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The Japanese Roots (Part II)
Jared Diamond
11/1/2004

JAPAN UNIQUE CULTURE BEGAN WITH ITS UNIQUE GEOGRAPHY and environment. It is, for comparison, far more isolated than Britain, which lies only 22 miles from the French coast. Japan lies 110 miles from the closest point of the Asian mainland (South Korea), 190 miles from mainland Russia, and 480 miles from mainland China. Climate, too, sets Japan apart. Its rainfall, up to 120 inches a year, makes it the wettest temperate country in the world. Unlike the winter rains prevailing over much of Europe, Japan's rains are concentrated in the summer growing season, giving it the highest plant productivity of any nation in the temperate zones. While 80 percent of Japan's land consists of mountains unsuitable for agriculture and only 14 percent is farmland, an average square mile of that farmland is so fertile that it supports eight times as many people as does an average square mile of British farmland. Japan's high rainfall also ensures a quickly regenerated forest after logging. Despite thousands of years of dense human occupation, Japan still offers visitors a first impression of greenness because 70 percent of its land is still covered by forest.

Japanese forest composition varies with latitude and altitude: evergreen leafy forest in the south at low altitude, deciduous leafy forest in central Japan, and coniferous forest in the north and high up. For prehistoric humans, the deciduous leafy forest was the most productive, providing abundant edible nuts such as walnuts, chestnuts, horse chestnuts, acorns, and beechnuts. Japanese waters are also outstandingly productive. The lakes, rivers, and surrounding seas teem with salmon, trout, tuna, sardines, mackerel, herring, and cod. Today, Japan is the largest consumer of fish in the world. Japanese waters are also rich in clams, oysters, and other shellfish, crabs, shrimp, crayfish, and edible seaweeds. That high productivity was a key to Japan's prehistory.

From southwest to northeast, the four main Japanese islands are Kyushu, Shikoku, Honshu, and Hokkaido. Until the late nineteenth century, Hokkaido and northern Honshu were inhabited mainly by the Ainu, who lived as hunter-gatherers with limited agriculture, while the people we know today as Japanese occupied the rest of the main islands.

In appearance, of course, the Japanese are very similar to other East Asians. As for the Ainu, however, their distinctive appearance has prompted more to be written about their origins and relationships than about any other single people on Earth. Partly because Ainu men have luxuriant beards and the most profuse body hair of any people, they are often classified as Caucasoids (so-called white people) who somehow migrated east through Eurasia to Japan. In their overall genetic makeup, though, the Ainu are related to other East Asians, including the Japanese and Koreans. The distinctive appearance and hunter-gatherer lifestyle of the Ainu, and the undistinctive appearance and the intensive agricultural lifestyle of the Japanese, are frequently taken to suggest the straightforward interpretation that the Ainu are descended from Japan's original hunter-gatherer inhabitants and the Japanese are more recent invaders from the Asian mainland.

But this view is difficult to reconcile with the distinctiveness of the Japanese language. Everyone agrees that Japanese does not bear a close relation to any other language in the world. Most scholars consider it to be an isolated member of Asia's Altaic language family, which consists of Turkic, Mongolian, and Tungusic languages. Korean is also often considered to be an isolated member of this family, and within the family Japanese and Korean may be more closely related to each other than to other Altaic languages. However, the similarities between Japanese and Korean are confined to general grammatical features and about 15 percent of their basic vocabularies, rather than the detailed shared features of grammar and vocabulary that link, say, French to Spanish; they are more different from each other than Russian is from English.

Since languages change over time, the more similar two languages are, the more recently they must have diverged. By counting common words and features, linguists can estimate how long ago languages diverged, and such estimates suggest that Japanese and Korean parted company at least 4,000 years ago. As for the Ainu language, its origins are thoroughly in doubt; it may not have any special relationship to Japanese.

After genes and language, a third type of evidence about Japanese origins comes from ancient portraits. The earliest preserved likenesses of Japan's inhabitants are statues called haniwa, erected outside tombs around 1,500 years ago. Those statues unmistakably depict East Asians. They do not resemble the heavily bearded Ainu. If the Japanese did replace the Ainu in Japan south of Hokkaido, that replacement must have occurred before A.D. 500.

Our earliest written information about Japan comes from Chinese chronicles, because China developed literacy long before Korea or Japan. In early Chinese accounts of various peoples referred to as "Eastern Barbarians," Japan is described under the name Wa, whose inhabitants were said to be divided into more than a hundred quarreling states. Only a few Korean or Japanese inscriptions before A.D. 700 have been preserved, but extensive chronicles were written in 712 and 720 in Japan and later in Korea. Those reveal massive transmission of culture to Japan from Korea itself, and from China via Korea. The chronicles are also full of accounts of Koreans in Japan and of Japanese in Korea--interpreted by Japanese or Korean historians, respectively, as evidence of Japanese conquest of Korea or the reverse.

