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A Long Time Ago, In a Country Not So Far, Far Away…

History class wasn’t always a happy experience when I was at school. The same regurgitated nonsense about Greeks, Romans, followed by a sudden time leap to World War One. Of course, contrary to what the school curriculum says quite a lot actually happened in Europe, during the intertwining 1800 years.


For all but the most ardent scholars, Japanese history can seem similarly patchy. There wasn’t even any formally documented record of Japan’s existence until the first century AD, in the Chinese Imperial Court’s Book of Han. Then, nothing much happened until Genghis Khan and his Mongolian Empire started trying to take over Kyushu more than a thousand years later.

The Japanese history textbooks then jump forward a few more centuries, to the time of Nobunaga, Hideyoshi and the other great Feudal warlords of the Tokugawa Era.

However, the history of Japan does, in fact, go back much further than you may think, and indeed it is far more interesting than what the history books may tell you.

According to some experts, Japanese civilization at least equals, or in some cases may even predate the great pre-Christian civilizations of Greece, Egypt and China.

Studies have shown evidence of organized groupings of humans living on the Japanese archipelago as far back as 14,000 BC. These tribes were hunter gathers, very similar to those that could be found across Africa, Europe and much of central and eastern Asia at that time. However, they quickly grew in sophistication.

For those knowledgeable in the field of archaeology, one of the tell-tale signs of emerging civilization is the use of pottery and other similar constructs. The earliest modern humans, those from around 30,000 BC onwards, were nomadic hunter gathers, sometimes organizing in tribes, with hierarchical structures, but far too primitive to construct anything beyond basic weapons, tools and shelters. With such a lifestyle, pottery and other heavier objects would be of no use, and would be too cumbersome to carry around with the tribe.

So, in short, where there’s pots and plates, there’s usually villages and settlements, and civilization quickly follows. In 1998, archaeologists discovered pottery fragments in Aomori Prefecture that were at least 16,000 years old. This makes them the oldest known examples of pottery in the world and challenges the notion still widely held by many scholars that civilization developed in central Asia before spreading to Japan later.

Whilst it is undeniable that Japan’s written language, its religions and many other customs and cultural aspects originated from China and the Korean Peninsula, it would seem, based on these discoveries, that early civilization may have emerged simultaneously but separately on both the Asian mainland and Japan. This time period is known to academics as the “Jomon” period, so-called after the Japanese word for the characteristic cords that cover examples of the pottery from that time period.

Photo : NeIC on Flickr

By about 8,000 BC population across Japan had entered a period of rapid expansion as the old hunting/gathering ways were finally ultimately abandoned in favour of a more sedentary lifestyle. Agriculture as we would know it was still in its infancy, but historical indicators point to the people of Japan’s Initial Jomon Period (8000 BC to 4000 BC) being sophisticated builders, capable of fashioning both chipped and ground stone tools, hunting traps, and bows and arrows. They were also very capable fishermen, adept at both deep water and coastal fishing.

As we move into the middle and later Jomon Periods (4000 BC to 1500 BC) some of the cultural and artistic traits we still associate with Japan to this day began to emerge. Pottery became increasingly decorative and seemed to serve a purpose of style as much as functionality. That other great Japanese export, lacquered wood products, also first appeared around 2000 BC. This also ties in with a burgeoning agricultural scene, as several indications seem to give evidence to the notion that the people of the mid to late Jomon Period also kept and tended groves for harvesting both nut and lacquer producing trees.

With increased social development came increased contact with those outside Japan. By the time the Jomon period headed to a close (1000 BC onwards) there was an increase in trade and interaction with both China and the Korean Peninsula. This is evidenced by the Korean-style settlements found across much of western Kyushu at this time.

However, contrary to modern history, signs are that fragments of Korean, Chinese and indigenous Japanese populations co-existed in perfect peace and harmony for more than a thousand years. One has to wonder what the people of that time knew about diplomacy that we don’t know now!

It was also during this transitional period that rice-farming and metallurgy first came to the Japanese peninsula. These industries remain synonymous with Japan’s cultural identity to this day.

This period also, according to legend, gave rise to the Imperial family, and the official foundation of Japan as a nation.

Photo : Christian Junker - AHKGAP on Flickr

According to the legend, as documented in some of Japan’s earliest known writings from the 7th and 8th Century AD, Emperor Jimmu was born in 711 BC and took the throne in 660 BC. Similar in some ways to the myths surrounding Rome and its mythical founding brothers Romulus and Remus, Jimmu was said to be divine in origin, as a descendant of the goddess of creation and the sun Amaterasu.

Legend says he ruled until the age of 126, when he died and passed into godhood.

Given the huge gap in time between the supposed events of Jimmu’s life and the time when they were actually documented, it is difficult to know when and even if there ever actually was an Emperor Jimmu. However, he remains a colourful part of Japan’s fabled history and offerings were still made to him at the legendary location of his, as yet undiscovered, tomb in modern day Nara prefecture, as recently as 1945.

Since 1966, modern Japan continues to pay homage to Jimmu by celebrating the anniversary of his supposed day of ascension to the throne as a national holiday.

Japanese history may not be as detailed as some other, far younger nations, but as you can see, it’s not without its finer points and colorful characters. As we can see, from their early days of cooperative, peaceful co-existence, there’s a lot modern East Asia could learn from these simpler times.

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