At the Origin of Japanese Culture

Japanese History

The origins of the Japanese are still a mystery. Nevertheless nowadays the scientific community agrees that Japanese culture was a mix of elements coming from different parts of the Asia mainland and blended in prehistoric times. The time frame in which these elements arrived and the percentage in which they mixed it is still not clear. Given the geography of the Japanese islands lying off the south east coast of Asian continent, almost touching it at two points, there must have been in neolithic time a strong northern migration of Mongol tribes arriving through Korea. At the same time, some characteristics of early Japanese civilization, in particular the wet method of rice culture, came in through South China. Concerning the Ainu, the people living in Hokkaido, the northernmost Japanese island, philological and other evidence shows that at one time they spread over the whole archipelago. Regarding their origins, many anthropologists seems to believe that they were Caucasic.

Jōmon (縄文) and Yayoi (弥生) culture

No traces of a paleolithic culture have yet been found in Japan, but there are two main types of neolithic culture. The first is the Jōmon (縄文), named after the characteristic patterns of the pottery produced in this period that resemble the marks of a rope. The other is the Yayoi type, because of the name of the neolithic site where the typical pottery of this age was first found. Both types are found in neolithic sites all over Japan. Jōmon pottery is more frequent in the North and East, where Yayoi pottery is relatively scarce. Where they occur together, Jōmon pottery is generally below Yayoi pottery and is therefore considered older. Technically Jōmon is inferior to Yayoi pottery and yet it is artistically more advanced, showing much greater freedom of design and variety of shape. Also the stone artifacts which occur with Jōmon pottery are generally more advanced than those of the Yayoi culture. From these and other data we can assume that the Jōmon neolithic culture, after a long period of development in isolation, was gradually replaced by the later (Yayoi) culture in Southern and Western Japan and reached its zenith in the North and East. The Yayoi culture on the other hand was, perhaps already by the time when the two cultures came into contact, declining as a neolithic culture and about to pass into a metal phase, as shown by the occurrence in many sites of bronze articles associated with Yayoi pottery.

The archaeological evidence doesn’t tell us if there was an autochthonous growth, and probably both neolithic cultures originated on the continent. Certain rudimentary neolithic pottery discovered in Korea shows a resemblance of early pottery of the Yayoi period. It is possible to argue by analogy that, if the Yayoi culture came to Japan (as it almost certainly did) from the northern Asiatic continent through Korea, it is likely that the earlier Jōmon culture possibly followed the same route.

The study of human remains found in neolithic sites in Japan shows that Jōmon people were of the same physical type as the modern Ainu that today live in Hokkaidō, the northernmost island of Japanese archipelago. Physically and culturally Ainu belong to those early Caucasic people who spread over northern Europe and Asia, a physical type different from the Yayoi people.

Japanese dogu, clay figure typical of Jomon culture
Dogu (土偶) one of the most typical artifacts of Jōmon culture. They were small, elaborated human figures whose real purpose is not known. They have unusual proportions and some details might reminds of goggles, helmets and even spacesuits of alien creatures. Those who believe in aliens often refer to dogu as proof of ancient contacts between humans and extraterrestrial civilizations.

The neolithic culture which they developed in Japan reached a very high level. Some Japanese scholars assert that it was one of the most advanced neolithic cultures in the world, in point of skill in the manufacture of weapons and tools and originality in the design and ornament of pottery. This early pottery roamed into lavish conceptions of form and decoration probably unsurpassed in any place or time. Probably the artistic talent of later Japan has its roots in the prehistoric past.

This early culture, in order to reach such a degree of perfection, must have gone through a very long development in Japan, and it is possible that during its course more than one wave of migration came from the mainland, whether from the Korean peninsula or from the regions now known as the Maritime Province of Siberia and Kamchatka. But all this is conjecture about a very misty past, and it is only around the beginning of the Christian era that we start to find more documented evidence of relationship with the mainland Asian continent.

When we come to inquire into the origins of the later Yayoi neolithic culture of Japan, we must look at the results of archaeological research in Korea. Here, several types of neolithic remains occur, marking fairly well differentiated cultural phases for each of which a corresponding Yayoi type can be distinguished in Japan. The evidence points to an early neolithic culture common to Manchuria, Korea and the Maritime Province, which had its counterpart in Japan in the earliest forms of Yayoi culture. Korea was thereafter, it seems, subjected to successive new cultural influences from outside, and these influences were in turn transmitted—no doubt by the agency of immigrants from Korea—to Japan. Here, as the technical improvement in some Yayoi artifacts testifies, they raised the general cultural level and enabled the Yayoi people to displace or absorb the Jōmon people.

