Nippon Day Nineteen: The Yayoi Period and the Emergence of Wa

Last week we explored the earliest known inhabitants of the Japanese archipelago, that is the people of the paleolithic and Jomon periods. Moving along with my plan to cover every period of Japanese history (in a rudimentary way, I don't have the expertise or time to do more), we now come to the six hundred year long Yayoi period. Compared to the roughly fourteen thousand years of the Jomon period, this might look like a tiny blip in human history, and it is relatively so, but consider that six hundred years ago Christopher Columbus hadn't stumbled across the new world yet. How much has happened to the human race since that fateful blunder? The Yayoi might not have had quite so much change in it, but it is important to put into prospective exactly how much time and how many generations of people we are dealing with.

As you will probably remember, in the last post we found out that the people living in Japan during the paleolithic and Jomon periods were not the direct ancestors of today's ethnically Japanese. This is because during the Yayoi the islands became the object of a migration of people from the continent, who either overwhelmed or swallowed up the original inhabitants. Both genetic testing and skeletal comparison seem to back up the idea that the modern Japanese are descended from these new arrivals whereas the Ainu of Hokkaido are most likely the remnants of the Jomon people.

Experts are still divided on where exactly the Yayoi migrants were coming from. Since the earliest Yayoi sites are on Kyushu, where Japan is closest to the Korean peninsula, that is one possibility. There also seems to be some evidence of similarities in Korean and Yayoi customs and practices, amongst them weaving technology, ditched dwellings, domesticated pigs, and something called "jawbone rituals". But before you go marking this down as a no-brainer, there is a lot of evidence that points to the Yayoi's origins being China. This includes the fact that Yayoi bronze mirrors and weapons seem to be influenced by Chinese examples, not to mention the fact that both cultures practiced irrigated rice paddy farming.

And there is more besides that. When early Japanese emissaries came to China in the 3rd century and were asked where they were originally from, they replied that they were from the Wu Kingdom which was located around Yangtze Delta. This record might be considered hearsay except that DNA testing of ancient remains in both Japan and China not only support the theory that the Yayoi people came from China, but actually pin point the area as south of the Yangtze River. Boom! Chalk that up as a win for ancient Chinese records.

What made them decide to pick up and leave for Japan is anyone's guess, though some people have connected it to the story of the Chinese Xu Fu naval expedition in 219 BCE. This was an attempt to discover the "isles of the immortals", and the description given when they returned nine years later does sound an awful lot like Japan. However, there doesn't seem to be any evidence that the expedition was the same as the Yayoi migration.

Whatever it was that brought these new comers to the archipelago, they took to their new home like a fish to water. This can be seen in the enormous population jump, adding about four million more people to Japan. It is not believed that all of these people could have been migrants, but rather that their agrarian lifestyle stabilized their food source enough to support a mass population increase. Nothing against hunter gatherers, but as is often the case, they just can't compete with farmers. But it seems that the Yayoi weren't against being influenced by their predecessors. For one thing, that Jomon pottery that was such an important part of the culture for fourteen thousand years, appears to have been very inspiring for the Yayoi pottery, though the pottery wheel had been introduced, changing the process.

However, much had changed with the introduction of agriculture and metallurgy technology. As life began to become a little easier with farming, so too did it become more complex. Permanent villages became the norm, buildings started to be constructed from wood and stone instead of the pit houses they had started the period with. With farming came the ability to accumulate wealth in the form of rice and grain, which brought about the creation of social classes. Contemporary Chinese accounts tell us that the Yayoi people had tattoos that seemed to indicate the bearers social status.

Life wasn't all a bouquet of hierarchical roses though. Archeological evidence shows that many Yayoi villages were built on top of hills and were often moated. It's pretty unlikely that this was for the view or for swimming, but rather that this shows that there was a lot of hostilities between settlements. Further evidence can be found in the fact that headless skeletal remains from this period are considered "typical", as well as arrows and other weapons in funerary goods. So you should bare this all in mind if you were planning on inventing a time machine and relocating to a simpler time.

Chinese records are important because the Japanese were not using written language at this point and time. According to these records, Wa (the Japanese pronunciation of China's word for Japan--confused yet?) was a land of scattered tribal communities, though according to Japan's later records, which are partially mythic, the country was unified some seven hundred years prior to that. However, archeological evidence supports the Chinese claims. One of the most famous artifacts of Yayoi Japan is a golden seal (not the marine mammal), that was given to the Na state by the Chinese emperor in the year 57 CE. The Na state, also known as Nakoku, was located around modern-day Fukuoka City, and may have been the most successful of the tribal communities. The seal, which was rediscovered during the Edo period, can be translated as stating "King of the Japanese country of Na of Han". (Note that Han was the word for China at the time, so the Chinese emperor is giving Na permission to be a kingdom, but it is still under the dominion of Han.)

However, Na was not the only important contender in the Yayoi period, there was also Yamataikoku. There are many reasons why this kingdom was important, but my favorite is the ruler, Himiko, the shaman queen. In fact, I find Himiko so interesting that I am going to deviate from my chronological period posts and tell you more about this fascinating woman, who took control of Wa in the third century.

Until next time, stay curious!