YAYOI PERIOD (400 B.C.– A.D. 300)

YAYOI PERIOD (400 BC – A.D. 300)

replica of Yayoi houses and watchtower

The Yayoi Period (400 BC -A.D. 300) is named after the Yayoi-type of wheel-turned pottery vessels produced during this period, which in turn was named the northern section of the University of Tokyo campus where archaeological investigations uncovered the first examples of Yayoi pottery in 1884. The Yayoi people are believed to have come from the Korean peninsula about 300 B.C., and first established themselves on the southern island of Kyushu, and later mixed with the Jomon people and spread northward to Honshu. By 300 A.D. they had spread out over much of present-day Japan and trade with the various kingdoms in Korea brought the industrial arts of weaving, metalworking, tanning and shipbuilding to Japan.

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “Beginning about the fourth century B.C., Jomon culture was gradually replaced by the more advanced Yayoi culture...The new culture first appeared in western Japan and then spread east and north to Honshu. While some aspects of Yayoi society evolved from the Jomon, more important to its development was the technique of wet-rice cultivation, which is thought to have been introduced to Japan from Korea and southeastern China sometime between 1000 B.C. and the first century A.D. In keeping with an agrarian lifestyle, the people of the Yayoi culture lived in permanently settled communities, made up of thatched houses clustered into villages. “A class society began to emerge during the Yayoi period. Over time, the Yayoi people grouped themselves into clan-nations, which by the first century numbered more than a hundred. Throughout the second and third centuries, the clans fought among themselves until the Yamato clan gained dominance in the fifth century.” [Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art, "Yayoi Culture (ca. 4th century B.C.–3rd century A.D.)". Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, October 2002, metmuseum.org \^/]

In Yoshinogari on the southern Japanese island of Kyushu people began settling in permanent settlements and cultivating red-grained rice — both of which were important cultural developments. Around Yoshinogari were deep forests of pasania (a kind of beech tree), Japanese evergreen oak, sawtooth oak, and camphors, and plains of Japanese pampas grass and lalang. The general ecology has been determined by examining seeds, remains and wooden tools and structures at at the Yoshinogari ruins. There is some debate over what the climate was like. Plant type, the condition of plants, global geography and environmental issues are all taken into consideration. At present, the general consensus is that temperatures were about one degree C lower than they are today. [Source: Yoshinogari Historical Park yoshinogari.jp]

Yayoi Period advancements associated with wet-rice farming : 1) switch from hunting and gathering to farming and cultivation and more settled lifestyle; 2) the introduction of metal tools superior to the stone tools of the Jomon culture; 3) food cultivation became stable and efficient, able to support larger populations and allowed settlements to become fixed and grow; 4) Extra food supplies became an economic commodity controlled by an elite group of people. The control of rice and metal resources led to a clearly stratified society. [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, heritageofjapan.wordpress.com ]

Early Japanese History Websites: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, heritageofjapan.wordpress.com; Essay on Early Japan aboutjapan.japansociety.org ; Japanese Archeology www.t-net.ne.jp/~keally/index.htm ; Ancient Japan Links on Archeolink archaeolink.com ;Essay on Rice and History aboutjapan.japansociety.org ; Metropolitan Museum of Art Department of Asian Art metmuseum.org; Wikipedia article on the Jomon Wikipedia ; Historical Parks Sannai Maruyama Jomon Site in Northern Honshu sannaimaruyama.pref.aomori.jp ; Yoshinogari Historical Park yoshinogari.jp/en ;Good Photos of Jomon, Yayoi and Kofun Sites at Japan-Photo Archive japan-photo.de ; Wikipedia article on the Ainu Wikipedia ; Good Japanese History Websites: ; Wikipedia article on History of Japan Wikipedia ; Samurai Archives samurai-archives.com ; National Museum of Japanese History rekihaku.ac.jp ; English Translations of Important Historical Documents hi.u-tokyo.ac.jp/iriki