The various phases of neolithic remains in Korea are characterized by three types of pottery which are thought by some Japanese scholars to correspond with neolithic pottery found respectively in Siberia, Northern Russia, Finland and Sweden, Western China, Manchuria, Inner Mongolia and Southern China. This view however, though it raises presumptions concerning the origin of the later phases of neolithic culture in Japan, does not resolve the mystery about the origins of the Yayoi people. All that we can say is that probably the population of the Japanese archipelago during the Stone Age included people of Mongol stock. There are many features of early Japanese culture as reconstructed from folklore and other survivals which point to an affinity with Mongol peoples. Thus, for example, the earliest Japanese religion has much in common with the Shamanism practised in north-eastern Asia. Primitive Japanese weapons resemble the weapons of north-eastern Asia rather than those of the Oceanic islands, and the dominant Japanese physical type is Mongoloid: broad-skulled, somewhat prognathic, straight-haired, while the eyelid presents the characteristic “Mongol fold” and the so-called “Mongol spot” is general in Japanese babies.

As to the presence of other than northern elements in the population of Japan, there can be little doubt, but whence they came we do not know. The Japanese may have derived a southern strain from a proto-Malay origin. It is likely that there was a diffusion from a common centre on the Asiatic mainland which at the same time populated the islands of the south and furnished the southern strain in the people and culture of Japan. This centre might have been in southern China or Indo-China. But all this is in the realm of conjecture.

Old map of Japanese archipelago.

The archaeological evidence proves only that there was a fairly uniform civilization in Japan prior to the Christian era. The ethnical fusion which produced the Japanese civilization goes back to a remoter antiquity, of which we have no knowledge. The Japanese from the end of the Stone Age onward exhibit a blend of many ethnic features. On one side Japan had a great and variously peopled continent, on the other an immense stretch of ocean that made it a sort of pocket, in which immigrants driven by the pressure of hunger and fear, or perhaps by the plain desire for adventure, might assemble, and where, because they could go no farther, they must fuse or perish.

Bronze and Iron Age

The Stone Age in Japan persisted until about the beginning of the 1st Century A.D.. There are no exact dates, but there is evidence to show that neolithic culture was coming to an end in the west of Japan during the first century B.C., though it persisted in Central Japan for two or three centuries longer, and in remote places in the extreme north had not entirely vanished by the end of the first millennium. What brought the neolithic phase to an end was the influence of the metal culture of China, exercised first upon Korea and then by Korea upon Japan.

The bronze culture of China, at its zenith under the Chou dynasty, spread to South Manchuria and along the coasts of Korea to the extreme south of the peninsula. In neolithic sites in those regions appeared coins (such as the metal tokens called “knife money”) minted towards the end of the Chou or the beginning of the Ch’in dynasty —that is to say about 300 B.C. Korea was not merely a way through which Han civilization passed on to Japan, but a terrain in which cultural elements from various sources combined before being transmitted.

With the Han dynasty China entered the Iron Age. This new technology also spread very soon to the same regions, since coins minted in China in the first decade of the Christian era have been found in neolithic sites in Southern Manchuria and Korea together with implements of bronze, iron and stone. So far no objects which can be ascribed to late Chou times have been found in Japan, but coins of the Eastern Han dynasty are not uncommon. Their presence shows what we should expect that Chinese bronze culture reached Japan by way of Korea after a delay of a few decades or perhaps a century. Certainly by the beginning of the Christian era Chinese bronze culture started to influence Japan, but before it had displaced neolithic culture, it was overtaken by an iron culture so that there was no true bronze age in Japan.

Burial Mound (Kofun) Period (古墳時代)

Following or perhaps overlapping the age of the shell mounds, which are the chief repositories of neolithic remains in Japan, comes the age of the sepulchral mounds: Kofun. These are simple mounds covering stone or earthenware coffins, but the characteristic tumulus of this period is a great pile over a sepulchral stone chamber. The tombs of the rulers, which are called misasagi, are of impressive dimensions. The emperor Nintoku’s (died about A.D. 400) one being 580 meters (1,200 feet) in length and 27 meters (90 feet) in height, covering with its moats a space of 32 hectares (80 acres). Such mounds occur mainly in western and central Japan. Inside the sepulchral stone chambers are found vases almost identical in form and decoration with Yayoi ones, but technically superior, harder and nearly always moulded on the wheel, together with jewels, mirrors, weapons and other bronze and iron objects.


