When most Westerners consider Japanese antiquity, they may think of samurai, geisha, wandering Shugendo ascetics, and other images typical to media depictions. Most have no inkling that before the current Yamato population appeared, there were no less than three previous cultures across the islands we now call Japan. The earliest was the Jomon culture, who may have belonged to a larger culture spanning northeast Asia. Archaeologists believe the Jomon may have entered Japan over 50,000 years prior to the arrival of the Yamato people. The fossilized remains of these early inhabitants of the Japanese islands reveal a population that was markedly different than any in Asia today, with a pronounced brow ridge, shorter, more robust stature, and shorter extremities. Their animist religious practices—including the apparent worship of bears and wolves—may have provided some basis for the development of Shinto as a national religion. Their only known descendants are the Ainu of Hokkaido, although genetic tests have determined the Ainu are of mixed background, sharing heritage from a blend of Japan’s inhabitants.
The Yayoi culture appeared when travellers from the Korean peninsula began to venture across the ocean over 2,300 years ago. The open ocean trek was likely much safer back then, as sea levels were lower, and there was a greater amount of coastline to follow. At some points, it may have even been possible to walk. This allowed a steady stream of travel back and forth, establishing a close link between the two places that never fully stopped. The Yayoi exhibited a blend of cultures and genetic heritage, likely a new population that arose from the mixing of new immigrants with the preexisting Jomon people. With them came the seeds of a new culture, including a boom in agriculture, the production of pottery and tools similar to those found in the Korean peninsula, development of large communities of pit dwellings, and inhumation of the dead in giant burial mounds. The Yayoi seemed to be concentrated in Kyushu and western Honshu, as evidenced by archaeological finds such as Mukibanda in Yodoe, Tottori Prefecture, the largest known Yayoi settlement in the entire nation.
Following the Yayoi was the Kofun culture, spanning from around 250 to 540 CE. Kofun—Japanese for ‘burial mound’—indicates the primary distinguishing feature of that phase: the development of widespread burial mounds bearing a keyhole shape when viewed from above. Interred in these mounds were the remains of a ruling class, along with large amounts of pottery and other funerary offerings. During this period, Japan’s inhabitants saw an increased presence in visitors from both modern day Korea and China. This, in turn, likely introduced matieral culture to Japan, and a subsequent mutual inclination toward trade between Japanese and their continental neighbors. It’s also likely, according to ancient Japanese and Korean sources, that important alliances formed between kingdoms in the two locations, with each providing the other help at various points in their respective histories. One lasting legacy of this culture is the rise of Shinto as a fully distinct religion, the same that would eventually become the national religion today.
The Kofun culture eventually yielded to (and to some degree were absorbed by) the Yamato, a new people who appeared as the heirs apparent to the archipelago. Their culture and language would form the foundation for what we know today as contemporary Japan. Yet they did not arrive at their place without travelling a trail blazed by those previous cultures. It is, in fact, the amalgam of these different people and ways of life that created the Japan we know today. While the details of the direct connection between their lives and the lives of modern Japanese people may forever remain a mystery, to know and understand the present, we need look no further than sites like Mukibanda to find links to Japan’s origins from the ancient past.
We’ll learn more about Japanese antiquity in an upcoming up-close look at Mukibanda and an interview with field archaeologists on what exactly they’re looking for, what they’ve found, and what it all means in the big picture.