Irie-Takasago Shell Midden fish hooks

Aileen Kawagoe wrote in Heritage of Japan: “Jomon people living in bays and coastal areas dived so regularly that they developed bony ear mechanisms (like prehistoric divers elsewhere in the world). Inland, the mountain streams and rivers in Japan teemed with fishes…salmon, trout spawning in the spring. The Jomon people were able to catch large harvests of fish daily by setting traps with their willow baskets or brush weirs in the mountain streams or in estuaries and on tidal flats. During the summer, the Jomon people fished intensively all along the coast, mostly in shallow inlets and water zones using fishing hooks and nets. They caught small schools of fishes of as sardines, halfbeak and horsemackerel and many other types of fish with their nets.” [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, ]

“The Jomon hunter’s bundle of tools included stone spear and arrowhead points, fishhooks, harpoons, line, float, spears, nets, pumice floats, stone sinkers, and needles made of deer antler bone, knives for cutting ropes and for processing the catch. The boat and paddle, were important tools of course. The Jomon fisherfolk are particularly famous for their fishhooks and toggle-headed harpoons that the Jomon hunters used to catch fish and sea mammals with.

“Many dugout canoes have been found from the Early Jomon era. These had been used to go to sea. They also caught black snapper, red snapper, Japanese sea bass and flatfishes. But being able to go out to open sea meant being able to bring home catches of larger fishes like tuna, salmon and sea mammals. Particularly in the north of Japan, deep-sea fish such as tuna, bonito and salmon or trout were important food resources for the Jomon people. Other species of fishes caught include eel, the Japanese flounder, sea perch, red sea bream, black porgy, herring, scorpian fish, mullet, bartailed flathead, brutal moray, opal eye, mackerel, horsemackerel, parrotfish and shark.

“The Jomon fisherman who fished in the coastal lowlands of the Kanto and Tokai districts of central Japan, would have needed tools to help him fish in the sea, bay or estuaries but also to process the catches. He would have used old reused bits of pottery as sinkers for net fishing. He would also have had axes or adzes, grinding stones, pounding stones, anvils, flaked stone scrapers and of course pottery for cooking and storage. The fishing activities and practices were passed down over generations, the fish diet remaining strong in modern Japan today.”

Ancient Jomon weirs have been found in Ishikari, Hokkaido. The Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “Seventeen fishing traps or weirs believed to have been placed in a river about 4,000 years ago have been discovered....the Ishikari City Board of Education said....The site, Ishikari Momijiyama No. 49, is said to have the oldest and largest remains in the nation that indicate fishing took place in ancient rivers. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, September 28, 2002]

Early Japanese History Websites: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website,; Essay on Early Japan ; Japanese Archeology ; Ancient Japan Links on Archeolink ;Essay on Rice and History ; Metropolitan Museum of Art Department of Asian Art; Wikipedia article on the Jomon Wikipedia ; Historical Parks Sannai Maruyama Jomon Site in Northern Honshu ; Yoshinogari Historical Park ;Good Photos of Jomon, Yayoi and Kofun Sites at Japan-Photo Archive ; Wikipedia article on the Ainu Wikipedia ; Good Japanese History Websites: ; Wikipedia article on History of Japan Wikipedia ; Samurai Archives ; National Museum of Japanese History ; English Translations of Important Historical Documents

Jomon Period Whale and Sea Mammels and the Toggle-Headed Harpoon

whale vertabrae in Omori

Kawagoe wrote: “Sea mammals such as the whale, dolphin and other sea mammals, were very important resources to certain coastal communities....Fishing for sea mammals however, like whales or dolphins required tremendous hunting skill and knowledge of animal behavior. Dolphins, such as Pacific White-sided dolphins, for example, were very agile and clever in their groups, and evaded capture easily. Nets could not be used for these dolphins, only thrusting type spears and harpoons.” [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, ]

The toggle-headed harpoon was especially innovative. In his paper “Prehistoric and Historic Settlement Patterns in the Takase River Drainage, Northeastern Japan”, Charles T. Keally wrote: “The toggle harpoon and composite fishhook do seem to be major technological innovations of the Earliest Jomon peoples along the Pacific coast of northeastern Japan (Watanabe 1973: 112, 144).” [Source: Charles T. Keally, “Prehistoric and Historic Settlement Patterns in the Takase River Drainage, Northeastern Japan”, May 27, 1997]

Kawagoe wrote: “After the togglehead struck the whale or other target, the shaft fell off and the harpoon head rotated sideways with the line and float attached. In its rotated position, the harpoon point was less likely to be dislodged as the injured whale takes off. The line and float would help the hunters keep track of where it was heading. Few whales were lost by this ancient but effective method.