The ancestors of the Japanese, then, seem to have reached Japan before they had writing. Their biology suggests a recent arrival, but their language suggests arrival long ago. To resolve this paradox, we must now turn to archeology. The seas that surround much of Japan and coastal East Asia are shallow enough to have been dry land during the ice ages, when much of the ocean water was locked up in glaciers and sea level lay at about 500 feet below its present measurement. Land bridges connected Japan's main islands to one another, to the Russian mainland, and to South Korea. The mammals walking out to Japan included not only the ancestors of modem Japan's bears and monkeys but also ancient humans, long before boats had been invented. Stone tools indicate human arrival as early as half a million years ago.

Around 13,000 years ago, as glaciers melted rapidly all over the world, conditions in Japan changed spectacularly for the better, as far as humans were concerned. Temperature, rainfall, and humidity all increased, raising plant productivity to present high levels. Deciduous leafy forests full of nut trees, which had been confined to southern Japan during the ice ages, expanded northward at the expense of coniferous forest, thereby replacing a forest type that had been rather sterile for humans with a much more productive one. The rise in sea level severed the land bridges, converted Japan from a piece of the Asian continent to a big archipelago, turned what had been a plain into rich shallow seas, and created thousands of miles of productive new coastline with innumerable islands, bays, tidal flats, and estuaries, all teeming with seafood.

That end of the Ice Age was accompanied by the first of the two most decisive changes in Japanese history: the invention of pottery. In the usual experience of archeologists, inventions flow from mainlands to islands, and small peripheral societies aren't supposed to contribute revolutionary advances to the rest of the world. It therefore astonished archeologists to discover that the world's oldest known pottery was made in Japan 12,700 years ago. For the first time in human experience, people had watertight containers readily available in any desired shape. With their new ability to boil or steam food, they gained access to abundant resources that had previously been difficult to use: leafy vegetables, which would burn or dry out if cooked on an open fire; shellfish, which could now be opened easily; and toxic foods like acorns, which could now have their toxins boiled out. Soft-boiled foods could be fed to small children, permitting earlier weaning and more closely spaced babies. Toothless old people, the repositories of information in a preliterate society, could now be fed and live longer. All those momentous consequences of pottery triggered a population explosion, causing Japan's population to climb from an estimated few thousand to a quarter of a million.

The prejudice that islanders are supposed to learn from superior continentals wasn't the sole reason that record-breaking Japanese pottery caused such a shock. In addition, those first Japanese potters were clearly hunter-gatherers, which also violated established views. Usually only sedentary societies own pottery: what nomad wants to carry heavy, fragile pots, as well as weapons and the baby, whenever time comes to shift camp? Most sedentary societies elsewhere in the world arose only with the adoption of agriculture. But the Japanese environment is so productive that people could settle down and make pottery while still living by hunting and gathering. Pottery helped those Japanese hunter-gatherers exploit their environment's rich food resources more than 10,000 years before intensive agriculture reached Japan.

Much ancient Japanese pottery was decorated by rolling or pressing a cord on soft clay. Because the Japanese word for cord marking is jomon, the term Jomon is applied to the pottery itself, to the ancient Japanese people who made it, and to that whole period in Japanese prehistory beginning with the invention of pottery and ending only 10,000 years later. The earliest jomon pottery, of 12,700 years ago, comes from Kyushu, the southernmost Japanese island. Thereafter, pottery spread north, teaching the vicinity of modern Tokyo around 9,500 years ago and the northern--most island of Hokkaido by 7,000 years ago. Pottery's northward spread followed that of deciduous forest rich in nuts, suggesting that the climate-related food explosion was what permitted sedentary living.

How did Jomon people make their living? We have abundant evidence from the garbage they left behind at hundreds of thousands of excavated archeological sites all over Japan. They apparently enjoyed a well-balanced diet, one that modern nutritionists would applaud.

One major food category was nuts, especially chestnuts and walnuts, plus horse chest nuts and acorns leached or boiled free of their bitter poisons. Nuts could be harvested autumn in prodigious quantities, then stored for the winter in underground pits up to six feet deep and six feet wide. Other plant foods berries, fruits, seeds, leaves, shoots, bulbs, and roots. In all, archeologists sifting through Jomon garbage have identified 64 species of edible plants.

