Dogu, a Jomon Period clay figure Some archaeologists believe that people may have arrived on the Japanese archipelago as far back as 100,000 years ago, during an ice age, when Japan was connected to the Asian mainland by land bridges to the Korean peninsula in the south and the Amur River Delta (between present-day China and Russia) via Sakhalin Island in the north. Fossils of ancient elephants have been found near Nagano but no signs of human habitation have been found from the period in which these elephants lived. It is more likely however that first humans arrived around 35,000 years ago. Most scholars believe that the ancestors of modern Japanese arrived in two waves of migrations. There are two theories as to the origin of the first wave. The second wave came from Korea about 2,300 years ago.
One theory on the first wave, based on dental morphology, holds these people originated from southeast Asia and arrived via Okinawa about 12,000 years ago; a second theory, based on genetic data, suggests they came from northeastern Asia as far back as 40,000 years ago. People most likely came from both places but it is hard to pin down exactly when they arrived and which group was dominant. Most scholars believe that the first arrivals probably came from Siberia around 40,000 year ago, and they were probably hunters who pursued games such as wooly mammoth on Hokkaido, arriving via land bridges that existed between Hokkaido and the Asian mainland and Siberia when sea levels were low. There is evidence of human habitation on Minatogawa, an island between Taiwan and Japan, dated to 18,000 years ago. Human skeletal remains dated to 32,000 years ago have found in the Ryukyu Islands, south of Okinawa. It is thought that early people reached Okinawa about 20,000 years ago and established permanent villages in southern Kyushu around 9,000 years ago.
According to Japanese sources: Archaeological discoveries have revealed that the ancient people inhabiting the archipelago in the Old Stone (Paleolithic) age lived mainly by hunting and gathering. The New Stone (Neolithic) age, dating from about 10,000 years ago, witnessed the manufacture of refined stone implements, the development of advanced hunting techniques using bows and arrows, and the production of earthenware containers for cooking and storing food. On the basis of archaeological finds, it has been postulated that hominid activity in Japan may date as early as 200,000 B.C., when the islands were connected to the Asian mainland. Although some scholars doubt this early date for habitation, most agree that by around 40,000 B.C. glaciation had reconnected the islands with the mainland. Based on archaeological evidence, they also agree that by between 35,000 and 30,000 B.C. Homo sapiens had migrated to the islands from eastern and southeastern Asia and had well-established patterns of hunting and gathering and stone toolmaking . Stone tools, inhabitation sites, and human fossils from this period have been found throughout all the islands of Japan. “More stable living patterns gave rise by around 10,000 B.C. to a Neolithic or, as some scholars argue, Mesolithic culture. Possibly distant ancestors of the Ainu aboriginal people of modern Japan, members of the heterogeneous Jomon culture (ca. 10,000-300 B.C.) left the clearest archaeological record. [Source: Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan]
Websites and Reources
Links in this Website: AINU Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; FIRST JAPANESE Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; EARLY JAPANESE HISTORY Factsanddetails.com/Japan NARA PERIOD AND HEIAN PERIOD Factsanddetails.com/Japan
Good Japanese History Websites: History of Japan by William Gilmore-Lehne stockton.edu/~gilmorew ; Wikipedia article on History of Japan Wikipedia ; Outline Chronology of Japanese Cultural History www4.ncsu.edu ; Samurai Archives samurai-archives.com ; National Museum of Japanese History rekihaku.ac.jp ; Famous Personages in Japan kyoto-su.ac.jp ; Monumenta Nipponica, Respected Journal on Japanese History and Culture monumenta.cc.sophia.ac.jp Links and Sources Japanese History Documentation Project openhistory.org/jhdp ; Cambridge University Bibliography of Japanese History to 1912 ames.cam.ac.uk ; Sengoku Daimyo sengokudaimyo.co ; English Translations of Important Historical Documents hi.u-tokyo.ac.jp/iriki ; WWW-VL: History: Japan (semi good but dated source ) vlib.iue.it/history/asia/Japan ; History Links oceanindex.net/index ; Forums Delphi Forums, Good Discussion Group on Japanese History forums.delphiforums.com/samuraihistory ; Tousando tousando.proboards.com ;