“The prehistoric hunting method is superior even to modern whaling equipment today as modern equipment lose to prehistoric methods in terms of success rates in retrieving their targets. The toggle harpoon-head is considered one of the oldest cultural and technological achievements of mankind. The toggle head’s two key development centres were known to be the Japanese archipelago and the Bering Strait region (who were possibly introduced to it by northeastern Indian people in Newfoundland and Labrador) – with Jomon toggle artifacts being the earliest recorded use.

Jomon Period Dolphin Hunting

Kawagoe wrote: “ The Jomon fisherfolk went out to open sea, surrounding the dolphins, then driving them ashore in their small boats. The Godo site excavated finds in Chiba prefecture showed that Jomon fishermen were able to pull in enormous harvests during fishing season using only a few boats and nets. [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, ]

“And it was in some coastal areas that were right beside the Pacific ocean, where the Jomon hunters developed new advanced fishing techniques and tools that allowed them to fish in the open sea. The Mawaki site in Ishikawa prefecture was such a site, it lies at the entrance of the Toyama Bay. It was a Jomon dolphin processing and butchering site where 90 percent of its midden remains were dolphin (286 for the Jomon period).

“Studies of other midden sites (the Asahi shell midden in Toyama Prefecture, the Natagiri cave in Chiba Prefecture and the Irie shell midden in Hokkaido) show between 7 to 21 dolphins were caught during each expedition. It is thought that the dolphins were sometimes cut up and the catch shared amongst the participants or neighboring settlements. The custom of sharing of dolphin meat with nearby settlements must have brought goodwill and mutual aid advantages for the community and network. The Jomon people dried or smoked the meat which was traded over a wide area.”

9000-Year-Old Dolphin Hunting Site Found Near Tokyo

Bones unearthed near Okinoshima show that dolphins were being fished for about 1,000 years in the early Jomon period between about 6,500 B.C. and 7,500 B.C off Tateyama coast of Chiba prefecture, not far from Tokyo. The Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “As well as indicating that dolphins were being fished for about 1,000 years in the early Jomon period, objects found at the site gave researchers clues about the natural environment 8,000 years ago. “We found lots of valuable data, as well as learning lots about the natural environment during the early Jomon period, when the climate was gradually warming up after the last ice age,” said Prof. Seiichi Yanagisawa of Chiba University’s faculty of letters, who led the research. Although the area excavated was only about 20 square meters, a number of artifacts dating from the middle of the early Jomon period were unearthed, including 8,000-year-old earthenware, an obsidian arrowhead and stone implements used for stripping bones and skin. The remains of an early Jomon fire also were uncovered. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, March 29, 2004]

“Bones apparently belonging to a fully grown dolphin that measured about 2.5 meters in length also were found mingled with the man-made items. “There is what looks like an underwater valley in Tateyama Bay in which Jomon fishermen probably used to corner dolphins before catching them,” Yanagisawa said. “The bones we dug up probably belonged to a dolphin that had been cut up after being caught in that way,” he added.

“Excavation work on the Okinoshima site, which was jointly carried out by Awa Museum in Tateyama and the archeology department of Chiba University. The dig was only possible because the area of Tateyama Bay around Okinoshima, which used to be an island, was joined to the mainland by the Genroku Kanto Earthquake of 1703 and the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, which caused the ground level to rise, according to Yanagisawa. It is rare to be able to excavate Jomon sites of archeological interest that were near the sea during that period because most sites of that kind are now beneath sea level, the professor said. “There are lots of Jomon remains around Tateyama because ground that used to be below sea level is now above sea level,” said Tozo Okamoto, who is also a professor in Chiba University’s faculty of letters, and who has investigated a separate set of remains about two kilometers southeast of Okinoshima.”

Dogs and Jomon People

Futatsumori Shell Midden puppy

Kawagoe wrote: The Jomon people kept and used dogs in hunting, and possibly as pack animals for carrying loads. We know the dogs were not eaten by the Jomon people (by examining their kitchen middens or kitchen dumping site). Dogs were probably special members of Jomon society because many dogs had proper burials(see Asahi news report at the bottom of this page). Human footprints and dog paw prints were found inside several excavated ruins of 3,000 year old Jomon pit houses in Shiga prefecture. This has scholars convinced that the Jomon people kept dogs as pets. [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website,]

“Studies comparing DNA of Jomon dogs and 6 breeds of Japanese native dogs show that Japanese native dogs are likely descended from the Jomon dog of prehistoric times. DNA studies also show that among the native Japanese dog breeds, the Shiba dog has the lowest genetic diversity and thus is most likely to be directly descended from ancient prehistoric breeds. Jomon dogs were smaller than today’s Shiba dog and other native breeds. “The ancestors of the Jomon dogs were likely among the earliest ancestors of modern dogs around the world.” See History of Dogs.