Then as now, Japan's inhabitants were among the world's leading consumers of seafood. They harpooned tuna in the open ocean, killed seals on the beaches, and exploited seasonal runs of salmon in die rivers. They drove dolphins into shallow water and clubbed or speared them, just as Japanese hunters do today. They netted diverse fish, captured them in weirs, and caught them on fishhooks carved from deer antlers. They gathered shellfish, crabs, and seaweed in the intertidal zone or dove for them. (Jomon skeletons show a high incidence of abnormal bone growth in the ears, often observed in divers today.) Among land animals hunted, wild boar and deer were the most common prey. They were caught in pit traps, shot with bows and arrows, and run down with dogs.

The most debated question about Jomon subsistence concerns the possible contribution of agriculture. Many Jomon sites contain remains of edible plants that are native to Japan as wild species but also grown as crops today, including the adzuki bean and green gram bean. The remains from Jomon times do not clearly show features distinguishing the crops from their wild ancestors, so we do not know whether these plants were gathered in the wild or grown intentionally. Sites also have debris of edible or useful plant species not native to Japan, such as hemp, which must have been introduced from the Asian mainland. Around 1000 B.C., toward the end of the Jomon period, a few grains of rice, barley, and millet, the staple cereals of East Asia, began to appear. All these tantalizing clues make it likely that Jomon people were starting to practice some slash-and-burn agriculture, but evidently in a casual way that made only a minor contribution to their diet.

Archeologists studying Jomon hunter-gatherers have found not only hard-to-carry pottery (including pieces up to three feet tall) but also heavy stone tools, remains of substantial houses that show signs of repair, big village sites of 50 or more dwellings, and cemeteries--all further evidence that the Jomon people were sedentary rather than nomadic. Their stay-at-home lifestyle was made possible by the diversity of resource-rich habitats available within a short distance of one central site: inland forests, rivers, seashores, bays, and open oceans. Jomon people lived at some of the highest population densities ever estimated for hunter-gatherers, especially in central and northern Japan, with their nut-rich forests, salmon runs, and productive seas. The estimate of the total population of Jomon Japan at its peak is 250,000--trivial, of course, compared with today, but impressive for hunter-gatherers.

With all this stress on what Jomon people did have, we need to be clear as well about what they didn't have. Their lives were very different from those of contemporary societies only a few hundred miles away in mainland China and Korea. Jomon people had no intensive agriculture. Apart from dogs (and perhaps pigs), they had no domestic animals. They had no metal tools, no writing, no weaving, and little social stratification into chiefs and commoners. Regional variation in pottery styles suggests little progress toward political centralization and unification.

Despite its distinctiveness even in East Asia at that time, Jomon Japan was not completely isolated. Pottery, obsidian, and fishhooks testify to some Jomon trade with Korea, Russia, and Okinawa--as does the arrival of Asian mainland crops. Compared with later eras, though, that limited trade with the outside world had little influence on Jomon society. Jomon Japan was a miniature conservative universe that changed surprisingly little over 10,000 years.

To place Jomon Japan in a contemporary perspective, let us remind ourselves of what human societies were like on the Asian mainland in 400 B.C., just as the Jomon lifestyle was about to come to an end. China consisted of kingdoms with rich elites and poor commoners; the people lived in walled towns, and the country was on the verge of political unification and would soon become the world's largest empire. Beginning around 6500 B.C., China had developed intensive agriculture based on millet in the north and rice in the south; it had domestic pigs, chickens, and water buffalo. The Chinese had had writing for at least 900 years, metal tools for at least 1,500 years, and had just invented the world's first cast iron. Those developments were also spreading to Korea, which itself had had agriculture for several thousand years (including rice since at least 2 100 B.C.) and metal since 1000 B.C.

With all these developments going on for thousands of years just across the Korea Strait from Japan, it might seem astonishing that in 400 B.C. Japan was still occupied by people who had some trade with Korea but remained preliterate stone-tool-using hunter-gatherers. Throughout human history, centralized states with metal weapons and armies supported by dense agricultural populations have consistently swept away sparser populations of hunter-gatherers. How did Jomon Japan survive so long?

To understand the answer to this paradox, we have to remember that until 400 B.C., the Korea Strait separated not rich farmers from poor hunter-gatherers, but poor farmers from rich hunter-gatherers. China itself and Jomon Japan were probably not in direct contact. Instead Japan's trade contacts, such as they were, involved Korea. But rice had been domesticated in warm southern China and spread only slowly northward to much cooler Korea, because it took a long time to develop cold-resistant strains of rice. Early rice agriculture in Korea used dry-field methods rather than irrigated paddies and was not particularly productive. Hence early Korean agriculture could not compete with Jomon hunting and gathering. Jomon people themselves would have seen no advantage in adopting Korean agriculture, insofar as they were aware of its existence, and poor Korean farmers had no advantages that would let them force their way into Japan. As we shall see, the advantages finally reversed suddenly and dramatically.