Good Early Japanese History Websites: Good Essay on Early Japan aboutjapan.japansociety.org ; Origins of the Japanese People nakasendoway.com ; Japanese Archeology www.t-net.ne.jp/~keally/index.htm ; Ancient Japan Washington State University ; Ancient Japan Links on Archeolink archaeolink.com ;Essay on Rice and History aboutjapan.japansociety.org Women in Ancient Japan www.wsu.edu
Jomon and Yayoi Sites Jomon Japan.org jomonjapan.org ; Wikipedia article on the Jomon Wikipedia ; Memories of the Jomon um.u-tokyo.ac.jp/dm2k-umdb ; Dogu Exhibition at the British Museum britishmuseum.org ; Back to the Future furutasigaku. ; Yayoi Period on Yamasa History site yamasa.org/history/english/yayoi
Ainu Sites: Ainu Museum ainu-museum.or.jp ; Smithsonian Site mnh.si.edu/arctic ; Literatures and Materials of Ainus Language jinbunweb.sgu.ac.j ; Wikipedia article on the Ainu Wikipedia ; Ainu Association of Hokkaido ainu-assn.or ; Ainu-North American Similarities molli.org.uk/explorers ; Foundation for Research and Promotion of Ainu Culture frpac.or.jp ; Boone Collection of Ainu Images and Artifacts fieldmuseum.org/research_collections ; Ainu Language and Japan’s Ancient History List of Resources /www.dai3gen.net ; 18th and 19th Centuries Ainu Documents digicoll.library.wisc.edu
Historical Parks Sannai Maruyama Jomon Site in Northern Honshu sannaimaruyama.pref.aomori.jp ; Yoshinogari Historical Park (between Tosu and Saga on the JR Nagasaki line south of Fukuoka) is an interesting historical park that brings to life the Yayoi Period (400 B.C. to A.D. 300). Website: yoshinogari.jp/en ;Good Photos of Jomon, Yayoi and Kofun Sites at Japan-Photo Archive japan-photo.de
24,000-Year-Old Human Bone Found in Okinawa
In November 2011, researchers announced they had found a 24,000-year-old human bone fragment in a cave on Ishigaki island in Okinawa Prefecture. If the finding holds up they would be among the oldest human remains found in Japan. The Okinawa Prefectural Museum and Art Museum said the piece of bone, excavated from the Shirahosaonetabaru cave, is believed to be part of a rib. [Source: Asahi Shimbun , November 11, 2011]
Using direct dating, the researchers concluded that the fragment is 4,000 years older than the previous oldest find in Japan. Archaeologists at the University of Tokyo are using radiocarbon dating to determine the age of the fragment. The researchers are studying about 300 pieces of human bone as well as animal bones, including one from a wild boar, found in the cave. The cave is located in a construction site for a new airport.
By some reckonings the oldest human remains discovered in Japan are those of a seven-year-old girl estimated to be approximately 32,000 years old. Her remains were found inside Yamashita Daiichi Cave in the Yamashita district of Naha, Okinawa in 1962. Yamashita Daiichi Cave is a semi-cave ruin and because it was used as a grave it escaped destruction in postwar quarrying. The bones of an 8-year-old girl, subsequently called the Yamashita-dojin were excavated from here. It is one of the most significant finds within the whole of the East Asian region and in 1969 it was designated as a Cultural Property by Okinawa Prefecture. [Source: Tom Corrao, Okinawaology Blog, November 4, 2011]
Minoru Yoneda, the research anthropologist at the University of Tokyo said that “Scientist applied the method of radiocarbon analysis to define the age of the Ishigaki bone fragment in March 2011. “Research conducted by the Archaeological Center of Okinawa started in 2010 and the discovery could help identify data on the ancestors of the Japanese people.” Archaeologists, in February 2010 found three fragments of human bones in the ruins of Shirahosaonetabaru caves, near Ishigaki airfield, and were classified as remains of between 15,000 and 20,000 years old. [Source: M24Digital, November 10, 2011]
Archeology and Fraud
Shinichi Fujimura Japan is arguably the world’s most archaeology crazy country. Over $1 billion of public funds is spent annually to excavate some 13,000 sites. Archaeology books are bestsellers and archeology specials are broadcast on prime time. Many artifacts can be dated using evidence from deposits from volcanic eruptions found with the artifacts.