Chinese Descriptions of Yayoi-Era Japan

Yayoi female attire

Wa was the ancient Chinese name for Japan. The Wa (the Japanese pronunciation of an early Chinese name for Japan) were first mentioned in A.D. 57. Early Chinese historians described Wa as a land of hundreds of scattered tribal communities, not the unified land with a 700-year tradition as laid out in the Nihongi, which puts the foundation of Japan at 660 B.C. The earliest written records about Japan are Chinese documents about the people in Yayoi period Japan. The Han Shu (“History of Han”) and the Wei Chih (Wei Zhi, “History of Wei”) depict the world and customs of the tribal society of the Yayoi people. They tell of the Yamatai kingdom and a shamanness queen called Himiko (A.D. 187 to 248) who ruled over one hundred tribal chiefdoms

The Chinese text Hou Han Shu (Book of Later/Eastern Han, A.D. 432) describes the land of Wa (Japan) as such: “In the middle of the Lo-lang sea there are the Wa people. They are subdivided into more than a hundred ‘countries'[called communities in some translations]. Depending on the season they come and offer tribute”. Thirty of these countries were known to have had direct contact with China. Historians equate these “countries” with chiefdoms. [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, heritageofjapan.wordpress.com]

The Chinese Wei Zhi accounts in 297 A.D. asserted that Yamatai kingdom was the strongest of those countries. Yamatai country was victorious after years of warfare. Gishi no Wajinden noted decades of warfare had ensued until “the people agreed upon a woman for their ruler”, i.e. when Queen Himiko came to the throne. Towards the end of 2nd century, around 30 small chiefdoms had allied with each other to form a confederated kingdom or state known as “Yamatai country” (Yamatai koku) with Queen Himiko at the helm.

Sources and references: 1) The Chronicles of Wa | Gishiwajinden by Wes Injerd; 2) Wa (Japan), Wikipedia; 3) Excerpts from the History of the Kingdom of Wei, Columbia University’s Primary Source Document Asia for Educators.

Chinese Descriptions of Yayoi Life

The Chinese texts also reveal that Yayoi society was highly stratified society, with different classes of people with differing status and slaves occupying the lowest rung. The earliest detailed references to Japan are descriptions in a history text from the Chinese Wei Dynasty (A.D. 220 to 265) which portrays the people on Japan as law-abiding, fond of drinking and practitioners of a religion with divination and ritual purity. The text goes on to say these people were expert weavers and fishermen, they used wet-and rice cultivation and other forms of agriculture, lived in a society with social stratification, and wore tattoos and other body markings. These texts reported that the Wa people lived on raw vegetables, rice, and fish served on bamboo and wooden trays, had vassal-master relations, collected taxes, had provincial granaries and markets, clapped their hands in worship (something still done in Shinto shrines), had violent succession struggles, built earthen grave mounds, and observed mourning.

The text also mentions women shaman and mediums and a mini state made up of 30 “kumi” (regions ruled by chiefs) who vowed allegiance to Himiko, a female ruler who ruled an early political federation called Yamatai. Himiko ruled during the A.D. third century. While Himiko reigned as spiritual leader, her younger brother carried out affairs of state, which included diplomatic relations with the court of the Chinese Wei Dynasty (A.D. 220-65). The remains of the capital of one kumi have been found on Iki Island in Nagasaki prefecture. Archeologists are not sure whether Yamatai was in northern Kyushu or in the Kyoto-Nara region.

One Wei Zhi passage (A.D. 220-265, tr. Tsunoda 1951:14) relates Wa tattooing with legendary King Shao Kang of the Xia Dynasty: Men great and small, all tattoo their faces and decorate their bodies with designs. From olden times envoys who visited the Chinese Court called themselves “grandees”. A son of the ruler Shao-k’ang of Hsia, when he was enfeoffed as lord of K’uai-chi, cut his hair and decorated his body with designs in order to avoid the attack of serpents and dragons. The Wa, who are fond of diving into the water to get fish and shells, also decorated their bodies in order to keep away large fish and waterfowl. Later, however, the designs became merely ornamental. (tr. Tsunoda 1951:10) [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, heritageofjapan.wordpress.com ]

Wajinden (“the Commentary on the People of Wa”)

Insightful details about everyday life in Yayoi Japan are given in the Chinese account Wajinden or “the Commentary on the People of Wa” written around 280 to 297 A.D. One passage reads: “The land of Wa is warm and mild. In winter as in summer the people live on vegetables and go about barefooted. Their houses have rooms; father and mother, elder and younger, sleep separately. They smear their bodies with pink and scarlet, just as the Chinese use powder. They serve meat on bamboo and wooden trays, helping themselves with their fingers.” Archaeologists have confirmed that the Yayoi people ate with their fingers since no chopsticks have ever been found from any excavated Yayoi settlements. [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, heritageofjapan.wordpress.com ]

