’t last.

It wasn’t just the people who welcomed the arrival of the new varieties of apple. Sweet apples became the prime target of insects. Pests went for the soft new buds and leaves, as well as the fruit. The farming community noticed this the moment they started growing apples. But these were Japanese farmers of the Meiji Period. They weren’t rattled by a few insects. These were times when they knew nothing of so-called pesticides. When insects increased, they would protect their apple trees by energetically trying to catch them from before dawn.

From the thirtieth year of Meiji (1897), right in the middle of the apple boom, even the hardest working farmers were overwhelmed. The increase in insects was far from ordinary.

There’s one insect called the woolly apple aphid. These parasitic insects are often found where branches divide and around shoots and, as their name suggests, they protect themselves by producing masses of white filaments. It is a troublesome insect which hinders flower bud formation and impedes swelling of the fruit. It was brought to Japan when the seedlings were imported from America, and so is not an indigenous species. Having no natural enemies, apple orchards everywhere in Japan were attacked by huge numbers of woolly aphids and decimated. To make matters worse, the larvae of a variety of moths, including apple ermine moths and peach fruit moths, flourished, devouring flowers and leaves. On top of which, Japanese apple canker, a disease that rots the trunks of apples, spread, damaging apple trees to such an extent it made their revitalization impossible. Towards the end of the Meiji, nearly every prefecture abandoned apple growing.

The reason Aomori Prefecture alone didn’t give it up was because silk cultivation was not possible. Rice had had its day and, whether they liked it or not, the money economy was spreading to farming villages. Farmers needed a cash crop. This was another reason the Meiji government had introduced apple growing so aggressively. To rank alongside Western powers and succeed in becoming a prosperous country with a strong army, revenue from taxation had to be increased. To increase revenue from taxes, it was necessary to raise the incomes of farmers, who at that time made up more than half the population of the country. Of course the Meiji government not only introduced apple growing. They sought various other ways for farmers to earn a cash income.

Silk cultivation was one of them, and as silk products were Japan’s main export, silk farmers were able to secure decent incomes. There was no need to needlessly struggle to grow apples in areas where silk production was possible.

In Aomori, however, silk cultivation was not possible for reasons to do with the temperature. Apples, moreover, could be cropped even in years when rice was badly hit by cold weather. For Aomori farmers, who had suffered repeated damage from the cold weather, apples offered a promising way out of poverty. They were not going to give up apple farming.

By sheer force of numbers they exterminated the exploding pest population. By hand, and one-by-one, they removed hundreds of thousands of insects, knocking them off using sticks wrapped with rags. To prevent them being eaten by the pests, they tied a bag around every single apple. Then they soaked straw with caustic soda and used it to wash each tree. Stories are told of how it took thirty five pairs of hands to cover an apple orchard of a quarter of an acre. Polished up, the apple trees would probably have gleamed like the alcove pillar [2]in a living room. If a tree did perish, they would cut it down and plant a seedling in its place.

In the fourth decade of the Meiji Period (1907-1917), the orchards of Aomori Prefecture, having somehow managed to make it thus far thanks to the farmers’ tireless efforts, succumbed to blossom blight and apple leaf spot infestation, and this time faced the prospect of destruction. As it happened, the outbreak of leaf spot in the forty-fourth year of Meiji (1911), the leaves fell early, so early the following spring the apples failed to blossom and, for the second year in a row, there was a major crop failure.

Whilst they had weathered the pest infestation, thanks to the sheer number of farmers, they were helpless in the face of disease. Disease is not something you can pluck off by hand. Needless to say, people at the time did what they could, just like Kimura. They tried all sorts of measures used to control pests, including the Japanese andromeda shrub and quick lime, sulphur, tobacco stems, and soapy water, but were unable to curb the spread of the diseases.

It was pesticides that came to their rescue and saved them from this desperate situation. As far as the history of apple growing is concerned, records show that pesticides were first used in Japan in the forty-fourth year of Meiji (1911). It was the year in which the Aomori apple orchards were devastated by the spread of apple leaf spot. In that year, pesticides which had been used in Europe and America were applied under the direction of a researcher at the agriculture experiment station in Aomori. To start with there were problems about how to use them, as well adverse effects such as the spreading of pesticides hastening the falling of leaves, so they weren’t very widely used. Correct methods had been established by the start of the Taisho Period, however, with remarkable results achieved in terms of control and prevention.

When they saw life returning to apple trees which had been heading for extinction due to leaf spot, the apples farmers raced to introduce pesticides. As with streptomycin, the wonder drug for tuberculosis, pesticides helped eradicate apple diseases they had been unable to do anything about. Now they had an effective means of countering the threat posed by pests, farmers were at last able to grow apples with confidence. Without pesticides, there is no doubt at all that apple growing would have ended in Aomori Prefecture too.


[1] Oichi married Azai in 1565. Azai committed suicide at the age of 28, when his castle at Odani was besieged after Oichi informed her father that her husband had rebellious intentions.

[2] The most important room in a Japanese home traditionally has an alcove with a pillar made from a single tree trunk. This is specially selected and often highly polished.


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