More than 10,000 years after the invention of pottery and the subsequent Jomon population explosion, a second decisive event in Japanese history triggered a second population explosion. Around 400 B.C., a new lifestyle arrived from South Korea. This second transition poses in acute form our question about who the Japanese are. Does the transition mark the replacement of Jomon people with immigrants from Korea, ancestral to the modern Japanese? Or did Japan's original Jomon inhabitants continue to occupy Japan while learning valuable new tricks?

The new mode of living appeared first on the north coast of Japan's southwestern most island, Kyushu, just across the Korea Strait from South Korea. There we find Japan's first metal tools, of iron, and Japan's first undisputed full-scale agriculture. That agriculture-came in the form of irrigated rice fields, complete with canals, dams, banks, paddies, and rice residues revealed by archeological excavations. Archeologists term the new way of living Yayoi, after a district of Tokyo where in 1884 its characteristic pottery was first recognized. Unlike Jomon pottery, Yayoi pottery was very similar to contemporary South Korean pottery in shape. Many other elements of the new Yayoi culture were unmistakably Korean and previously foreign to Japan, including bronze objects, weaving, glass beads, and styles of tools and houses.

While rice was the most important crop, Yayoi farmers introduced 27 new to Japan, as well as unquestionably domesticated pigs. They may have practiced double cropping, with paddies irrigated for rice production in the summer, then drained for dry-land cultivation of millet, barley, and wheat in the winter. Inevitably, this highly productive system of intensive agriculture triggered an immediate population explosion in Kyushu, where archeologists have identified far more Yayoi sites than Jomon sites, even though the Jomon period lasted 14 times longer.

In virtually no time, Yayoi farming jumped from Kyushu to the adjacent main islands of Shikoku and Honshu, reaching the Tokyo area within 200 years, and the cold northern tip of Honshu (1,000 miles from the first Yayoi settlements on Kyushu) in another century. After briefly occupying northern Honshu, Yayoi farmers abandoned that area, presumably because rice farming could not compete with the Jomon hunter-gatherer life. For the next 2,000 years, northern Honshu remained a frontier zone, beyond which the northernmost Japanese island of Hokkaido and its Ainu hunter-gatherers were not even considered part of the Japanese state until their annexation in the nineteenth century.

It took several centuries for Yayoi Japan to show the first signs of social stratification, as reflected especially in cemeteries. After about 100 B.C., separate parts of cemeteries were set aside, for the graves of what was evidently an emerging elite class, marked by luxury goods imported from China, such as beautiful jade objects and bronze mirrors. As the Yayoi population explosion continued, and as all the best swamps or irrigable plains suitable for wet rice agriculture began to fill up, the archeological evidence suggests that war became more and more frequent: that evidence includes mass production of arrowheads, defensive moats surrounding villages, and buried skeletons pierced by projectile points. These hallmarks of war in Yayoi Japan corroborate the earliest accounts of Japan in Chinese chronicles, which describe the land of Wa and its hundred little political units fighting one another.

In the period from A.D. 300 to 700, both archeological excavations and frustratingly ambiguous accounts in later chronicles let us glimpse dimly the emergence of a politically unified Japan. Before A.D. 300, elite tombs were small and exhibited a regional diversity of styles. Beginning around A.D. 300, increasingly enormous earth-mound tombs called kofun, in the shape of keyholes, were constructed throughout the former Yayoi area from Kyushu to North Honshu. Kofun are up to 1,500 feet long and more than 100 feet high, making them possibly the largest earth-mound tombs in the world. The prodigious amount of labor required to build them and the uniformity of their style across Japan imply powerful rulers who commanded a huge, politically unified labor force. Those kofun that have been excavated contain lavish burial goods, but excavation of the largest ones is still forbidden because they are believed to contain the ancestors of the Japanese imperial line. The visible evidence of political centralization that the kofun provide reinforces the accounts of kofun-era Japanese emperors written down much later in Japanese and Korean chronicles. Massive Korean influences on Japan during the kofun era--whether through the Korean conquest of Japan (the Korean view) or the Japanese conquest of Korea (the Japanese view)--were responsible for transmitting Buddhism, writing, horseback riding, and new ceramic and metallurgical techniques to Japan from the Asian mainland.

Finally, with the completion of Japan's first chronicle in A.D. 712, Japan emerged into the full light of history. As of 712, the people inhabiting Japan were at last unquestionably Japanese, and their language (termed Old Japanese) was unquestionably ancestral to modem Japanese. Emperor Akihito, who reigns today, is the eighty-second direct descendant of the emperor under whom that first chronicle of A.D. 712 was written. He is traditionally considered the 125th direct descendant of the legendary first emperor, Jimmu, the great-great-great-grandson of the sun goddess Amaterasu.

Source: Discover, June 1998 Vol. 19

This article was featured in Korea WebWeekly.

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