According to Wajinden, the people of Wa, were also “fond of diving into the water to get fish and shells.” They ate raw fish, hunted deer and wild boar for meat. They ate out of graceful and elegant pottery ware including new forms such as pedestaled dishes and bowls. “There are no oxen, horses or sheep … Taxes are collected. There are granaries as well as markets in each province, where necessaries are exchanged under the supervision of Wa officials”… it was also recorded in the Wajinden account.

Wajinden mentioned that the Yayoi people cultivated “grains, rice, hemp, and mulberry trees for sericulture. They spin and weave and produce fine linen and silk fabrics.” “The men wear a band of cloth around their heads, exposing the top. Their clothing is fastened around the body with little sewing. The women wear their hair in loops. Their clothing is like an unlined coverlet and is worn by slipping the head through an opening in the center.” They wove cloth 20-30 centimeters wide on looms. Scientists have been able to examine fragments of cloth wrapped around human bones and bronze mirrors from excavations. The Yayoi farmers grew the plants and trees from which they made their silk, linen, cotton and hemp. They also made fibre from wild ramie that had an S-twisted warp of 6-10 threads and a woof of 24 threads.

Dating the Yayoi Period

The date of the Yayoi culture has now been pushed back to around 3,000 years after a recalibration of radiocarbon dates. Charles T. Keally wrote: “Traditionally, the Yayoi culture is divided into three sub-periods, each with a number of pottery phases, which differ by region. The exact dating of these sub-periods and phases is not clear, largely due to inadequate numbers of radiocarbon dates. But there is the additional problem that Yayoi radiocarbon dates fall in a range that is very difficult to calibrate meaningfully. Traditionally, the period is dated 300 B.C. to A.D. 300. [Source: Charles T. Keally, Professor of Archaeology and Anthropology (retired), Sophia University, Tokyo, net.ne.jp/~keally/yayoi ++]

“However, this traditional chronology now is rather inconsistent with available facts and practice. First, uncalibrated radiocarbon ages suggest the beginning of Early Yayoi dates to about 400 or 500 B.C. Addition of an Earliest Yayoi (in western Japan, the Yamanotera and Yausu pottery types) would push this date a few centuries older. And new finds of mound tombs suggest Yayoi ends about A.D. 250 instead of 300. Further, recent excavations in Kanto have uncovered a few Early Yayoi sites in that region, although the traditional chronology suggests there are none. The best known of the Early Yayoi sites in Kanto is the Nakayashiki site in the southwestern corner of the Kanto Plain. This site has an uncalibrated radiocarbon age of about 400 B.C. for pottery thought to belong to the later half of Early Yayoi. ++

“At the Japanese Archaeological Association’s general meeting in May 2003, Harunari and others presented a set of calibrated AMS radiocarbon dates for the beginning of the Yayoi Period, the beginning of rice farming culture in Japan. These dates suggested that the Yayoi Period began close to 1000 B.C., about 400-500 years earlier than generally thought. Some archaeologists accepted these dates, some vehemently opposed them, and others suggested they were a bit too old. Three years later, the opponents seem to be saying these dates are 100-200 years too old, but they still strongly oppose these early dates. ++

“Harunari and the research team seem to feel the dates are basically correct. Some archaeologists, however, argue that the marine reserve effect has not been adequately accounted for, and that cooked food (the dates are for charred adhesions on potsherds) will give dates that are a bit too old. The stronger opponents argue that the dates disagree too widely with the dates derived by "archaeological methods" -- typology, typological comparison, trade wares, and other "archaeological" as opposed to natural scientific methods. ++

“I feel the dates are basically correct. When I first established this web site in 1997 I had the following statement on Yayoi dates: "Calibrated ages take the beginning [of Early Yayoi] back to 800 or 900 B.C." I was using this estimate for the calibrated date for the beginning of Early Yayoi in my classes already in the late 1970s. But there are some problems in the recent AMS dates. Two of them are ones already noted -- the marine reserve effect and the effect of cooking. Are these effects being considered fully? Another problem that is commonly noted is the "2400 problem" -- radiocarbon ages between about 2400 and 2500 years can be "calibrated" only as "somewhere between 400 BC and 750 BC." But this problem does not affect the calibration of the oldest Yayoi dates. Another problem I see is that the dates given in the reports do not agree with each other. Particularly, some of the uncalibrated radiocarbon dates given by Harunari et al. 2006 (p. 77) do not seem to calibrate to the dates given by Harunari 2006 (p. 322). Further, I get the impression that some archaeologists are not clear about whether they are discussing the dating of the beginning of Earliest Yayoi or of Early Yayoi.

