Japanese Roots

2008.02.21 Japanese Roots

Jared Diamond, Pulitzer Prize winning author of Guns, Germs, and Steel, has written an article about the formation of modern Japanese people through archaeological and genetic evidence:

Japanese Roots by Jared Diamond: Just who are the Japanese? Where did they come from and when? The answers are difficult to come by, though not impossible—the real problem is that the Japanese themselves may not want to know” (via Discovery Magazine).

These questions cultivate passionate opinions based on long held (sometimes mythological) stories, racial tensions, and cultural identity.

Prominent among the answers to these questions are four conflicting theories (quoted from the article):

  • Most popular in Japan is the view that the Japanese gradually evolved from ancient Ice Age people who occupied Japan long before 20,000 b.c.
  • Also widespread in Japan is a theory that the Japanese descended from horse-riding Asian nomads who passed through Korea to conquer Japan in the fourth century, but who were themselves—emphatically—not Koreans.
  • A theory favored by many Western archaeologists and Koreans, and unpopular in some circles in Japan, is that the Japanese are descendants of immigrants from Korea who arrived with rice-paddy agriculture around 400 b.c.
  • Finally, the fourth theory holds that the peoples named in the other three theories could have mixed to form the modern Japanese.

Diamond explores these theories in a fascinating account conflicted by a ancient and unique language on one hand and genetic evidence of a more modern people on the other.

He pieces together an amazing history of hunters vs gatherers with exchanges of technology such as agriculture, pottery, and metal tools. My island of inhabitation, Kyushu, is the birthplace of both the first pottery created (12,500 years ago) by man and modern Japanese.

It seems (ancient) Japanese Jomon culture underwent a rapidly fast evolution with the influence of Korean Yayoi culture.

Given the overwhelming advantage that rice agriculture gave Korean farmers, one has to wonder why the farmers achieved victory over Jomon hunters so suddenly, after making little headway in Japan for thousands of years. What finally tipped the balance and triggered the Yayoi transition was probably a combination of four developments: the farmers began raising rice in irrigated fields instead of in less productive dry fields; they developed rice strains that would grow well in a cool climate; their population expanded in Korea, putting pressure on Koreans to emigrate; and they invented iron tools that allowed them to mass-produce the wooden shovels, hoes, and other tools needed for rice-paddy agriculture. That iron and intensive farming reached Japan simultaneously is unlikely to have been a coincidence.

Diamond reaches some interesting conclusions. It seems genetic evidence points that modern Japanese are descended from Korean (Yayoi) immigrants who first came to Kyushu, a mere 90 miles away from the Korean peninsula. The native Ainu culture of the north are descended from Japan’s first inhabitants who migrated into Japan during the Ice Age when land bridges connected it to the mainland.

To correlate the fact Japan’s language is so unlike any other, pointing to a much older culture than genetics would suggest, Diamond suggests “the languages of Kyushu’s Jomon residents and Yayoi invaders were quite different from the modern Ainu and Korean languages, respectively.” Korea at the time was three kingdoms and the immigrants to Kyushu held a very different language than of the kingdom that eventually unified Korea, the Silla. Whether these immigrants were a conquering force or enslaved people depends which side of the Sea of Japan (East Sea) you reside.


The article is truly interesting and loaded with more facts and evidence that I have briefly presented here. These probably aren’t topics to bring up at your next nomikai (drinking party) in Japan but they remain fascinating since only recently through DNA can we come to accurate conclusions.

The final paragraph of the article is particularly insightful:

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.

For a wider-scoped history of the clash of culture of Eurasia and the rest of the world, pick up his Guns, Germs, and Steel book or watch the documentary based on it available to watch online at part 1, part 2, and part 3.

I took the main above photo at Tōdai-ji in Nara, Japan. This 15 meter tall bronze Buddha is housed in the world’s largest wooden building. The second photo was taken in Oita City, Japan.