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The Japanese Roots (Part IV)
Jared Diamond
11/16/2004

WE HAVE SEEN THAT THE COMBINED EVIDENCE OF ARCHEOLOGY, physical anthropology, and genetics supports the transparent interpretation for how the distinctive-looking Ainu and the undistinctive-looking Japanese came to share Japan: the Ainu are descended from Japan's original inhabitants and the Japanese are descended from more recent arrivals. But that view leaves the problem of language unexplained. If the Japanese really are recent arrivals from Korea, you might expect the Japanese and Korean languages to be very similar. More generally, if the Japanese people arose recently from some mixture, on the island of Kyushu, of original Ainu-like Jomon inhabitants with Yayoi invaders from Korea, the Japanese language might show close affinities to both the Korean and Ainu languages. Instead, Japanese and Ainu have no demonstrable relationship, and the relationship between Japanese and Korean is distant. How could this be so if the mixing occurred a mere 2,400 years ago? I suggest the following resolution of this paradox: the languages of Kyushu's Jomon residents and Yayoi invaders were quite different from the modem Ainu and Korean languages, respectively.

The Ainu language was spoken in recent times by the Ainu on the northern island of Hokkaido, so Hokkaido's Jomon inhabitants probably also spoke an Ainu-like language. The Jomon inhabitants of Kyushu, however, surely did not. From the southern tip of Kyushu to the northern tip of Hokkaido, the Japanese archipelago is nearly 1,500 miles long. In Jomon times it supported great regional diversity of subsistence techniques and of pottery styles and was never unified politically. During the 10,000 years of jomon occupation, Jomon people would have evolved correspondingly great linguistic diversity. In fact, many Japanese place-names on Hokkaido and northern Honshu include the Ainu words for river, nai or betsu, and for cape, shiri, but such Ainu-like names do not occur farther south in Japan. This suggests not only that Yayoi and Japanese pioneers adopted many Jomon place-names, just as white Americans did Native American names (think of Massachusetts and Mississippi), but also that Ainu was the Jomon language only of northernmost Japan.

That is, the modern Ainu language of Hokkaido is not a model for the ancient Jomon language of Kyushu. By the same token, modern Korean may be a poor model for the ancient Yayoi language of Korean immigrants in 400 B.C. In the centuries before Korea became unified politically in A.D. 676, it consisted of three kingdoms. Modern Korean is derived from the language of the kingdom of Silla, the kingdom that emerged triumphant and unified Korea, but Silla was not the kingdom that had close contact with Japan in the preceding centuries. Early Korean chronicles tell us that the different kingdoms had different languages. While the languages of the kingdoms defeated by Silla are poorly known, the few preserved words of one of those kingdoms, Koguryo, are much more similar to the corresponding Old Japanese words than are the corresponding modem Korean words. Korean languages may have been even more diverse in 400 B.C., before political unification had reached the stage of three kingdoms. The Korean language that reached Japan in 400 B.C., and that evolved into modem Japanese, I suspect, was quite different from the Silla language that evolved into modern Korean. Hence we should not be surprised that modem Japanese and Korean people resemble each other far more in their appearance and genes than in their languages.

History gives the Japanese and the Koreans ample grounds for mutual distrust and contempt, so any conclusion confirming their close relationship is likely to be unpopular among both peoples. Like Arabs and Jews, Koreans and Japanese are joined by blood yet locked in traditional enmity. But enmity is mutually destructive, in East Asia as in the Middle East. As reluctant as Japanese and Koreans are to admit it, they are like twin brothers who shared their formative years. The political future of East Asia depends in large part on their success in rediscovering those ancient bonds between them.

Source: Discover, June 1998 Vol. 19

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