The Origin of the Japanese People




Waves immigration into ancient Japan



     map of Japan



Till the end of the last Ice Age Japan was linked to the Asian continent through Siberia in the north, Korea in the east and Taiwan to the south . Since the first human remains go back at least 30,000 years, the first wave of humans simply walked across the land bridge as the Siberians did to America .


What about the ' Japanese Atlantis ?'




In 1995 divers off Okinawa reported what looked like an ancient sunken city off the island of Yonaguni

Were they to be man-made they would be among the oldest man made structures at some 10,000 years old.




Yonaguni Documentary



 Most historians and archaeologists maintain that civilization as we know it began about 5,000 years ago with the emergence of the earliest Egyptian dynasty. But, a small yet persuasive number of scientists believes that a highly advanced civilization, nearly twice as old, flourished during the last Ice Age. Solid evidence of this 10,000-year-old civilization is difficult to produce, but some feel a recent discovery off the coast of a tiny Japanese island, Yonaguni, may be the proof they seek


Some argue that they are a natural geologic formation, and no definitive ' man-made' objects have been found .




The Ainu


One of the mysteries  of Japanese history is the origin of the Ainu people who inhabited Japan before the Yamoto people .The Ainu are considered Jomon-jin, natives to Japan from the Jomon period ( 14,000 - 300 BC ) About 2,500 years ago, the Yayoi people came from the Chinese/Korean part of Asia. The Ainu people were gradually displaced to the North (Hokkaido) and the South (Ryukyu), keeping however their own anthropological and religious identity.



news report on the Ainu


Biological study suggests that the Ainu people are closer to the people who form European nations. Linguistically, the Ainu language has similar syntax structure to Japanese, but differs in the use of pronouns used as verbal prefixes. Some linguists consider the Ainu language as a distant family of the Finno-Ugric subgroup of Ural-Altaic language group. Some archaeological findings and anthropological studies suggest that the Ainu people are probably a branch of a group of people who originally came from the North Ural mountains, and spread from Finland to Northeast Siberia between 700 BC to 700 AD.



 History of the Ainu


Before the Yayoi or North-east Asian wave, There was a wave of immigration from the south , the Malay-Indonesia- Polynesia group, and their closest relations are now found on some islands in Polynesia and Micronesia . Some remains of this culture carried on with tattoos and thatched housing .


Legendary Founding and Creation Myth


Emperor Jimmu


660 BC is the legendary date for the founding of Japan under Emperor Jimmu (  神武天皇 ),the story of Jimmu is generally held to be legendary .However, until the end of World War II, it was taught in Japanese schools as part of the officially approved history .The Imperial house of Japan traditionally based its claim to the throne on its descent from Jimmu. According to Shinto belief, Jimmu is regarded as a direct descendant of the sun goddess, Amaterasu . Amaterasu  is in Japanese mythology a sun goddess and perhaps the most important Shinto deity . Amaterasu was produced from the eye of Izanagi ("the male who invites") and his wife and sister Izanami ("the female who invites") were given the task of creating the world. Standing on Ama-no-ukihashi (the floating bridge of the heavens), they plunged a jewel crested spear into the ocean. When they pulled it free, the water that dripped from the spear coagulated and formed the first island of the Japanese archipelago. Here the first gods and humans were born


Historical Records


The written history of Japan began with brief appearances in Chinese history texts from the first century AD. The earliest historical records are the Kojiki ( ' records of Ancient affairs ' ) compiled in 712 AD and the Nihongi ( ' Chronicle of Japan ' ) compiled in 720 AD .However, archaeological research indicates that people were living on the islands of Japan as early as the upper paleolithic period. Following the last ice-age, around 12,000 BC, the rich ecosystem of the Japanese Archipelago fostered human development, yielding the earliest known pottery during the Jomon period. Japanese history has alternating periods of long isolation punctuated by radical, often revolutionary, influences from the outside world.


The Jomon period 14,000 BC to 300 BC.


Female fertility figurine 5th cent BC


 Jomon Pottery



 Jomon, Yayoi, Kofun Period | Japanese Art History


the first recognizable culture to emerge was the Neolithic Jomon, Joman in Japanese means ' cord-patterned or rope mark ' for the pottery of the period .' The Jomon period (縄文時代, , Jomon-jidai) lasted from about 14,000 BC to 300 BC.