In November 2000, Shinichi Fujimura, an acclaimed Stone Age archeologist at the Tohuku Paleolithic Institute, caused a considerable stir when he confessed that he fabricated evidence, calling into question a number of important discoveries. Nicknamed "The Hand of God" for his uncanny ability to make important discoveries, Fujimura made his confession came after he was secretly caught on video tape, burning supposed artifacts at a site. He said his hunger for fame drove him to do it.
Once claiming to have supernatural powers, Fujimura began his career as an amateur. Among Fujimura's supposed discoveries were what he claimed were the world's oldest stone tools, found in Yamagata and Miyagi prefectures. His deception involved burying some stone tools from his collection in 600,000-year-old dirt, and digging them up and claiming they were 600,000 years old.
Fujimura announced in February 2000 that they had found 500,000 year-old stoneware and golf-hole-sized holes arranged in pentagon, suggesting they were pillar holes for a primitive tent-like dwelling. If that discovery had held up Japan would have been home of the earliest-known, man-made dwelling (dwellings dated at 200,000 to 400,000 years old have been found at Terra Amata ruins in France) and that Stone Age people in Japan, would have been much more advanced than Stone Age People in other parts of the world.
Fujimura admitted fabricating finds at all 42 sites where he worked. This caused the entire book on Stone Age Japanese history to be rewritten. Theories, largely based on his work, that the first Japanese arrived as early 1.2 million years ago on a land bridge from the Asian mainland were thrown out.
The fraud caused the entire Japanese archeological and scientific community to take a closer look at itself. Why, for example, wasn't Fujumura’s work more closely scrutinized when flaws in his evidence were evident. One scholar who questioned Fujimura's work was told to "shut up" about his doubts by one of Japan's most respected archeologists.
Large Animals Ruled Japan Until 12,000 Years Ago
According to Heritage of Japan: “ Mammoths, Siberian lions, Naumann’s elephants, moose, Great elks, Yabe’s giant deer, wild cattle, bison, asses, horses, bears, wolves, tigers roamed Paleolithic Japan until around 12,000 years ago and then suddenly disappeared. Five different species of elephants once inhabited Japan. Fossils of the Stegodon aurorae Matsumoto (Akebono elephant) and their tracks have been found at various sites in Japan. They and the other four species of elephants lived in Japan area between three million years ago until about a million years ago. Mammoths lived only in the north and was not found outside of Hokkaido and the Sakkhalin Islands. [Source:Heritage of Japan]
“The climate of Japan during much of the Paleolithic period was subtropical. The change to a colder climate may have contributed to the disappearance of some large animals, but also enabled others to arrive from the Asian mainland. From about 40,000 years ago Naumann Elephants (Paleoloxodon naumanni), big-horned elk or giant deer crossed over from the Asian continent during the ice age to Japan where it was warmer. [Ibid]
“Around 35,000 years ago, people followed the movement of the animals. Hokkaido, which is an island today, was still part of the continent then, and the Tsugaru Straight between the current Hokkaido Island and the Honshu Island was deep but froze in winter, thus enabling people to travel further south. [Ibid]
“Excavations show that prehistoric people who were living by the shores of Lake Nojiri in present-day Nagano Prefecture (west of present-day Tokyo) hunted the Naumann Elephants by driving them towards the lake or into the wetlands nearby. Furumi, at the foot of Mount Madarao, and on the shores of Lake Nojiri, has been a site of human settlement until about 30,000 years ago. Prehistoric people in Japan hunted with stone implements such as spears made from obsidian obtained from the area around Wada Pass in the Nagano area. They also collected fruit and berries such as hazelnuts and Pinus koriaiensis. [Ibid]
“The climate became progressively colder until 12,000 years ago. Many experts believe animals such as the Naumann Elephants and giant deer were hunted to extinction. [Ibid]
Japan and Early Americans
25,000 year old obsidian
blades found in Japan It had long been thought that the first Americans were hunters who crossed a land bridge across the Bering Strait from Siberia to Alaska about 13,500 years ago and followed an “ice-free corridor” southward though glacier-covered North America, presumably chasing mammoths and mastodons as they went. Studies of skull and facial structures indicates these people were closely related to the Jomon people of Japan (See Below). The skull and facial structures of the Jomon people are in fact more similar to the skull and facial structures of Americans and Europeans than to mainland Asians.