The skulls of dogs excavated on Shikoku Island in Japan have been dated to be 7,000 years old, making them among the oldest dogs found at a Jomon site, it was reported at a meeting of the Anthropological Society of Nippon held at Keio University. Naoki Kimura wrote in the Asahi Shimbun, “The skulls of two dogs excavated 50 years ago and thought lost were rediscovered and confirmed to have been buried 7,000 years ago, Keio University researchers said...Since the skulls were excavated at an archeological dig at the Kamikuroiwa Iwakage site in Mikawa (present Kumakogen), Ehime Prefecture, in 1962, the bones were suspected of coming from Japan’s oldest buried dogs. [Source: Naoki Kimura Asahi Shimbun, November 18, 2012]

Researchers, led by Takao Sato, a professional of animal archeology at Keio University, conducted a radiocarbon measurement of them. The researchers said the results showed the dogs were buried 7,200 to 7,300 years ago. In addition, a stable isotope ratio analysis was performed to determine the diet of the ancient dogs. The analysis found that each canine was about 40 centimeters tall, or about the size of the modern Shiba Inu breed, and likely were carnivorous. There is a strong possibility that the canines were used as hunting dogs, the researchers said.

Wild Boars and Horses in the Jomon Period

Irie-Takasago Shell Midden boar tusk ornaments

Kawagoe wrote: “Another animal the Jomon might have domesticated is the wild boar. Boar remains were not found in Sado Island or Izu Island before 7,000 B.C. so boars were not native to the Izu islands or Sado island before this date. Because boars cannot swim, archaeologists know that the Jomon people carried the animals over to the islands in their dugouts or rafts and bred them over there. [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website,]

“It was traditionally believed that horses first appeared during the Kofun period, when they were introduced from Korea for riding and warfare. Recently, horse remains found in over 500 Jomon sites have undergone examination. The earliest of the horse remains, many of which were found in Jomon shellmound sites, date back to the Late Jomon period. These horses were ancestors of the present day Kiso wild horse of Japan. It is speculated that they might have been domesticated, at least by the Yayoi period, as an examination of bone fossils showed they were larger by the Yayoi period.”

Jomon-Style Transportation

Kawagoe wrote: Travel Jomon-style meant going on foot. Jomon hunters often went on foot to temporary sites within a average 2 kilometer radius of their villages to hunt for wild boar or to fish. Many Jomon people also migrated on foot seasonally from the mountain base camps to lowland estuary or coastal sites. [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website,]

“Watercraft or shipping was however an important means of transportation for the Jomon people. Rafts made of wood or bamboo were probably common forms of transportation. Remains of many excavated dugout canoes (called logboats), have been found from Early Jomon to Final Jomon sites, 46 of these were from Uenohara’s Early Jomon settlement alone.

Making a replica of a Jomon dugout canoe

“The oldest dugout canoe ever found was from Torihama shellmound in Fukui prefecture. It was 6 meters long and 60 centimeters wide. It was made by using stone adzes or axes to half-split the trunk of a Japanese cedar (cryptomeria japonica) tree which was then hollowed out by fire. In the final stage of making the canoe, the surface of the canoe was carefully polished.

“A blunt-prowed dugout was found at the Kamo site in Chiba prefecture, together with 6 small paddles and 2 larger ones. It measured 5 meters long, and could have carried bulky heavy cargo goods like obsidian, chert or asphalt over long distances. Such dugouts were thought to have been used for deepsea fishing. At the Uranyu Early Jomon site in Kyoto prefecture, a very large dugout that was 1 meter wide and by estimation 10 meters long was recovered. Paddles are sometimes recovered from excavation sites as well. Other than the Japanese cedar tree, wood of the kaya, mukunoki, inugaya, kusunoki, Japanese nutmeg and camphor trees were also used for building canoes.

“Did the Jomon people ride animals? Archaeologists have found 532 sites with the earliest horse bones dating to the Late Jomon period. These were ancestors of the Kiso wild horse indigenous to Japan, named after the area through which the Kiso River runs, from Nagano prefecture through Gifu and into Ise Bay west of Nagoya city in Aichi prefecture. It is not known whether these horses served as pack animals during the Jomon period but it is thought they may have been domesticated by the time of the Yayoi period as horse fossils showed they had become larger by then. The much larger horses used for riding and warfare were not imported from Korea until the middle of the 5th century A.D.”