Looking for the Genetic Roots of the Japanese


The first signs of civilization and stable living patterns appeared around 14,000 BC with the Jomon culture, characterized by a Mesolithic to Neolithic semi-sedentary hunter-gatherer lifestyle of wood stilt house and pit dwelling and a rudimentary form of agriculture. Shell mound burials are found during this period . Weaving was still unknown and clothes were often made of bark. Bear worship was common, as many place names still today have the word "kuma" (bear) in them. Around that time, however, the Jomon people started to make clay vessels, decorated with patterns made by impressing the wet clay with braided or unbranded cord and sticks (Jomon means "patterns of plaited cord"). Some of the oldest surviving examples of pottery in the world may be found in Japan, based on radio-carbon dating, along with daggers, jade, combs made of shells, and other household items, although the specific dating is disputed.


The Yayoi period 300 BC - 250 AD




 stone swords   




 Yayoi Pottery


The Yayoi period (弥生時代 Yayoi jidai) lasted from about 300 BC (although this date is debated) to 250 AD. It is named after the section of Tokyo where archaeological investigations uncovered its first recognized traces. Wet rice agriculture was introduced from Asia during this period . In 57 AD there is the first mention of Japan in a Chinese  source .



 Kofun (古墳, from Sino-Japanese "ancient grave") are megalithic tombs or tumuli in Japan, constructed between the early 3rd century and the early 7th century AD. They gave their name to the Kofun period (middle 3rd century to early-middle 6th century). Many of the Kofun have distinctive keyhole-shaped mounds (zenpo-koenfun (前方後円墳?)), which are unique to ancient Japan. The Mozu-Furuichi kofungun or tumulus clusters have been proposed for inscription on the UNESCO World Heritage List, while Ishibutai Kofun is one of a number in Asuka-Fujiwara similarly residing on the Tentative List



The start of the Yayoi period around 300 BC marked the influx of new practices such as weaving, rice farming, shamanism and iron and bronze-making brought by migrants (i.e. Yayoi-jin) from outside of Japan. Some research in paleoethnobotany supports the theory that wet-rice cultivation began about 2500 B.C. in the Yangtze Delta which experiences frequent flooding.


The tribes organized over time into many small countries , and alliances and warfare led to the emergence of larger and more organized entities.


Japan first appeared in written history in AD 57 with the following mention in China's Book of Later Han: "Across the ocean from Luoyang are the people of Wa (in Chinese, "Wo" or "dwarf state"). Formed from more than one hundred tribes, they come and pay tribute frequently."


285 AD is the traditional date for the introduction of writing to Japan from Korea, though the probable date is estimated to have been 450 AD . Most present day Japanese are of Yayoi descent .The Yayoi had spread to the middle of Honshu, but northern Honshu could still be considered Jomon .


Yayoi period bell


During this period bronze, the first metal to Japan, has been found in strata from the 2nd cent BC .The Shape is of Korean and Chinese origin but the illustrations are unique to Japan .


The Kofun or Yamoto Period 250 - 500 AD






Kofun Keyhole tomb and haniwa figurines



 The tomb of Emperor Nintoku is the largest tomb in area in the world. The Nintoku's mausoleum

is in the Daisen Park, Sakai City, Osaka Prefecture
near the Kansai International Airport



 What does Kofun mean ?


According to Chinese sources, by the end of the 1st century AD there were more than a hundred kingdoms in Japan, but by the mid 3rd century they were ruled by a queen called queen Himiko 卑弥呼 , whose own territory was known as Yamato .The location of Yamato is disputed. The Chinese treated Queen Himiko as the queen of all Japan. On her death in 248 BC the capital became established in Nara .


Queen Himiko


The Kofun period, beginning around AD 250, is named after the large burial mounds (古墳, Kofun) that appeared at the time which appear to be unique to Japan and the Gaya area of  Korea. These  burial chambers were filled with many clay figurines called haniwa .The Kofun period saw the establishment of strong military states centered around powerful clans, and the establishment of a dominant polity centered in the Yamato area, from the 3rd century to the 7th century, the Yamato Court, origin of the Japanese imperial lineage. The Yamato Court , suppressing the clans and acquiring agricultural lands, maintained a strong influence in the western part of Japan (the Asuka region).


map of Yamato controlled areas


Based upon the Chinese model, they developed a central administration and an imperial court system and society was organized into occupation groups. Iron replaced bronze during this period, there were few when they were first introduced and were of great value and became on of the earliest symbols of power in Japan. According to myth, the sons of the gods Izanami and Izanagi, Susa-no-o, used an inferior sword to kill a giant serpent and within the serpent found a great sword. this sword became part of the regalia of the imperial family .


The Gaya kingdom in Korea had close relations with the Yamoto court,called Mimana in Japanese, but Gaya's relations with Japan is a matter of extensive controversy. Japanese historians feel Gaya was a Japanese colony or tribute state, while Korean historians maintain it was independent .


