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Japan Before History: A Survey of the Archaeological Record*

  • Richard K. Beardsley (a1)


In the late 19th and early 20th centuries two Americans, E. S. Morse and N. G. Munro, did much to open Japanese eyes to dirt archaeology as one of the historical tools for elucidating Japan's past. Thereafter Japanese researchers published some English or German summaries on Japan's ancient remains and for a few decades Westerners wrote with much interest of new discoveries concerning Jōmon, Yayoi, and, occasionally, Tomb cultures. But Western interest was short lived and Japanese archaeology went out of fashion in Western journals for more than a quarter century. Japanese research went ahead, however, and has given rise to radical reinterpretations which have not found their way into Western language literature. My purpose here is to present briefly a review of the periods prior to the first flourishing of Buddhism in Japan and to offer some suggestions toward fitting these findings into the larger picture of Asiatic cultural development.



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1 Morse, Edward S., “The Shell Mounds of Ōmori,” Memoirs of the Science Department, University of Tokyo, 1: 1 (1879), describes the first scientifically-oriented excavation in Japan. Gordon Munro, N., Prehistoric Japan (Yokohama, 1908), gives an encyclopedic account of remains known up to that time.

2 Representative samples of this literature are used by Kraus, Bertram in “Current Problems in Japanese Prehistory,” Southwestern Journal of Anthropology, 3 (1947), 58 ff., and by Hiroshi Daifuku, “The Early Cultures of the Island of Kyushu, Japan,” ibid., 5 (1949), 253–271.

3 A history of interpretations is given in the massive work compiling anthropometric data by Kenji, Kiyono, Kodai jinkotsu no kenkyu ni motozuku Nihon jinshuron (Japanese racial theory based on the study of ancient skeletons) (Tokyo, 1949), esp. 480 ff.

4 Personal communication from Professor Suzuki, 1951.

5 Kotondo, Hasebe, “Akashi fukin Nishiyagi saishinsei-zenki zuiseki shutsudo jinrui yōkotsu no genshisei ni tsuite,” (A human coxal bone from Lower Pleistocene deposit at Nishiyagi near Akashi) J inruigaku zasshi, 67:1 (1948), 3236.

6 Ichirō, Yawata, Nihonshi no reimei (The dawn of Japanese history) (Tokyo, 1953), 1820.

7 Edward Kidder, J., “Reconsideration of the ‘Pre-Pottery’ culture of Japan,” Artibus Asiae, 17 (1954), 135143, describes this and related finds. Kidder presents the skeptic's side of the question, pointing to what he considers valid relations in form between the tools in question and implements of Early Jōmon culture. A point supporting his plea for suspended judgment is the failure of tool types of clearly distinctive characteristics to appear consistently and repeatedly in the sites located to date.

8 Japanese literature on this segment of prehistory is very extensive. For the present survey, I have relied on a standard handbook, Jūjirō's, NakayaNihon sekki jidai teiyō (Handbook of the Stone Age in Japan) revised ed. (Tokyo, 1943), and even more on recent summaries: Sugao, Yamanouchi, Nihon enko no bunka (The most ancient culture of Japan) (Tokyo, 1939); Ichirō, Yawata, Nihonshi no reimei (The dawn of Japanese history) (Tokyo, 1953); Sōsuke, Sugihara, Kaizuka to kofun (Shellmounds and tombs) (Tokyo, 1952), 1757; Nakao, Sakazume, Jōmon bunka (Jōmon culture) (Tokyo, 1950); and Isamu, Kōno, “Genshi jidai no bunka to keizai,” (Culture and economy of primitive times) in Shin Nihon rekishi I: Senshi oyobi kodai (New Japanese history I: Prehistory and antiquity) (Tokyo, 1953, 1953), 6874 (hereafter cited as SNR).

9 Johnson, Frederick, Radiocarbon Dating, Memoirs of the Society for American Archaeology, No. 8 (1948), 16, 18.

10 Groot, Gerard J., S.J., , The Prehistory of Japan, ed. Kraus, Bertram (New York, 1952). In violation of the precept stated above (pp. 319–20), I use the current sub-period designations Initial, Early, etc., in the following paragraphs to permit correlation with Father Groot's monograph and other pending papers; and I await the day, surely not far off, when suitable culture-type names for Japan as a whole will be adopted. Confusion should be minimized here if “Late” and “Final” are understood to refer to types contemporaneous with or later than Yayoi culture where the north is concerned.

