Japan - Ancient Cultures

Illustration of late Jomon period village
Late Jomon period village. De Agostini Picture Library/Getty Images

 On the basis of archaeological finds, it has been postulated that hominid activity in Japan may date as early as 200,000 B.C., when the islands were connected to the Asian mainland. Although some scholars doubt this early date for habitation, most agree that by around 40,000 B.C. glaciation had reconnected the islands with the mainland. Based on archaeological evidence, they also agree that by between 35,000 and 30,000 B.C.

Homo sapiens had migrated to the islands from eastern and southeastern Asia and had well-established patterns of hunting and gathering and stone toolmaking . Stone tools, inhabitation sites, and human fossils from this period have been found throughout all the islands of Japan.

More stable living patterns gave rise by around 10,000 B.C. to Neolithic or, as some scholars argue, Mesolithic culture. Possibly distant ancestors of the Ainu aboriginal people of modern Japan, members of the heterogeneous Jomon culture (ca. 10,000-300 B.C.) left the clearest archaeological record. By 3,000 B.C., the Jomon people were making clay figures and vessels decorated with patterns made by impressing the wet clay with braided or unbraided cord and sticks (jomon means 'patterns of plaited cord') with a growing sophistication. These people also used chipped stone tools, traps, and bows and were hunters, gatherers, and skillful coastal and deep-water fishermen.

They practiced a rudimentary form of agriculture and lived in caves and later in groups of either temporary shallow pit dwellings or above-ground houses, leaving rich kitchen middens for modern anthropological study.

By the late Jomon period, a dramatic shift had taken place according to archaeological studies.

Incipient cultivation had evolved into sophisticated rice-paddy farming and government control. Many other elements of Japanese culture also may date from this period and reflect a mingled migration from the northern Asian continent and the southern Pacific areas. Among these elements are Shinto mythology, marriage customs, architectural styles, and technological developments, such as lacquerware, textiles, metalworking, and glass making.

The next cultural period, the Yayoi (named after the section of Tokyo where archaeological investigations uncovered its traces) flourished between about 300 B.C. and A.D. 250 from southern Kyushu to northern Honshu. The earliest of these people, who are thought to have migrated from Korea to northern Kyushu and intermixed with the Jomon, also used chipped stone tools. Although the pottery of the Yayoi was more technologically advanced -- produced on a potter's wheel -- it was more simply decorated than Jomon ware. The Yayoi made bronze ceremonial nonfunctional bells, mirrors, and weapons and, by the first century A.D., iron agricultural tools and weapons. As the population increased and society became more complex, they wove cloth, lived in permanent farming villages, constructed buildings of wood and stone, accumulated wealth through landownership and the storage of grain, and developed distinct social classes.

Their irrigated, wet-rice culture was similar to that of central and south China, requiring heavy inputs of human labor, which led to the development and eventual growth of a highly sedentary, agrarian society. Unlike China, which had to undertake massive public works and water-control projects, leading to a highly centralized government, Japan had abundant water. In Japan, then, local political and social developments were relatively more important than the activities of the central authority and a stratified society.

The earliest written records about Japan are from Chinese sources from this period. Wa (the Japanese pronunciation of an early Chinese name for Japan) was first mentioned in A.D. 57. Early Chinese historians described Wa as a land of hundreds of scattered tribal communities, not the unified land with a 700-year tradition as laid out in the Nihongi, which puts the foundation of Japan at 660 B.C.

Third-century Chinese sources reported that the Wa people lived on raw vegetables, rice, and fish served on bamboo and wooden trays, had vassal-master relations, collected taxes, had provincial granaries and markets, clapped their hands in worship (something still done in Shinto shrines), had violent succession struggles, built earthen grave mounds, and observed mourning. Himiko, a female ruler of an early political federation known as Yamatai, flourished during the third century. While Himiko reigned as spiritual leader, her younger brother carried out affairs of state, which included diplomatic relations with the court of the Chinese Wei Dynasty (A.D. 220-65).

Data as of January 1994

Source: The Library of Congress - Japan - A Country Study