Jomon Proto-Agriculture

Unearthed chestnuts, walnuts and the seeds of cultivated plants (Sannai-Maruyama Site)

Excavation work at the Sannai-Maruyama archeological site in Aomori Prefecture has revealed a large prehistoric village that thrived nearly 7000 years ago. The Jomon inhabitants utilized a wide variety of forest and marine resources, but the staple of their diet was cultivated chestnuts, grown in extensive orchards. Chestnuts were one of the very first plants to be actively cultivated in Japan. Huge chestnut logs were also used as columns for building homes and ceremonial centers. [Source: Kevin Short, Yomiuri Shimbun]

Keally wrote: “There is now growing evidence that, at least in some times and some regions, the Jomon managed their natural resources for optimum productivity and stability, and for sustainable exploitation. And there is also some fairly reliable evidence for at least limited cultivation, including domesticated gourds (Lagenaria siceraria Standl var. gourda) and beans, and perhaps chestnuts and millet, as early as Early Jomon (Torihama Shellmound, Awazu Shellmound [Lake Biwa lake-bottom site], Sannai Maruyama, Hamanasuno). Plant opal even suggests possible rice cultivation in western Japan as early as Early Jomon. But the idea that there was "farming" in the Jomon period is a vast over-generalization from these occasional domesticates and the confirmed existence of wet-rice farming in the last few centuries of the period in Kyushu, just before the Yayoi period began there, or from the mistaken idea that a large population can be sustained only by farming. [Source: Charles T. Keally, Professor of Archaeology and Anthropology (retired), Sophia University, Tokyo, ++]

Kawagoe wrote: It used to be thought that Jomon people didn’t cultivate crops and plants, since they were supposed to be hunter-gatherers. Nevertheless, many recently excavated Jomon settlements have shown that Jomon people often maintained and tended nut groves … and that chestnut trees were their especial favorites. Archaeologists also discovered that wherever Jomon settlements were to be found, certain edible plants could also be found to have been literally growing in their backyards. [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, ]

“As hunter-gatherers, the Jomon people were already skillful at living off plants and trees that grew naturally in the marshes and forests around them. And eventually, they learnt to plant seeds, move seedlings or saplings and transplant them to slopes and other locations near their settlements, and encourage their growth. It is known from excavations, for example, that the Jomon people must have transplanted chestnut seedlings from lower areas to the southern slopes of Mt. Yatsugatake where they lived.

From many sites (including Torihama, Sannai Maruyama and Mawaki) of the Early Jomon and Middle Jomon period, scientists have studied pollen and many seeds and grains under their powerful scanning electron microscopes and identified many of them. They now know that the Jomon people cultivated these plants: boehmeria nettle, hemp, egoma and shiso mint(Perilla), bottle gourd (Lagenaria), buckwheat (Fagopyrum), barley (Hordeum vulgare), barnyard millet (Echinocloa), bean (Leguminosae), green gram (Vigna radiata), soybean, burdock (Arctium lappa), and rice (Oryza sativa). Yamaimo or mountain potato and the taro potato were also likely cultivated root plants.

“But many scholars still think that these cultivated plant foods were only used to supplement their main food sources, sometimes as condiments, for flavoring their foods, sometimes, for special foods to be served during special ceremonial and festive occasions only. Other experts think that the Jomon people survived on a daily basis off a wide variety of seasonal wild foods that they hunted, collected and gathered, but that there were some communities that tended and cultivated in a rudimentary way the plants that were growing near their dwellings.

“One indication of domestication of plants by the Jomon people was that the sizes of the some of the grains, beans or nuts, tended to be larger than those found growing naturally in the wild… since people tend to choose larger nuts or fruit or juicier ones. However, scientists as a whole do not consider this evidence of incipient agriculture to be true farming or agriculture as the growing of these crops was not sufficiently organized to form the basis of their economy. Remains of the nuts the Jomon had gathered in the fall and stored at their settlements, include chestnuts (Castanea crenata), horse chestnuts or buckeyes (Aesculus turbinata), walnuts (Juglans sieboldiana) and deciduous acorns (Quercus) as well as evergreen acorns (Cyclobalanopsis and Castanopsis). “

Soybeans Cultivated in Japan, 5000 Years Ago?