Development During the Yayoi Period

Agriculture, primarily rice planting, and metalworking techniques were introduced from the Asian continent around 300 B.C. The inhabitants of Japan used iron farming tools in their daily life to increase agricultural production and bronze swords and mirrors for religious rituals. The division of labor widened the gap between ruling and subject classes at this time, and many small states were formed across the country.[Source: Web-Japan, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan **]

As the population increased and society became more complex, they wove cloth, lived in permanent farming villages, constructed buildings of wood and stone, accumulated wealth through landownership and the storage of grain, and developed distinct social classes. Their irrigated, wet-rice culture was similar to that of central and south China, requiring heavy inputs of human labor, which led to the development and eventual growth of a highly sedentary, agrarian society. Unlike China, which had to undertake massive public works and water-control projects, leading to a highly centralized government, Japan had abundant water. In Japan, then, local political and social developments were relatively more important than the activities of the central authority and a stratified society. [Source: Library of Congress]

Gradually the small states were unified, and by the fourth century a strong political authority centered in Yamato (now Nara Prefecture) ruled over the nation. The period from the fourth century through the sixth century saw great developments in agriculture as well as the introduction of Chinese culture, including Confucianism and Buddhism, via Korea. By the end of the fourth century contact had been established between Japan and the kingdoms on the Korean Peninsula. From Korea, such industrial arts as weaving, metalworking, tanning, and shipbuilding, which originally had been developed in China under the Han dynasty, were introduced into the country. [Source: Web-Japan, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan **]

The written form of Chinese, based on ideographic characters, was adopted, and through this medium the Japanese learned the rudiments of medicine, the workings of the calendar and astronomy, and the philosophy of Confucianism. Buddhism was introduced into Japan in 538 from India by way of China and Korea. The Chinese system of government provided a pattern on which Japan’s rulers built their own system. **

Debate Over the Dating and Meaning of the Yayoi Period

Keally wrote: “The Yayoi Culture is defined as Japan’s first rice-farming and metal-using culture, and it is identified archaeologically with certain types of artifacts, especially pottery styles. But traces of metal artifacts and rice usually are not found in Yayoi sites, especially in the early ones, so pottery styles are generaly the main bases for identifying Yayoi sites. Also, the definition has been confused by a number of finds of rice, and even of rice paddies, in Jomon sites dating around 1000 B.C. (uncalibrated radiocarbon years ago), several centuries earlier than the pottery styles and other artifacts used to identify Yayoi sites. And recent finds of keyhole-shaped mound tombs (the defining trait of the Kofun Culture) older than A.D. 300 have confused the other end of the Yayoi period, overlapping by half a century or more with pottery styles that have been identified as Yayoi. [Source: Charles T. Keally, Professor of Archaeology and Anthropology (retired), Sophia University, Tokyo, net.ne.jp/~keally/yayoi ++]

“Some archaeologist argue that we should keep the original definition of Yayoi and include as Yayoi much of what has to now been identified as Latest (or even terminal Late) Jomon. But other archaeologists are defining Yayoi by the pottery styles that traditionally have been used to identify Yayoi sites, and they have added rice farming to the description of the Latest Jomon culture, particularly in Kyushu. At the late end, most archaeologists seem to be dropping from "Yayoi" what used to be terminal Yayoi and are putting those late 3rd-century materials into the beginning of the Kofun Culture.” ++

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons; National Museum of Science, Tokyo kahaku.go.jp; Yoshinogari Historical Park yoshinogari.jp.

Text Sources: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, heritageofjapan.wordpress.com ; Charles T. Keally, Professor of Archaeology and Anthropology (retired), Sophia University, Tokyo, ++; Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org ~; Asia for Educators Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ; 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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