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Jomon pottery figure and indigenous Aynu. Image: Wikimedia CommonsJomon pottery figure and indigenous Aynu. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Origins of the Japanese

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A team of researchers have been delving into the origins of the Japanese people, with some interesting findings. The research was centred on a study of Japanese dialects with the aim of finding the roots of the language.

The language family is known as Japonic and this includes Japanese and a similar language called Ryukyuan, which is spoken in the chain of islands to the south of Japan.

Comparing the cultures

Whilst genetically, the modern Japanese are descended from two main migrant streams, the Jōmon culture and the Yayoi culture, the linguistic roots have now been determined as originating from the Yayoi.

Archaeologists have found evidence for two waves of migrants, a hunter-gatherer people who created the Jōmon culture and rice farmers who left remains known as the Yayoi culture

Archaeologists have found evidence for two waves of migrants, a hunter-gatherer people who created the Jōmon culture and rice farmers who left remains known as the Yayoi culture.

The  hunter-gatherers arrived in Japan before the end of the last ice age around 20,000 years ago, via land bridges that joined Japan to Asia’s mainland. They remained isolated until about 2,400 years ago when wet rice agriculture developed in southern China and was adapted to Korea’s colder climate.

Several languages seem to have been spoken on the Korean Peninsula at this time, but 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  coincides with the arrival of the Yayoi.

The finding, if confirmed, indicates that the Yayoi people took Japonic to Japan, though still leaves unresolved the question of where in Asia the Yayoi culture or Japonic language originated before arriving in the Korean Peninsula.

The linguistic link was provided by a method known as the ‘Bayesian phylogeny’. This uses a computer to map several language trees employing a limited vocabulary of approximate 200 words which are known to evolve slowly.

Reconstruction of Jomon Village. Image: chrissam42, Flickr

Reconstruction of Jomon Village. Image: chrissam42, Flickr

By feeding all the data from the dialect studies into this computer model, a date of 2,182 years ago was predicted for the origin of Japonic, and this fits with the arrival of the Yayoi.

Whilst John B Whitman, of the National Institute for Japanese Language and Linguistics in Tokyo refers to the results as “solid and reasonable”, other linguists are far more sceptical.

A question of identity

There has been a gap in thinking,” said Hisao Baba, curator of anthropology at the National Science Museum in Tokyo. “Archaeology has made a lot of progress, but politics has made it difficult for the general public to take a critical look at their own past.”

The question of origin cuts to the core of Japan’s identity as they have long celebrated themselves as ethnically unique.

As such, archaeology in Japan until the 1950s had to conform to accepted belief and all archaeological deposits in Japan, no matter how old, were left by ancestors of the modern Japanese.  Japanese archaeologists said Japan’s gene pool had remained isolated since the end of the last ice age, over 20,000 years ago.

Confronted with evidence that a sudden change had swept Japan in about 400 BCE — replacing the millennia-old Jōmon hunter-gatherer culture with a society that could grow rice and forge both iron weapons and tools — archaeologists attributed it to nothing more than technological borrowing from the mainland rather than influx of a people.  Even although recent analysis of skull shapes has shown the rice farmers who appeared 2,400 years ago were quite different from the hunters whom they replaced, it is still difficult for the Japanese to take this on board.

Tatetsuki, Okayama, Japan. A tumulus constructed in the late Yayoi period (3rd century). Image: Wikimedia commons

Tatetsuki, Okayama, Japan. A tumulus constructed in the late Yayoi period (3rd century). Image: Wikimedia commons

Direct comparisons between Jōmon and Yayoi skeletons show that the two peoples are noticeably distinguishable. The Jōmon tended to be shorter, with relatively longer forearms and lower legs, more wide-set eyes, shorter and wider faces, and much more pronounced facial topography. They also have strikingly raised brow ridges, noses, and nose bridges. Yayoi people, on the other hand, averaged an inch or two taller, with close-set eyes, high and narrow faces, and flat brow ridges and noses. By the Kofun period (250 to 538 AD) almost all skeletons excavated in Japan, except those of the Ainu and prehistoric Okinawans, resemble those of modern day Japanese.

Many Japanese people want to believe that their distinctive language and culture required uniquely complex developmental processes. To acknowledge a relationship of the Japanese language to any other language seems to constitute a surrender of cultural identity.

This recent study of linguistic evidence may be  further proof of a more complex history and genetic studies have suggested interbreeding between the Yayoi and Jōmon people, with the Jōmon contribution to modern Japanese being as much as 40 percent. However it was the Yayoi language that prevailed, along with their agricultural technology.

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