20120525-soybean argentina Cultivo_de_soja.jpg
soy bean field
In October 2007, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported that the Sakenomiba site in Hokuto City, Yamanashi Prefecture yielded a Middle Jomon potsherd dated about 5000 years ago with impressions of soybeans and daizu. The Yamanashi Prefectural Museum reported that impressions of soybeans had been found in many Late Jomon sites in Kyushu. The Middle Jomon find in Yamanashi Prefecture pushes the oldest find back almost 1,000 years. [Source: Charles T. Keally, Professor of Archaeology and Anthropology (retired), Sophia University, Tokyo, ++]

Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “A research team, which includes officials of Yamanashi Prefectural Museum of Art, announced traces of the nation’s oldest cultivated species of soybeans had been found in a clay pot excavated in Hokuto, Yamanashi Prefecture. The pot, which dates back to the Jomon period (ca 10,000 B.C.-ca 300 B.C.), had a cavity on the tip of a fractured handle in which the researchers believe a soybean became embedded. [Source: Yomiuri Shinbun, October 18, 2007]

“Traces of soybeans have previously been found in late Jomon period pottery dating back about 3,500 years that has been excavated in Kumamoto and other prefectures in Kyushu. However, the pot excavated from Sakenomiba remains in Nagasakacho, Hokuto, in 1995, dates back a further 1,500 years. “This finding shows that people living in the Jomon period had access to a greater variety of foods, by cultivating plants as well as hunting and foraging, than previously believed,” one researcher said. A copy of the soybean trace was created using silicon resin through the so-called replica SEM method, after being examined with an electron microscope. The researchers said the soybean was 11.9 millimeters long, 5.7 millimeters wide and 3.7 millimeters thick. Judging from the size and shape of the soybean, they believe it was a cultivated species.”

According to “Origin, History and Uses of Soybean” (Glycine Max) by Lance Gibson and Garren Benson, “The first domestication of soybean has been traced to the eastern half of North China in the eleventh century B.C. or perhaps a bit earlier.”

Kawagoe wrote: “General literature and sources state that soybeans were introduced into several countries including Japan from about the first century CE to the Age of Discovery (15-16th century), due to the establishment of sea and land trade routes. The earliest Japanese textual reference to the soybean is in the classic Kojiki (Records of Ancient Matters), which was completed in 712 B.C. Until the finds mentioned in the above news article, the best current evidence on the Japanese Archipelago suggested soybean cultivation occurred in the early Yayoi period. In the light of the new finds, soybean cultivation may have arrived in Japan earlier during the Jomon period or may even have been domesticated locally independent of Chinese sources, the finds are even earlier than those of Korea. Prior to fermented products such as soy sauce, tempeh, natto, and miso, soy was considered sacred for its use in crop rotation as a method of fixing nitrogen.” [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, ]

Possible Millet and Rice Agriculture in Jomon-Era Japan

Kawagoe wrote: Broomcorn millet, barnyard millet, and foxtail millet were all species of millet cultivated by the Jomon people of Japan (see 1995, D’Andrea). Millet finds are from late Middle Jomon sites in Hokkaido, late Jomon Kazaharai site in Aomori, Northeastern Japan (see 1995, D’Andrea); and Yayoi Nabatake site in Kyushu (Cowan, The Origins of Agriculture p. 24). Broomcorn millet was present in southwestern Japan by the 2,000 B.C. (Crawford, Gary, Transitions to Agriculture, p 121). Foxtail millet cultigens are found in a widespread sphere from Southwestern Asia, Europe to Transcaucasian Russia and of course the Far East (C.W. Cowan et al., The Origins of Agriculture, p. 24; Rao et al., 1987). [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, ]


It was earlier established that China is at the primary center of the diversity of broomcorn millet cultivation (see C.W. Cowan et al., The Origins of Agriculture, p. 23; Zeven and Zhukovsky, 1975:32). A new study on the origins of millet domestication, could establish the routes of dispersal of millet cultivation/gathering, storage pit usage and associated tools to Japan, and thereby also shed some light on the possible origins of the incoming migrations of people during the Jomon or on early exchanges with the continent. Historical documents show that foxtail millet was an important crop during Zhou dynasty China, while the earliest foxtail millet sites are from Hunamni and Hohnamni Bronze Age sites in South Korea ( C.W. Cowan et al., The Origins of Agriculture, p. 25). All evidence points to millet plant domestication and cultivation in Japan earlier than the Late Jomon period, and certainly, by the end of the Late Jomon period in northeastern Japan (Gremillion, KJ, People, Plants, and Landscapes: Studies in Paleoethnobotany, pp 102-103)

