People who know me well are aware that I am absolutely crazy about history. From ancient Egypt to World War I, I lap up every scrap of information I come across. Possibly it is something that I picked up as a child when my family spent hours reading allowed historical novels, or just the natural driving force of my curiosity. Whatever the cause, learning about history is one of my most beloved pastimes. And since I also love learning about Japan, I have made it my business to combine those two passions. There is so much more to Japanese history than samurai, who didn't even come onto the playing field until the middle ages. Imagine learning about the history of Europe and never finding out about the Roman Empire. To this end I decided to take the periods of Japanese history one by one and study them, then tell my readers what I learned. I hope you enjoy it.
Before World War II it had been assumed in Japan that there had been no humans on the Japanese archipelago until the Jomon period (14,000-300BCE). But in 1946 a natto merchant and amateur archaeologist, Tadahiro Aizawa, discovered stone axe heads in Iwajuku. These axe heads, as well as obsidian and agate projectile blades, were confirmed to have originated before the Jomon period, officially changing the way that scholars had always thought of the history of the islands.
Today the Japanese paleolithic period is generally said to have gone from 40,000 BCE to 14,000 BCE, when theJomon period took over. With the discovery of paleolithic residence so recently made, there is still much to learn, but a few interesting pieces of information have been gathered. For one thing the human's most likely came to Japan via a land bridge that existed during the last ice age, which connected modern day Hokkaido to mainland China. Another interesting note is that genetic testing seems to indicate that the Ainu people, who today mostly live in Hokkaido and are known to be the aboriginal inhabitants of Japan, are descended from these paleolithic people. Whereas the Japanese population at large seem to be about 10-20% Paleolithic descendants.
But the most interesting thing in the archaeological discoveries about paleolithic Japan is that the first known ground and polished stone tools in the world were made there. While the rest of the world was using chipped stone tools, Japan was apparently some twenty five thousand years ahead of the game. No one is entirely sure how these early Japanese inhabitants were able to jump start this technology, which is usually associated with the neolithic period. Some speculate that it might have to do with the particularly warm climate that Japan was enjoying at the time, but they're really not sure. Though, as we will find as we move onto the Jomon period, this was not the only "first known" example in Japan.
The Jomon period stretched from 14,000 to 300 BCE, and is the time during which the inhabitants of Japan were mainly hunter gatherers, with a fairly complex culture developing later on. In the early days of Jomon the land bridge was still there, but as the glaciers receded, ocean levels rose and finally isolated Japan from the Asian continent. Jomon sites range across the archipelago, from Hokkaido to the Ryukyu islands and it is estimated that populations may have been as high as 20,000 across the country. In the first 10,000 years of Jomon, or "Incipient and Initial Jomon" as the scholars call it, people survived eating nuts, salt water fish such as salmon, fresh water fish, wild yams, and game such as deer and wild boar. Sounds pretty tasty, no?
Jomon people used both ground and chipped stone tools, traps, and bows. But the thing that Jomon is best known for, indeed that which gave it its name, is the pottery. Jomon pottery is the earliest known pottery in the world, though scholars are unsure whether it was developed on the mainland and brought with the migrants, or if it was first made in Japan. Whatever is the case, Jomon pottery is special because of the decorations, which were made by pressing cord into the clay, creating impressions. The name Jomon means "cord marked". As the period moved along, the vessels which had started out as small simple pieces, grew in elaborateness. It is supposed that as they got heavier and less easy to travel with, this indicates that the population was becoming more sedentary.
As what is called the "Early Jomon" (but is confusingly ten thousand years in) began, the Holocene Climatic Optimum was underway, meaning that the temperature was a bit higher than normal. Perhaps this was a contributing factor to the expansion in population. We know from the number of sites found that this might be the densest example of gatherer population world over. These people were becoming far more settled and by the "Middle Jomon" (2500–1500 BCE) some "pit houses" even had paved stone floors, which is the sort of thing you don't bother with if you're planning on moving soon. This is also the time when the vessels became more complex and the first examples of dogu figurines emerged.
It turned out that the Early and Middle Jomon were the good old days, as after 1500 BCE the temperature dropped again and there are significantly fewer sites, indicating a drop in population. This was the Late and Final Jomon, and it was at the end of this period that new settlers began to cross from the Korean peninsula to Kyushu, bring with them some new technologies. This included bronze and iron forging practices and wet rice farming, which was kind of a big hit. This would be the beginning of the new wave of inhabitants, from which the modern Japanese people are almost entirely descended. Some cultural elements that first emerged during the late Jomon period were the foundations of Shinto, glass work, metallurgy, lacquer-ware, architectural styles, and some marriage customs.
It is often difficult to picture the lives of people who lived so long before us. Most people in the modern developed world are so far removed from the days of subsistence living. But with the Jomon people we at least have examples of their beautifully crafted clay works. Early pottery from other cultures is rarely decorated, which leads some scholars to theorize that life must have been fairly stable for the Jomon people. Human's don't tend to be artistic unless their immediate needs are taken care of. Looking at the creative designs it is easy to see an image of the craftsman, sculpting a vessel for the purpose of cooking or storing food. It is a useful item, something that is needed, but it is also an outlet, something to mold with your creativity and soul.
I hope you enjoyed reading about the early people and culture of Japan. Soon I will write about the next period of Japanese history, the Yayoi period. A time with an influx of new residents and the beginnings of a hierarchical social class.
Until then, keep exercising your creativity and curiosity!