It appears that horses were introduced to Japan from Korea and Japan and the use of Calvary is seen .Chinese and Korean immigrants played an important role in introducing Chinese civilization to early Japan. There are many material objects from China via the Korean peninsula that were exported to Japan such as bronze mirrors, iron, and pottery.


The Asuka period  552 - 710






 Prince Shotoku with his two sons


The Asuka period (飛鳥時代, Asuka period) is when the proto-Japanese Yamato polity gradually became a clearly centralized state, defining and applying a code of governing laws, such as the Taika Reform . In a civil war, Prince Shotoku ( 573 - 621 AD  聖徳太子 ) and the Soga clan were the victors, the prince builds Shitennoji, the first temple built by the court . The introduction of Buddhism led to the discontinuing of the practice of burial mounds, or kofun. Buddhism was promoted as a means of unification ,to achieve recognition of China and emulate the more advanced culture of China .



 history of Japan:Asuka period


Buddhism was introduced to Japan (552 AD ) by Baekje, to which Japan provided military support,  and it was promoted by the ruling class. The introduction of Buddhism to Japan is securely dated to 552 in Nihon Shoki, when Seong of Baekje sent monks from the Korean peninsula to Nara to introduce the eight doctrinal schools Prince Shotoku devoted his efforts to the spread of Buddhism and Chinese culture in Japan. He is credited with bringing relative peace to Japan through the proclamation of the 17 articles, often referred to in Japan as the Seventeen-article constitution, a Confucian style document that focused on the kinds of morals and virtues that were to be expected of government officials and the emperor's subjects.


Emperor Temmu (r.673 - 686 ) initiated the compilation of historical works such as the Kojiki ( Records of old things ) to with the aim of legitimising their power through claims of divine decent .


The Nara Period 710 - 794 AD










 clothing reflecting Tang influence


The Nara period (奈良時代 Nara period) of the 8th century marked the first emergence of a strong Japanese state with a new capital in Nara . Before this period the capital was customarily moved after the death of an emperor because of the ancient belief that a place of death was polluted . Following an Imperial rescript by Empress Genmei the move of the capital to Heijo, present-day Nara, took place in 710. The city was modeled on the capital of the Chinese Tang Dynasty, Chang'an (now Xi'an ). It was laid in a grid pattern like the tang capital of Xian .


This is the golden age of Buddhism with official monasteries and nunneries ( kokubunji ) established and the arrival of the Chinese Buddhist priest Ganjin ( Jianzhen ).Todai-ji meaning the Eastern Great Temple),was built during this period ( Daibutsuden), reputedly the largest wooden building in the world, houses a colossal bronze statue of the Buddha Vairocana, known in Japanese simply as the Daibutsu . Prior to this time Japan's culture had been almost completely dominated by China, but in the 8th century the Japanese began to create works of art that were not mere imitation of Chinese originals .



 The Nara Period


The Heian Period 794 - 1185 AD


woman in Heian times began play an unusually prominent role


In 784 Emperor Kammu ( 781 - 806 ) decided to relocate his capital, perhaps due to preceding inauspicious disasters such as the smallpox epidemic ( 735 - 737 ) which is estimated to have killed one third of the population .The Heian period (平安時代, Heian period), lasting from 794 to 1185, is the final period of classical Japanese history. In 793 the capital was shifted from Nara to Kyoto and remained the imperial capital until 1868 and was also built on a grid pattern . Japan's new bureaucracy was built on the Chinese model. However, unlike Japan where all could take part in the imperial examinations, in Japan only members of the nobility could take part in the exams . In the 9th century the Fujiwara family emerged as the dominant group at court and indirectly controlled the emperor through marriage and diverting the emperors interest .



Based on the ancient Japanese Tale of Genji. This film is set in

900AD and tells the story of a famous female writer of the time, Murasaki Shikibu.


This period is considered the peak of the Japanese imperial court and noted for its art, especially in poetry and literature. In the early 11th century, Lady Murasaki wrote the world's oldest surviving novel called The Tale of Genji and Sei Shonagon wrote the Pillow Book . While the men slavishly imitated Chinese works, women began to write in Japanese .


detail from Choju Giga (Scrolls of Frolicking Animals)

one of the worlds first cartoons



 The Heian period lecture


Strong differentiations from Asian mainland culture traits emerged (such as an indigenous writing system, the kana). Chinese influence had reached its peak, and then effectively ended with the last Imperial-sanctioned mission to Tang China in 838, due to the decline of the Tang Dynasty, although trade expeditions and Buddhist pilgrimages to China continued.