In 1996, scientist in Kennewick Washington found a complete skeleton of a 9,300-year-old man with "apparently Caucasoid" features similar to those found on Jomon people skulls. This so called "Kennewick Man" is thought to have descended from Jomon people or a common ancestors of the Jomon people.
The oldest form of human DNA recovered in North America—dated to be around 10,300 years old—is common in type to that found in Japan and Tibet. Similar DNA has been found in native Americans all the way down the west coast of North and South America.
These people had established themselves in America when a second migration came across the Bering Strait around 5,000 years ago. This second migration is most closely related to native Americans found in the United States today.
Japanese Fishermen and Early Americans
The latest and most widely accepted theory on the first Americans is that they were fishermen who traveled in small boats along the coasts of eastern Asia and western America, bridging the two continents by island hoping between Siberia and Alaska. Some scientists have theorized they originated from Japan and followed a near continuous belt of kelp forests, rich in fish and other sea creatures, that have existed in coastal waters from Japan to Alaska to southern California and flourished even during the Ice Age.
Jon Erlandson, an archeologist at the University of Oregan, wrote an article New Scientist magazine in 2007, promoting this theory. On the first people to arrive in America he said, “I think they were just moving along the coast and exploring. It was like a kelp highway.” He said these people could have arrived sometime after 16,000 ago when the massive glaciers started retreating from the outer northwest coast of North America.
Backing up this assertion is evidence that the coastline and northeastern Asia and northwestern America was not as inhospitable as previously thought and could have easily supported migrating, seafaring communities. In the 1990s evidence emerged of a community living in shellfish at a site called Monte Verde on an island off the Chilean coast around 14,850 years ago. It is likely these people arrived by boat. The ice-free corridor mentioned above was blocked until 13,000 years ago.
There is evidence that people living on Honshu set out across the North Pacific more than 20,000 years ago to Kozushima, an island 50 kilometers away, to collect a type of volcanic glass to make tools. Erland believes these people made the journey in animal skin boats and could have used to the same boats to travel northward to Hokkaido, the Kuril islands and Kamchatka Peninsula, all of which, even today, are rich in game and fish, and continuing onto to Alaska and North America. Recently the remains of a seafarer, dates to between 13,000 and 13,200 years old, were found in the Channel Islands off southern California.
In the April 2008 issue of Science, University of Oregon professor Dennis Jenkins said that he found some fossilized pieces of excrement in the Oregon dated to be 14,300 years old. Using a new technique called polymerase chain reaction—which allows researchers to “unzip” minute fragments of DNA and make millions of duplicate so they can be tested—he was able to determine the excrement was human and was linked genetically to native Americans and Asians.