Haniwa - Japanese prehistoric sculpture

Outside the kofun, but associated with them, are found clay figures known as haniwa. The clay figures of the Neolithic Age were misshapen and grimacing objects, probably intended to ward off evil spirits. Those of the later sepulchral mounds represent sometimes animals (mainly horses), but usually men and women with oval faces and regular features, wearing sleeved robes and ornaments such as necklaces and ear-rings, having an elaborate hairstyle or the head covered with a coif or other headgear. The faces were coloured, in definite patterns, usually red. The haniwa are often in the form of cylinders surmounted by a bust, so that the complete costume is not often represented. The general impression is of the dress of northern Asiatics, and not of peoples from tropical regions. The weapons are for the most part of a continental type, Mongolian or Chinese, resembling those found in north-eastern Asia. The arrow known as the nari-kaburaya, or humming-bulb, is a characteristic weapon of the period of the sepulchral mounds, and is definitely not of Oceanic origin. The armour, helmets, and horse-trappings, of iron and bronze, indubitably show a debt either to China or Mongolia. Many of the bronze mirrors were beyond question made in China, probably during the Han dynasty.


The articles of stone contained in the tumuli are not tools and weapons proper to a neolithic culture, but ornaments or objects for ceremonial use. Most prominent among them are the “curved jewels” (magatama), which evidently derive from the claws or tusks of animals. Magatama are found in neolithic sites, some of bone, some of horn, and some of stone. To these magic properties were ascribed. Indeed, until very recent times in Korea and eastern Siberia the claw of the tiger was regarded as an amulet of the greatest power. The magatama of the tumuli are often of fine workmanship, made of a great variety of materials, such as agate, jasper, serpentine, quartz, glass, jade, nephrite and chrysoprase. Neither of these last three materials is found in Japan, or even in China proper, but are common in the region of Lake Baikal and the Ural mountains.

Such, in brief outline, is the story of prehistoric Japan as told by archaeological research.

  • It is possible to conclude with some certainty that the country was inhabited towards the end of the Neolithic Age by peoples of the stock known to ethnologists as Ural-Altaic, that includes Finns, Samoyedes, Huns, Tungusic tribes and Mongols.
  • There were exchanges between Japan and Korea, that successive immigrations from north-eastern Asia took place, probably through Korea.
  • As time progressed, increased the number of among the immigrants who had, in their land of origin or during their migration, come into contact with bronze or iron culture.
  • This influence came mainly from China, especially during the Han dynasty.
  • It is difficult to evaluate the extent of the UralAltaic element in the characters of the Japanese, as distinct from the material culture which they adopted.

Many of their qualities, much of their thought and behaviour, not only as revealed in their early legends but even as observed today, mark them off very distinctly from the Chinese, despite their great intellectual and spiritual debt to successive Han, T’ang, Sung and Ming dynasties.

From prehistoric age to post World War II era the power and prestige of foreign cultures seem to have often overwhelmed and transformed Japan, but there has always been a hard, non-absorbent core of individual character, which resists and in its turn works upon the invading influence.

Early Chinese Historical Records

There is some evidence in legend, and a little in recorded history, to complete the picture of early Japanese civilization which is furnished by archaeological finds. Early Chinese records give us some information, but should be read with respectful doubts.

The first authentic reference to Japan is probably a passage in the Shanhaiching which states that the Wa were subject to the Kingdom of Yen. The Wa are the Japanese, or at any rate some of the people inhabiting Japan, presumably not later than 265 B.C., when the Kingdom of Yen lost its independence. The ideograph used by the Chinese to represent Wa is related to the character for dwarf. It is possible therefore that there were relations of some kind (not necessarily of vassalage) between the Japanese and the Chinese in the third century B.C., and that the Chinese known the Japanese as people of short stature. Statements in the Shanhaiching, and the occurrence in tombs in northern and southern Korea of coins minted by the rulers of Yen, shows that there was some traffic between Yen and Korea. Such coins have not been found in Japan proper, but they have been found in the Luchu Islands. The evidence for direct contact between Chinese and Japanese in the first half of the third century B.C. is therefore not negligible but it is not very strong.

Even for the second half we have nothing but tradition to suggest that Chinese travelled as far as Japan. In the anarchy prevailing during that period the north of China was the scene of civil wars among the kingdoms of Ch’in, Chao and Yen which, having at the same time to protect themselves against the warlike nomads known to the Chinese as Hsiung-nu, built palisades and walls, later (214 B.C.) combined to form the great wall of China. The king of Yen as part of his defensive measures entered country now constituting South Manchuria and North Korea. In these troubled times refugees and groups of colonists began to leave China for those regions.