Decline of the Heian system


During this time the nobility at court were over concerned with the effete arts and began to neglect administration and military affairs .During this period the system of land holdings  into three types, rank-land ( Imperial rank family members ) salary-land ( bureaucrats in the new imperial system ) and merit land ( those from the nobility who performed outstanding service ) . More and more land became under the control of the manors of the nobility ( shoen ) . This system led to more power becoming held by the nobles and Japan became more feudalistic as the manors became economic power bases with the rise in power and influence of the warrior class .The struggle of the nobles and warriors covered the last half of the 12th century. In 1156 the Hogen Rebellion broke out , which was essentially a court faction struggle using warriors as fighters .


In 1159, the warriors became aware of their own power and two warrior families, the Taira and the Minamoto vied for power . In 1156 they were used by the Fujiwara family to assist rival claimants to the leadership of the Fujiwara family and developed into open warfare .


Gempei warrior


In 1159 the Tiara family under the leadership of Kiyomori defeated the Minamoto . In 1185, the Tiara family was crushingly defeated in the sea battle of Dan-no-ura ( 壇の浦の戦い ), near Shimonseki, by the Minamoto, who became the first family to rule Japan strictly as warriors .Kiyomori's widow clasped her grandson Antoku and leaped into the sea rather than surrender .


The Battle of Dan-no-ura


On April 25, 1185, the Genji (Minamoto) clan fleet, led by Minamoto no Yoshitsune, defeated the Heike (Taira) clan fleet, during a half-day engagement. The Taira split their fleet into three squadrons, while their enemy arrived en masse, their ships abreast, and archers ready. The beginning of the battle consisted mainly of a long-range archery exchange, before the Taira took the initiative, using the tides to help them try to surround the enemy ships. They engaged the Minamoto, and the archery from a distance eventually gave way to hand-to-hand combat with swords and daggers after the crews of the ships boarded each other. However, the tide changed, and the advantage was given back to the Minamoto .



 Battle of Dan-no-ura


In 1192 the leader of the Minamoto family was Yoritomo, who in 1192 became shogun

( sei-i-tai-shogun ) an office for subduing the Ainu, in reality a military dictator . This office continued until 1867 and set up his base in Kamakura .


The Kamakura Peroid 1185 - 1333



Kamakura style


The Kamakura period (鎌倉幕府, Kamakura period), 1185 to 1333, is a period that marks the governance of the Kamakura Shogunate and the transition to the Japanese "medieval" era, a nearly 700-year period in which the emperor , the court, and the traditional central government were left intact but were largely relegated to ceremonial functions. Civil, military and judicial matters were controlled by the Bushi (samurai) class, the most powerful of whom was the de facto national ruler, the shogun. This period in Japan differed from the old shoen system in its pervasive military emphasis.



 The Kamakura Period and Japan's Dual Polity


 Yoshitsune was very suspicious by nature, and executed so many members of his own family that the shogunal succession upon his death in 1199 was troubled .Yoritomo's widow Masako ( 1157 - 1225 ) arranged shoguns afterwards and wielded so much power that despite taking a Buddhist nuns vows she was known as the nun shogun .She insured that her family, the Hojo replaced the Minatomo as shoguns . It was during this time period that the Mongols decided to invade .



The Mongol invasion


A traumatic event of the period was the Mongol invasions of Japan between 1272 and 1281, in which massive Mongol forces with superior naval technology and weaponry attempted a full-scale invasion of the Japanese islands. The first invasion with 900 ships and an estimated 40,000 men met with initial success, but for reasons unknown the Mongols returned to their ships and afterwards a storm destroyed a third of their fleet .This storm or typhoon is referred to as kamikaze, translating as divine wind in Japanese, is credited with devastating both Mongol invasion forces, although some scholars assert that the defensive measures the Japanese built on the island of Kyushu may have been adequate to repel the invaders. A second invasion with 140,000 men was again destroyed by a storm .Although the Japanese were successful in stopping the Mongols, the invasion attempt had devastating domestic repercussions, leading to the extinction of the Kamakura shogunate as it was unable to make payments to the warrior families involved. It was also during this period that ch'an or Zen Buddhism was brought from Japan .



 The Mongol invasion of Japan


The Kamakura period ended in 1333 with the destruction of the shogunate and the short reestablishment of imperial rule (the Kemmu restoration) under the Emperor Go-Daigo by Ashikaga Takauji, Nitta Yoshisada, and Kusunoki Masashige. The Kamakura period is also said to be the beginning of the "Japanese Middle Ages", which also includes the Muromachi period and lasted until the Meiji Restoration.








The Muromachi Period >