Study of Dialects Yields New Insights on the Origins of the Japanese People
In May 2011, Nicholas Wade wrote in the New York Times, “Researchers studying the various dialects of Japanese have concluded that all are descended from a founding language taken to the Japanese islands about 2,200 years ago. The finding sheds new light on the origin of the Japanese people, suggesting that their language is descended from that of the rice-growing farmers who arrived in Japan from the Korean Peninsula, and not from the hunter-gatherers who first inhabited the islands some 30,000 years ago.” [Source: Nicholas Wade, New York Times, May 4, 2011]
“The result provides support for a wider picture, controversial among linguists, that the distribution of many language families today reflects the spread of agriculture in the distant past when farming populations, carrying their languages with them, grew in numbers and expanded at the expense of hunter-gatherers. Under this theory, the Indo-European family of languages, which includes English, was spread by the first farmers who expanded into Europe from the Middle East some 8,000 years ago, largely replacing the existing population of hunter-gatherers.” [Ibid]
“In the case of Japan, archaeologists have found evidence for two waves of migrants, a hunter-gatherer people who created the Jomon culture and wet rice farmers who left remains known as the Yayoi culture. The Jomon people arrived in Japan before the end of the last ice age, via land bridges that joined Japan to Asia’s mainland. They fended off invaders until about 2,400 years ago when the wet rice agriculture developed in southern China was adapted to Korea’s colder climate.” [Ibid]
“Several languages seem to have been spoken on the Korean Peninsula at this time, and that of the Yayoi people is unknown. The work of two researchers at the University of Tokyo, Sean Lee and Toshikazu Hasegawa, now suggests that the origin of Japonic — the language family that includes Japanese and Ryukyuan, spoken in the Ryukyu island chain south of Japan — coincides with the arrival of the Yayoi. The finding, if confirmed, indicates that the Yayoi people took Japonic to Japan, but leaves unresolved the question of where in Asia the Yayoi culture or Japonic language originated before arriving in the Korean Peninsula.” [Ibid]
“Mr. Lee is a graduate student studying language and the mind, not a historical linguist. He has used a statistical tree-drawing method that other biologists have applied successfully to language origins, despite some linguists’ skepticism. The method, called Bayesian phylogeny, depends on having a computer draw a large number of possible trees and sampling them to find the most probable. Each language is represented by a 200-word vocabulary composed of words known to change very slowly. If any fork in the tree can be linked to a historical event, all the other branch points can be dated. In this case, Mr. Lee knew dates for Old Japanese, Middle Japanese, and the split between the Kyoto and Tokyo dialects that began in 1603 A.D. when the capital was moved from Kyoto to Edo, the early name for Tokyo.” [Ibid]
“Mr. Lee reasoned that Japanese would have originated with the Jomon if the root of the tree turned out to be very ancient, but with the Yayoi culture if recent. The computer’s date of 2,182 years ago for the origin of the tree fits reasonably well with the archaeological dates for the Yayoi culture, he reported in The Proceedings of the Royal Society.” John B. Whitman, an expert on Japanese linguistics who works at the National Institute for Japanese Language and Linguistics, in Tokyo, and at Cornell University, called the new finding “solid and reasonable,” although the date of the Yayoi culture, he said, has now been pushed back to around 3,000 years after a recalibration of radiocarbon dates. That would open an 800-year gap with Mr. Lee’s date but not necessarily change his conclusion.” [Ibid]
“Quentin Atkinson, an expert on language phylogeny at the University of Auckland, in New Zealand, said that Mr. Lee’s time scale was plausible but that if Japonic had spread through an agriculturally driven population expansion, his language tree should be much bushier at its root. Mr. Lee said that such earlier versions of Japanese might have disappeared when the island was politically unified about 1,000 years ago.” [Ibid]
“The question of Japanese origins has had political consequences, with the link to the Yayoi culture having been invoked to justify the annexation of Korea and Manchuria before World War II. After the war, the link with the Jomon culture was emphasized. Genetic studies have suggested interbreeding between the Yayoi and Jomon people, with the Jomon contribution to modern Japanese being as much as 40 percent. Apparently the Yayoi language prevailed, along with the agricultural technology.” [Ibid]
Image Sources: 1) 5) 6) Jomon clay figures, Tokyo National Museum, 2) Japan 101, 3) obsidian blades, Yatsugatake archeology site
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
© 2009 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated November 2012