Chinese and Korean Influence

The first mention of Korea in Chinese records is in the Shi Chih where we are told that the Chou emperor Wu (1122 B.C.) gave Korea in fief to a statesman named Chitzu, who departed with some thousand followers and introduced the arts of civilization into northern Korea. Centuries later, when the first Ch’in emperor, Shih Hwangti, had subdued his rivals he, wishing now to find the Elixir of Youth—so the legend has it-sent from the Shantung coast to an island in the East a Taoist sage named Sufu, with three thousand men and women, artisans of all kinds and a cargo of seeds. Not much faith should be put in this tale, but it shows at least a tradition of early migration of culture-bearers in the direction of Japan. It is remarkable, too, as showing the persistence of that tradition, that in the earliest Japanese writings the Chinese character for Ch’in represents the word for a weaver. This does not confirm the tradition but could indicate that in the minds of the Japanese their first knowledge of the arts of Chinese civilisation came from contacts with the Ch’in dynasty. Certainly some of these arts were communicated to Japan, if only by Korean intermediaries, during or not long after the Ch’in period. Archaeologists have found in western Japan, in addition to bronze articles in Ch’in style, stone swords and arrowheads copied from originals that are common throughout Korea and belong to Ch’in or earlier times.

In 206 B.C. the Han dynasty replaced the Ch’in in China. In 108 B.C. Chao-hsien, a country responding roughly to the northern half of modern Korea, was conquered and divided into four Chinese provinces under Chinese governors, with a full system of administration on the Chinese model. The Province of Lakliang included the whole of Korea down to the Han river and indeterminate territory south of that. On its southern and eastern confines the country was nominally under Chinese rule, and important points were occupied by military posts. Chinese cultural influence must have spread gradually over the peninsula, particularly southwards and along the coast.

From records of the early Han dynasty and from rich finds in a number of elaborate tombs excavated in recent years near Pyönyang, it is clear that Lakliang was one of the most prosperous Chinese colonies and an important outpost of Chinese culture. That its influence extended a long way southward is undoubted. At various points in southern Korea archaeological excavations found bronze and iron implements and ornaments, coins, tokens and pottery which show that articles from Lakliang reached these parts approximately between 50 B.C. and A.D. 50.

Further there is evidence that certain objects, such as bronze mirrors, swords, spears and personal ornaments, were made locally in imitation of Han work. Bronze mirrors made in China in early Han times, have been found in western Japan together with Yayoi pottery at points within easy reach of the south coast of Korea.

Han Records

From this time onward, relations between Japan and China became increasingly close. We have no record of their beginnings, but we may be sure that travellers from the extreme west of Japan found their way to the Chinese colonies in Korea in the first century B.C. The first mention of such journeys occurs in the Han records, where, with an entry registering the arrival of a Japanese embassy at Loyang, the Han capital, in A.D. 57, the following passage occurs:

The country of the Wa lies south-east of South Korea in the middle of the ocean and is formed of a number of islands. It contains more than one hundred kingdoms. From the time when the emperor Wu-Ti conquered Chao-hsien (i.e. North Korea, in 108 B.C.) more than thirty of these kingdoms have held intercourse with China by envoys or by scribes… They understand the art of weaving… Their soldiers have spears and shields, wooden bows and bamboo arrows sometimes tipped with bone. The men all tattoo their faces, and adorn their bodies with designs. The position and size of the patterns indicates differences of rank and status . They smear their bodies with pink and scarlet, as rice powder is used in China.” This chronicle gives further information regarding Japan and Japanese customs, which with additional details is recorded in the Wei records also. These writings are not entirely reliable in their extant form, they were compiled, from materials not now surviving, a long while after the period they describe. Certainly they display inconsistencies and their texts are in places corrupt. Nevertheless the statements of the Wei records even if cannot be fully accepted, still give a credible, fair picture of Japan as seen by Chinese observers in the first century a.D.

The Wei record gives names, many of which are identifiable, of districts, towns and officials, together with directions, distances and other particulars. Despite some obvious errors, they give the impression of accounts by veracious eye-witnesses, mishandled by subsequent compilers. They state, for instance, that all males had tattoo. This is a fact for which there is no other evidence, except that tattooing is still practised by the Ainu. What they say about smears of pink and scarlet though is confirmed by traces of colour found upon the haniwa, the clay images of the tumuli.

Anyhow, what they tell us is enough to show that the people visited by Han and Wei travellers had reached a moderately high point of social organization. They were already emerging from neolithic culture at the beginning of the Christian era, and thank to Korean and Chinese influence could reach further cultural progress.

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