11 Key studies include: McKern, W. C., “A Hypothesis for the Asiatic origin of the Woodland culture pattern,” American Antiquity 3 (1938), 138–43; Spaulding, Albert C., “Northeastern archaeology and general trends in the northern forest zone,” in Man in Northeastern North America, Robert S. Peabody Foundation, Paper 3 (1946), 143–67; and Tolstoy, Paul, “Some Amerasian pottery traits in north Asian prehistory,” American Antiquity 19 (1953), 2539. Even prior to the spread of pottery there existed certain continuities of culture; the microliths of the pre-Jōmon sites, for example, if shown to be related to Eurasian microliths, will there by be tied into a common pre-pottery cultural continuum spread from Eurasia across the Bering Straits to the Alaska-Mackenzie region and eastward from there perhaps even to Hudson's Bay (the Dorset culture).

12 Though Carbon-14 dates exist for New York remains and fairly good geological dates apply to the Finnish sites, most others are guess-dated. Examples of the cultures are: the Dwelling-Place cultures of Finland and north Russia, the Kelteminar of Turkestan, various sites on the Lower Ob, Lake Baikal, Lena River, Amur River, and northeast Asia; and, from America, the Middlesex and Point Peninsula I foci (cultures) of New York and New England are best known. The name Kammkeramik (comb-ware) is often applied to the Eurasiatic cultures as a group.

13 For example, the “Zoned stamped style” (stamp-roughening used as a background to set off intricate design figures defined by broad-grooved borders) is a key trait of Hopewell culture, which flourished early in the Christian era in the Ohio Valley, and is very like Middle and Later Jōmon designs. As against northeast Asian relations, it should be noted, attention has been called to a possible relation between the Oshigatamon, earliest pottery of Western Japan, and the check-stamped pottery found near Hongkong (Sadao, Mitsumori, “Jōmon doki no shikan,” [An interpretation of Jōmon pottery], in Jinruigaku kōkogaku kōza [Anthropology and Archaeology Symposium] 11 [Tokyo, 1939], 6), but the Oshigatamon is now interpreted as derivative from the Yoriitomon of the Kanto plain. Thus we are led back to northeast Asian origins.

14 Nakao, Sakazume, Jōmon bunka (Jōmon culture) Nihonshi kyōjūyō pamfuretto (Instructional pamphlets in Japanese history), 2 (Tokyo, 1950), 34, notes these as found on a burned house floor at Shimpukuji Shellmound, Saitama Prefecture, associated with Angyō III pottery.

15 In Japan, as elsewhere, archaeologists divide into two species, largely on the basis of temperament, despite the supposed unity of their field. The “naturalist” type, whose outdoor pleasure in site reconnaissance and potsherd collecting is akin to the birdwatcher's joy over spring's first cuckoo, is found digging in Jōmon sites. The “connoisseur-collector” type, temperamentally related to the art patton and bibliophile, whose optimum habitat is also the quiet air of museum or library, is attracted by the refined treasures of tombs and later archaeological sites. Yayoi remains seem to have met neither taste squarely.

16 Moriichi, Gōtō, “Yayoi-shiki bunka jidai,” (The period of Yayoi Culture), chapter 6:1 in SNR. Other convenient summaries of the Yayoi culture are in Nibon kōkogaku nyūmon (Introduction to Japanese archaeology) ed. Yoshito, Harada (Tokyo, 1950), 75114, and Seiichi, Mizuno and Kinshi, Imanishi, Genshi jidai no seikatsu (Life in primitive times) (Tokyo, 1950), 249294.

17 Gōtō Moriichi, 89.

18 Gōtō Motiichi, loc. cit., and Mizuno and Imanishi, 264–6, 282–5. The Yayoi “combmarked ware,” incidentally, is totally unrelated to the Siberian ware of a considerably earlier period that goes by the same name; “comb-brushed is a more exact term for the Yayoi ware.

19 Mizuno and Imanishi, 284. See also Kunio, Tanaka, Yayoi-sbiki, Jōmon-shiki sesshoku bunka no kenkyū (Study of Yayoi and Jōmon cultures in contact) (Tokyo, 1944).

20 kyōkai, Nihon kōkogaku (Japanese Archaeological Society), Tōrō (Tokyo, 1949).

21 Harada Yoshito, letter of June 1953, printed in Abstracts of Papers, Eighth Pacific Science Congress and Fourth Far-Eastern Prehistory Congress (Quezon City, 1953), 440.