“Later Jomon Subsistence in Northeastern Japan: New Evidence from Palaeoethnobotanical Studies” by A. C. D’Andrea, discusses prehistoric subsistence and the development of plant husbandry in northeastern Tohoku (northern Honshu). Archaeobotanical sampling was carried out at two sites in eastern Aomori Prefecture. Tominosawa is a Middle Jomon village site which produced a spectrum of nut and weedy plant species similar to that recovered from contemporary sites in southwestern Hokkaido. At the Kazahari site, pithouses from two phases of occupation were sampled for archaeobotanical remains: Tokoshinai IV (c. 1000 B.C.) and Fukurashima (c. 150 B.C.). The pithouse deposits produced evidence for Late Jomon rice, foxtail millet, and broomcorn millet dating to the first millennium B.C. Sampling of later Fukurashima contexts produced evidence of rice, foxtail and broomcorn millet, Japanese barnyard millet, and hemp. These data demonstrate that rice and millets have been present in northeastern Tohoku since c. 1000 B.C. [Source: D’Andrea, A. C. 1995. Later Jomon Subsistence in Northeastern Japan: New Evidence from Palaeoethnobotanical Studies. Asian Perspectives 34 (2): 195-227}

“The beginnings of rice and millet agriculture in prehistoric Japan” by Hiroo Nasu and Arata Momohara “reviews recent archaeobotanical evidence of the beginnings of rice and millet agriculture in prehistoric Japan, focusing on agricultural weed assemblages from early rice cultivation sites. In this study we show that the most reliable dispersal timing of rice and millet cultivation was the end of the Final Jomon period, corresponding to the Initial and Early Yayoi period of northern Kyushu. Rice and millet were introduced from China via Korea probably at the same time, as a pair. Early rice cultivation was likely practiced, not in slash-and-burn fields but in primitive paddy fields, which did not possess clearly defined paddy ridges or compartments, and were constructed in human-managed open wetlands near forests. Millets were probably cultivated on upland farmlands close to rice paddy fields. The use of berries and nuts which was the subsistence base of Jomon period continued during this time, and rice and millet agriculture gradually spread up until the Middle to Late Yayoi period. [Source: “The beginnings of rice and millet agriculture in prehistoric Japan” by Hiroo Nasu, Arata Momohara, Quaternary International , 2016]

In “The Initial Form of Rice and Millet Cultivation during the Final Jomon-Yayoi Transition Era from the View of Archaeobotanical Weed Assemblages”, Hiroo Nasu “examined the initial form of rice and millet cultivation during the Jomon-Yayoi transition era from the archaeobotanical weed assemblages. The earliest paddy field was found from the middle and lower Yangzte region in China around 6400 cal BP. Archaeobotanical finds from Chengtoushan show the millet cultivation from northern China was already spread to the Yangtze region in this stage. Rice was probably cultivated on the small initial paddy field as well as on the wetland of flood plain around the site. Millet was probably cultivated on the dry farmland at the upland terrace area in the site. The set of rice and millet cultivation was spread to Japan via southern Korea however the timing of arrival is still under debate. Those who think that the timing was Middle to Late Jomon from the evidence of phytolith records and on the flip side, those who think the timing was after Final Jomon or Initial Yayoi (Tottaimon pottery stage) from the reliable impressions and macro-remains evidences. Although the earliest paddy field in Japan was found from Kyusyu during the Final Jomon or Initial Yayoi era, newly discovered Kitashirakawa-Oiwakecho site in Kyoto shows one of the initial form of wetland rice cultivation. Rice and millet were found from the wetland site without clear evidence of paddy ridges and water facilities for irrigation. The evidences suggest that rice was probably cultivated on the wetland and the millet was cultivated on the dry upland around the site. The composition of archaeobotanical weed and other wild plants from the site was compared with the early paddy field at Nabatake site in Kyushu. The main characteristics of the Kitashirakawa-Oiwakecho wetland site are that there were no typical paddy field weeds such as Monochoria and Alismataceae and there were still a lot of forest herbs compared with the Nabatake paddy field. This results suggest that the initial stage of rice cultivation was practiced by the clearing of swamp forest and making open wetland using natural micro-topography without making clear paddy ridges. [Source:“The Initial Form of Rice and Millet Cultivation during the Final Jomon-Yayoi Transition Era from the View of Archaeobotanical Weed Assemblages” by Hiroo Nasu, Bulletin of the National Museum of Japanese History Vol. 187 July 2014]

