Planting a Painting

by Rachel Fruin
Naperville, IL, United States

Sometimes the best ideas come from failure.

In 1981, archaeologists digging near Inakadate, Japan, discovered evidence of rice cultivation dating back 2,000 years. Hoping to lure tourists, this small town of about 8,000 residents built an amusement park based on New Stone Age history. The tourists failed to arrive, however, and by 1993, $106 million dollars of debt forced town leaders back to the drawing board.

Going with the Grain

A clerk in the town hall had the ingenious idea to honor Inakadate’s rice-growing legacy by using fields nearby as a blank canvas for painting in rice. Including four strains of this staple in hues of yellow, white, dark red, and green, villagers planted the paddy according to precise coordinates. From May to October, as the rice grows, an image emerges. As the rice matures, the colors deepen.

At first only simple designs were used, such as the outline of a mountain with some kanji (characters in Japanese writing). As the Tanbo paddy art grew in popularity, so did the villagers’ skills, resulting in more complicated illustrations that change every year. From geishas to Godzilla to Gone with the Wind, current designs attract hundreds of thousands of tourists.

Volunteer Venture

Inakadate officials built a 22-meter observation tower attached to the town hall that allows access free of charge. Donations are accepted, however, to cover the $35,000 cost of renting the land. The labor of planting and harvesting is contributed by local residents, even though it can take 1200 people to produce one design. Meticulously covering 15,000 square meters with seedlings is a lot of work!

A New Perspective

A notable year was 2003 when planners attempted to draw more visitors by recreating Leonardo da Vinci’s famous Mona Lisa. Although a successful reimagining, because the vertical perspective hadn’t been accounted for, visitors thought her head looked too small for her body. That’s when planners learned that they needed to skew the drawing so that it looked proportional from the viewer’s angle.

The success of Inakadate has led other rural Japanese towns to requisition rice paddies for artistic revenue generation. Although each site attracts tourists, any profit is relatively modest. Selling space for advertisements was considered only once and ultimately voted down, so the fields remain non-commercial testimonies to human enterprise, persistence, and creativity.

Examples of rice paddy art from across Japan

Math Questions

  1. In 2010, Inakadate was $106 million dollars in debt due to a failed amusement park and financial problems before that. It cost the village $35,000 per year to rent the land, plant the seedlings, and maintain the rice crop.  In 2010 the village brought in $70,000 in donations from visitors who came to see the artwork. At this rate, when will they get out of debt? Design a graph with years along one axis.
  2. The village attracts 150,000 tourists every year. What could the village do to increase revenue and decrease debt? In groups, discuss strategies and draw up a budget of what your best option would look like.
  3. During one week, 21 people visit on Monday, 17 people on Tuesday, 13 people on Wednesday, 13 on Thursday, and 20 on Friday. What is the average number of people who come each day? Make a chart to to identify a trend and explain why that trend might exist. What do you need to charge each person to make $1000 per week?
  4. Design your own piece of art that covers a field that is X meters by Y meters (you pick the values). If it typically costs $9 to plant and grow a square meter of rice, how much with this piece of art cost?
  5. Imagine you have a park with 15 pieces of art that cost on average $3500 each. The park also costs $750 per day to maintain. How much do you need to make per day? If you have, on average, 80 visitors per day, how much do you need to charge them so that you make a profit of $$1250 per day?

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Extension Questions

What would you do with an abandoned amusement park? Believe it or not, across the globe, hundreds of now-defunct entertainment areas exist. As they rot and rust, they develop an eeriness that fascinates some people. If you happened to own one of these decaying locations, how could you turn a profit from it?

Write your own extension question and submit it here


  1. BBC Travel article on Inakadate Tanbo art
  2. Ricepedia website for information on rice cultivation around the world
  3. 4.5-minute news clip on a documentary about Tanbo art in Japan

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