The geographical position of Japan significantly shaped its history, beginning in prehistoric times. When the climate was cold, the Japanese archipelago was united to the mainland of Asia by bridges of ice. People from different places migrated to Japanese soil. When global warming began, the ice melted and the inhabitants started to live on a chain of islands. Nature dictated the isolation of very diverse tribes and populations, each with its own traditions, and created the conditions for the rise of a new and unique culture.
The ancient cultures from Asia were superior to, or at least the equals of, the cultures from Europe. Ian Morris is a British historian and a reputed professor at the University of Stanford. In his book: ‘Why the West Rules for Now. The patterns of history and what they reveal about the future’, he tries to explain why Asia was the center of humanity until the late Middle Ages and why Europe started rising in modern times. The demonstration is called the Morris Theorem.
The first books that tried to record the history of Japan were Kojiki and Nihon Shoki from the beginning of the eighth century AD. They focused more on a mythical past than a real one. Furthermore, in the Feudal Age all the major clans of samurai had a detailed archive of the family's past and the finances of the warlord called daimyo. Until the Meiji Restoration, many scholars, especially Buddhist monks, tried to write a history of the country but none of the attempts could compare with modern scientific standards. The scrolls looked more like philosophical reflections of the past than an objective report of what happened.
Japanese archaeology as a scientific field started late, at the end of the nineteenth century, when it was influenced by western researchers. After the Second World War, interest for the subject grew exponentially. This was when archaeological findings were dated with carbon dioxide, proving how old the Jomon culture really was. The Japanese government invested impressive sums of money into this kind of research. Even so, there are many unexplored or partially explored places. Archaeologists still debate on many controversial subjects, as new fascinating results and theories are published almost every year.
For a long time, Japan’s past was a mystery to the rest of the world. It took four stages to create the knowledge that we have today about this subject. The first steps were made by the first generation of Japanese scientists educated in the western style and by the enthusiastic foreigners who visited Japan right after the Meiji Restoration. Although valuable books were created, many of them were written by amateurs. Secondly, in the interwar period science was aligned to the imperial propaganda. After the Second World War, many very specialized studies about Japan appeared. Only in the seventies was the first interdisciplinary scientific study published.
Generally speaking, the Jomon period is considered to be the prehistoric period of Japan’s archipelago. The name ‘Jomon’ means pottery. It was named thus because archaeologists believe that Jomon people were the first in the world to produce pottery, somewhere around 11,000 years ago. Being stuck on the Japanese archipelago, the Jomon developed as a very strange and unique culture from the very beginning. The whole era is contemporary with the late Paleolithic and the Neolithic by universal history standards. Because it covers a very long period of time, it is divided into different parts.
This period is so old that the only reliable information that can be interpreted is geological data. From a geological point of view, Japan’s islands probably formed when the global warming of the late Pleistocene created floods that separated Japan from the rest of the continent. Firstly it was the separation of the Ryukyu islands from the main archipelago that created the Tokara strait, followed by the separation of Korea by the Tsushima strait. The separation of Honshu and Hokkaido represented by the the Tsugaru strait, of Hokkaido and Kuril islands, and of Hokkaido and Sakhalin island, came later.
Although Homo Sapiens had lived in the Japanese archipelago, they were considered pre-Jomon tribes that were too undeveloped and too diverse to be considered a homogeneous people. The very early Jomon culture called Sosoki formed later, having Neolithic and Mesolithic characteristics. Mesolithic is the period right after the last big glaciation called Wurn, when the ice finally melted. Neolithic is the next period, a time for the most advanced Stone Age cultures and an anticipation of the Iron Age. Jomon was contemporary to the first big civilizations of the world from Mesopotamia to India. Sosoki is what Japanese archaeologists call the transition of a culture from a Paleolithic stage to a Neolithic one. Because it has some similarities both with the Akashi and the future Jomon, western specialists regard this period as Mesolithic to a universal history scale. Pottery, spears, and the bow and arrow were invented in complete isolation, without any foreign influences. Hunting was far more developed in the north of Honshu, while the site of the first pottery in the world is west of Kyushu.
Because of a historical rise in temperature, the natural conditions favored an advancement in the food supply. More food meant larger communities that could sustain themselves. The biggest villages now had around 500 people and the total population of the Jomon reached 100,000 souls.
The semi-sedentary lifestyle started in the Middle Jomon period. New technologies in hunting, fishing, preparing and stockpiling food for long periods of time led to a growth in population, reaching a maximum of 200,000 inhabitants. This was one of the most densely populated regions of the world in the Neolithic era. In summertime they migrated closer to the sea because it was warmer and easier to get food from fishing, while in wintertime the hunter-gathers went closer to the forest, where they could find plenty of food and materials for tools and primitive buildings.