Jomon Trade

shell ornaments

Kawagoe wrote: The Jomon trading network, by around 2,000 year ago, had already stretched over more than 3,000 kilometers from the south of the archipelago to Siberia to the north of the Japanese islands. In those early times, money hadn’t been invented yet, so people exchanged their goods, that is they bartered their items of value. The dugout canoe must have been a very crucial mode of transportation for trading goods, the earliest excavated finds of which, date back to the Early Jomon period. Sannai Maruyama was a trading center where people from all over Japan as well as from across the seas came to trade probably at an appointed time of the year. It is likely that a calendar was used by the prehistoric peoples in various places to help them congregate to trade at a location and at specific time of the year. Here is a list of some of the things that were bartered or traded in Jomon times. [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website,]

1) Shell bracelets: Bracelets made of Patella optima shellfish were produced in a site in Izu Oshima and traded elsewhere. (Patella optimashells are rare and found only in a few places like Izu and Yakushma Island. These have turned up in places like the Usu site, Date city in Hokkaido far from their place of origin). At the Irie shellmound site, bracelets made from Patella Scutellastra optimashells found only in the seas south of Okinawa were found. These shell bracelets were prized items and worn by important people in the Jomon society. Other shell bracelets in the late and final Jomon period were produced in the Atsumi peninsula. Various exotic shells such as Cone shells (Conidae or imogai) and Cowrie (Cypraeidae or takaragai) shells were exchanged or traded to places like Hokkaido in the north faraway from the original habitats of the shellfish in the southern seas near the Ryukyu Islands.

2) Smoked shellfish: Chiba prefecture where many shell middens were located produced salted smoked shellfish that was exchanged for chert and obsidian from inland regions since the coastal area lacked stone resources. 3) Salt: Coastal Jomon people evaporated saltwater in pots to obtain salt. For example, salt produced by people on the Kanto lowlands was exchanged with people in the Chubu highlands for other goods of value. Kanto and Tohoku had known salt production centres.

4) Obsidian materials: A glassy volcanic rock that was valuable because it broke cleanly and with sharp edges that was excellent for making sharp cutting tools and projectile points like spear and arrow heads. Obsidian from Oki and Kozu islands were traded to far away places like Russia. Studies of the Mitakadanma site situated on the cape of Izu peninsula off Kozu Island showed that it was at first visited from time to time during the early Middle Jomon period by a mobile group of traders who procured obsidian from Kozu Island and who then engaged in obsidian trade from the site. Later during the Middle Jomon period, the site was settled by people who then controlled the distribution of obsidian from the site. Some of the obsidian had been exchanged for pottery brought in from the Kanagawa and Yamanashi prefectures. The site was then abandoned by the end of Middle Jomon period when obsidian from the Hoshikuso Pass and Hoshigato in the Shinshu area became more important.

Jade disc similar to those produced in China around the same time period

5) Stone tools: Other than obsidian, tools were also made out of a variety of materials, including sandstone, slate, chert, andesite, agate, sanukite and serpentine. Settled specialists in stone tool-making turned out blades and points in mass quantities, which were then used in the surrounding region. Serpentine stone axes were traded extensively. The Ozaki site was a Middle Jomon site that specialized in the fabrication of polished stone axes, with a great proportion of both finished and unfinished axes, whetstones and hammerstones (both needed for the production of stone axes). More production sites for similar items have been identified in other regions, as well as for other types of tools.

6) Asphalt: The asphalt was used by Jomon people to repair earthenware and glue arrowheads to shafts, to haft bone tools such as harpoon heads and fish spears. Asphalt was also used as a base coat for producing lacquered baskets and lacquered pottery. It was an important natural resource found naturally in places with oil deposits like Akita and Niigata prefectures. An asphalt trade route is thought to have run from Akita beyond the Tsugaru Strait but asphalt was treated and processed by workmen at workshops and smelteries. Evidence of one such specialized site was found at the Makou site which has signs and evidence of an asphalt smeltery. Traces of asphalt were found at 145 Jomon sites, with hearths and asphalt were seen at the Toyosaki and Makou sites in Minamikayabe Town.

7) Amber: Amber is a yellow or brownish fossil resin from Kuji in Iwate prefecture was an item of trade found at Sannai Maruyama site. Amber from Sakhalin Island in the far north was also one artefact found. Amber was a popular material for jewellery making. 8) Jade ornaments and amulets: Many different jade ornaments including large flat pendants with a hole called taishu, magatama, a highly prized comma-shaped jade ornament called magatamathat was worn as pendant, and beads of various shapes (sphere-shaped ones known as marutama and small beads called kodama) were highly valued and traded extensively. Jade was obtained from various places such as the Itoigawa district, Niigata prefecture, the Kotaki district of Niigata prefecture, Mt. Osa in Okayama prefecture, and other sites on the Kanto mainland, and on the northern island of Hokkaido.The earliest known jade item dates back to the Early Jomon period. However, jade finds from large settlements of the Middle Jomon era were most common. Jade beads were prestige goods mainly produced in special production centres within a 40 kilometer radius of jade sources in Itoigawa, along the Kotaki River. The raw material was processed at various production sites in the Itoigawa vicinity. The amount of jade found diminishes in the Late Jomon before increasing again in the Final Jomon, when production centres this time had spread throughout Eastern Japan. What was traded during the Middle Jomon were finished beads, but what was traded duringthe Final Jomon was mostly raw materials.