22 Finds are cited in Nihon kōkogaku nyūmon (introduction to Japanese archaeology) ed. Harada Yoshito (Tokyo, 1950), 100.

23 Ibid., 97–100.

24 Adapted from Seiichi, Mizunoel al., Tsushima, Archaeologia Orientalis, Set. B, vol. 6, (Kyoto, 1954), 157, and Oba Iwao, “Tairiku no kōsho to waga seidō bunka,” (Intercourse with the continent, and the Japanese bronze culture) in SNR, 106–7.

25 For details of this speculation, see Oba Iwao, 104–11.

26 It is difficult to imagine that the low mounds coveting cist-burials recently associated with Yayoi culture in Kyushu were specifically ancestral to any type of Semi-historic Period tomb, which are of different shape and larger size.

27 Sueji, Umehara, Nihon no kofumbō (The Ancient tombs of Japan) (Tokyo, 1947), passim. For general summaries of the tombs, their contents, and their significance, see also Mizuno and Imanishi, 295–306; Sōsuke, Sugihara, Kaizuka to kofun (Shell-mounds and tombs) (Tokyo, 1952), 87101; Nihon kōkogaku nyūmon (Introduction to Japanese archaeology) ed. Harada Yoshito (Tokyo, 1950), 117–177. Among detailed excavation reports and studies of particular classes of artifacts, English summaries were usually added to the Archaeological Reports of the Department of Literature, Kyoto Imperial University, e.g. vols. 1, 3, 7, 8, 10, 14 (1917–37).

28 For comparative dates of Kyushu and Yamato mound-tombs, see Yukio, Kobayashi, Chōshi-zuka (Chōshi mound) (Kyoto, 1952), 6 of English summary. For dates and evidence of enterprises in Korea, see Mizuno Seiichi et al., 160–1 (Japanese section), 32–33 (English section); also Umehara Sueji, 48–9.

29 Dolmen and passage-grave ate names first applied to tomb types of the Neolithic cultures (second to third millenia B.C.) in Scotland, Ireland, and Scandinavia, which are marve lously like the Japanese tombs in shape and mode of construction but were used as communal ossuaries. The name Megalithic was first given to these northwest European tombs because the stones used weighed up to several tons each, but later was applied to a much more inclusive culture complex traceable around the coasts and hinterlands of Atlantic and Mediterranean Europe. Extreme hypotheses envisioning a single wave of diffusion and migration over much of the world, to account for prehistoric utilization of great stones and other items, have been discredited or left unsettled. Hence, the Japanese tombs can not be related to the European complex, even in fairly tentative fashion, until more is known about the intervening time span and intervening regions of north and south Asia. Relationship of the Japanese tombs to nearly identical Korean tombs, however, poses no such imposing problem.

30 Ryōsaku, Fujita, Chōsen kōkogaku kenkyū (Studies in Korean archaeology) (Tokyo, 1948), 93 ff.

31 Richard, K. and Beardsley, Grace, “Pottery of Two Traditions from an Iron Age Tomb in Okayama Prefecture, Japan,” Far Eastern Ceramic Bulletin, 3:1 (March, 1951). 1019.

32 Hearn, Lafcadio, Japan, an Attempt at Interpretation (London, 1904), 46–7.

33 Varied haniwa are illustrated in detail with handsome photographs in Manshichi, Sakamoto, Nihon no chōkoku I: Kodai (Sculpture of Japan I: Antiquity) (Tokyo, 1952).

34 This hypothesis, adumbrated in a symposium published in Minzokugaku kenkyū (Japanese journal of Ethnology), 13:3 (February, 1948), 244–5, was later presented in detail in Shirin (Journal of History), in an issue unavailable to me.

35 Shōei, Mishina, “Nitchō kyōtsü no genshi seiji keitai,” (Primitive political structure common to Korea and Japan) in SNR 7987.

* For their patient and courteous advice on archaeological matters in Japan, the author owes deep gratitude to Yawata Ichirō, Yamanouchi Sugao and his junior colleague Kamaki Yoshimasa, and numerous others. The writer holds himself solely responsible, however, for any errors of fact or interpretation in this paper, for time has not permitted sending the manuscript for criticism and improvement to any of the archaeologists who best know Japan's prehistory.

Japan Before History: A Survey of the Archaeological Record*

  • Richard K. Beardsley (a1)


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