Earth experienced a new drop in temperature levels. Due to this change, the Jomon culture had problems in feeding such a large population. Eventually, their number was reduced to 100,000 souls. More than 40% of the Jomon sites from the Early and Middle period disappeared. The principle of natural selection had a positive effect, forcing the Late Jomon survivors to innovate. Eventually, these transformations and gradual contact with Korea led to the Iron Age.
Jomon pottery culture is very complex. Considering shape, size, uses, colors and decorations, there are countless types of Jomon vessels. We will enumerate only the ones which, according to art critics, have the biggest aesthetic value. A great example of this kind of perspective is given by the book ‘The Art of Japan from the Jomon to the Tokugawa Period’, written by P. C. Swann.
Recently, a skeleton dated from 9,500 BC was discovered in North America. This brought up the question of whether the Jomon people migrated from Japan, through Hokkaido and Sakhalin to the Kamchatka Peninsula, crossing Alaska, and then into North America by boat. Jon Turk, an American scientist and adventurer, tried to answer this question. In order to do this, he recreated the hypothetical journey and tried to repeat it in the conditions the Jomon people would have had. He noted his experience in his bestselling book ‘In the wake of the Jomon: Stone Age mariners and a Voyage across the Pacific’. We know for a certainty that the migration from north-east Asia to Japan that formed the Jomon people was one of the largest movements of population in the Paleolithic era. Actually the migration is the third major one after the Africa-Mesopotamia and Eurasian one. The trip that Jon Turk recreated was 3,500 miles long.
Sannai Maruyama Site was discovered in northern Honshu in 1992. It is one of the biggest sites from Early and Middle Jomon, dating from 5,900 BC - 4,300 BC. The area includes the most concentrated Jomon dwellings that have ever been found. Excavation around the site is still ongoing. A team of archaeologists like Junko Habu, Minkoo Kim, Mio Katayama and Hajime Komiya wrote an article that sums up the most important results of the research until now. They also propose new methods of inquiring into the past, and describe their expectations about what they will find at this site in the future.
Junko Habu is one of the greatest archaeologists and anthropologists from contemporary Japan. In 2004, she published the most complete book in English about all the research regarding the Jomon culture. She is now a scientist at the University of California, Berkeley.
Most archaeologists from the United States and United Kingdom believe in the theory of social context. Simplifying, this concept says that any scientific research is never completely objective. The discoveries of archaeological finds and their interpretation should be understood in the historical, political and social context in which they are made. Junko Habu agrees with this statement and explains that many Japanese archaeologists start from the premise that the Jomon are the direct ancestors of the Japanese people.
After Junko Habu’s book ‘Ancient Jomon of Japan’, many critical and laudatory articles appeared. Perhaps the most intriguing one belongs to Keiji Imamura. Although Keiji admires Junko Habu for her work and admits it is the most thorough book about Jomon written in English, he also has some important criticisms to make. They are on many levels: methodological, logical connections, trying to implement western concepts that are not adapted to Japan, generalizations without consistent evidence, ignoring the separation of periods based on changes in pottery, and insisting that Jomon was not a fully egalitarian society.
In 2014, Ryan W. Schmidt and Seguchi Noriko wrote a startling article about the origins of the Japanese people. At first they reviewed and summarized the main archaeological research about the ancient Jomon and Yayoi in the last thirty years. The scientists analyzed and explained the methodology and the results of the main researches. Without giving any definitive answers, the authors suggested that the whole paradigm about the ancient history of Japan can be changed because of new technologies in ancient DNA and morphometrics. It’s only a matter of a few years until innovative methods will give us the answers that we need. Using new ways of looking into the past, the authors believe that a certain answer about the origins of the Japanese people can be given. Strong DNA evidence strengthens the idea that the Jomon people are related to the ancient population of Neolithic North America. Schmidt and Noriko claim that using the new 3D technology available, we could obtain solid proof for this theory. The limit of ancient DNA analysis is that the passing of time degrades the organic material and the sample can be contaminated by later substances.
The ending of the Jomon culture started with the discovery of rice padding agriculture brought from Korea in 900 BC. The process lasted 600 years. Jomon people from Kyushu and southern Honshu started to trade with a more developed society from Korea. At the end of the process, all the stone tools were replaced with iron ones and the Jomon were conquered or assimilated by new migrators. Extensive agriculture of rice was implemented on a large scale. It was the start of the Bronze Age from a material point of view, and the dawn of Early Antiquity for the spiritual history of Japan.