8) Pottery of various types. Chemical analysis of pottery finds by scientists showed that pottery of the Early and Middle Jomon periods were locally made, but by the Late and Final Jomon period, that was no longer the case. The great quality of the fine pottery, their thin walls and the fact that they were fired at higher temperatures than during previous periods suggests a specialization in production at a certain number of sites. The finer pottery was made at specialist centers, than exchanged for other goods with nearby settlements or at special trading centers like Sannai Maruyama.

9) Clay figurines: More than 1,000 clay figurines were found at the Shakado site that was a major ceramic and figurine production centre. The surrounding areas on the eastern edge of Kofu Basin, Yamanashi prefecture, Sakai and Shukujin were also figurine production sites. 10) Earrings: Earrings were very fashionable items. Ceramic earrings were mass produced at sites in Gunma and Toyama prefectures.

11) Bone and antler items: Bone is a material that resilient compared with stone and becomes sharper when polished, so the Jomon people used them as needles, fishhooks, and the heads of harpoons. 12) Cinnabar (mercury sulphite) was a mined commodity that was an important coloring pigment for Jomon arts. 13) Lacquerware, baskets and textiles Lacquerware were produced at specialized sites, or at least by specialists at relatively long term settlements because of the incredible amount of labour and time required for the process. Lacquering was often applied to pottery, wooden bowls, baskets, combs, decorated bows and textiles (produced since the Initial Jomon) and these items were traded commodities as well.

Possible Cinnabar Mining in Jomon Period Japan

Cinnabar refers to a common bright scarlet to brick-red form of mercury sulfide. The most common source ore for refining elemental mercury, it is a very toxic and in ancient times was used to make brilliant red or scarlet pigments. The word ‘cinnabar’ comes from the Persian word for ‘dragon’s blood’ and it is still ‘harvested’ and used for both practical and metaphysical purposes. Cinnabar was widely used in Jomon Japan and harvesting it may have involved a form of mining.[Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, ]

Kawagoe wrote: The village of Niu (literally meaning “cinnabar producing”) was the producing place of red stones, red soil and vermillion (mercury). It is said that the tribes that had the skills in mining and moved from place to place seeking for mineral resources gave the name to this place. Niu Kawakami Shrine Shimo-sha located in Shimoichi-cho, Yoshino-gun, Nara Prefecture is one of the three Niu Kawakami shrines that have existed since the ancient times. The three shrines are respectively called Kami-sha (the top shrine), Naka-sha (the middle shrine) and Shimo-sha (the bottom shrine). The Shimo shrine enshrines Kura Okami no Kami (the god of water and rain). According to the shrine record, it was founded in 676, when the god said, “If you set up the holy pillars of my shrine in this deep mountain, I will bring the blessed rain instead of the damaging rain for the people of this country.”.. The present Shimo shrine is thought to have been the ancient Kami shrine. [Source: Nippon-kichi, Niu-kawakami-jinjya-shimo-sya Niu Kawakami Shrine Shimo-sha ]

“However, cinnabar use in Japan goes back much earlier to Initial and Early Jomon times, becoming common in Late Jomon times, according to Nelly Nauman’s “Japanese Prehistory: The Material and Spiritual Culture of the Jomon Period“. Red oxide uses were earlier known widely used in burial rituals but as early as Early Jomon, was also used for lacquering wooden and clay vessels. Red was also a popular colour not just in tomb burial usage, but also for colouring craft and fashion items (see The color red and Jomon people). But the earliest cinnabar ores and production implements were found from the Ojibar site of the Late Jomon period and painted objects from the Shimoda site in Gunma prefecture. Cinnabar production of items for trade was seen from sites south of Ise, like Morizoe and Tenpaku.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons; National Museum of Science, Tokyo kahaku.go; Jomon Archaeological Sites in Hokkaido and Northern Tohoku; dugout canoe: Mainichi Shimbun

Text Sources: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, ; Charles T. Keally, Professor of Archaeology and Anthropology (retired), Sophia University, Tokyo, ++; Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University ~; Asia for Educators Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, ; Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan; Library of Congress; Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO); New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; Daily Yomiuri; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated January 2017

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