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Far East Kingdoms




The chain of islands that make up modern Japan stretch from the Sea of Okhotsk in the north to the East China Sea in the south. Much of Japan faces what is now North Korea and South Korea, while the southernmost edge of the country's territory abuts that of modern China to the south-west. Four main islands make up the country, these being from north to south Hokkaido, Honshu (Honshū - the largest of all of them), Shikoku (the smallest), and Kyushu (Kyūshū). A further six thousand smaller islands are also included, although less than five hundred of these are occupied.

Prehistoric Japan can be divided into four major cultures: Palaeolithic, Jomon, Yayoi, and Kofun. Each of these major cultures, or periods, is further subdivided into several sub-periods. The cultural phases are almost limitless. Archaeological dates for these periods are generally given in uncalibrated radiocarbon years before present which are then recalculated for the Gregorian calender. The only exception to this process is the Palaeolithic which is based on other dating methods. The idea of human occupation in Japan before 35,000 BC is highly contentious, but is covered here in order to include all important timeline events.

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information from the BBC series, The Story of China, by Michael Wood, first broadcast between 21 January and 25 February 2016, and from External Links: Japanese Archaeology, and Encyclopaedia Britannica.)

Palaeolithic sailors

Early Cultures IndexPalaeolithic Period (Japan)
50,000 - 13,000 BC

The Japanese Palaeolithic was a period dominated by big-game hunters, although there is little direct evidence to show how these people lived. The beginning of this period predates the emergence of any localised cultural traits in Central Asia by around twenty-four thousand years, primarily because it and areas of Europe belonged to the same civilisation. This was the Aurignacian culture which succeeded the Neanderthal-led Châtelperronian culture. Detached from this, early cultures in ancient Korea and Japan seem to have evolved along roughly the same lines and within the same time span as those in ancient China.

There were four ice ages during the Palaeolithic era. The climate in Japan at this time was mostly cool to cold. No continental glaciers reached the islands as they did in northern Europe and North America but places that are now underwater off the coast of Japan were exposed by the lower seas levels, providing a much greater land mass than is the case today. When the ice ages were at their peak and the sea levels were at their lowest, some parts of Japan were connected to the Asian landmass by land bridges. Around 18,000 BC, during the Wiirm ice age, Japan was certainly connected to the continent and sea levels were around a hundred-and-fifty metres lower than they are today.

Hunter-gatherers seem to have arrived during these ice ages. Two routes are available, one being via one of those land bridges in the north while sea crossings may have been possible in the south. A precise date for the first arrival isn't yet possible, with many scholars refusing to go beyond 35,000 BC despite others preferring a controversially earlier date. DNA now suggests that the Palaeolithic ancestors of the later-dominant Jomon people came from the north-eastern part of the East Asian mainland. Good quality finds, however, are rare thanks to Japan's highly acidic soil which soon destroys fossil matter.

The long Japanese coasts provided good supplies of fish which would have supplemented the game diet of these Palaeolithic people. They also gathered fruits and nuts such as hazelnuts and berries. The fact that they were migrant hunters, though, makes it hard to find evidence of their lives. Most sites were occupied for short periods of time - between a few days to a few weeks or months - and then perhaps not used again for thousands of years. Generally it has been thought that they preferred caves for dwellings, although pit dwellings may also have become popular in some parts of the islands. However, a more recent theory suggests that very few people actually lived in caves, and instead that they mostly lived in short-term camps which used animal skins for protection at night, with them leaving no permanent traces to be discovered.

The Palaeolithic on Japan lasted until about 13,000 to 10,000 years ago, when pottery began to appear throughout the islands at the very end of the Palaeolithic to herald the start of the Jomon period. It is thought that the Palaeolithic inhabitants of the islands - and their Jomon descendants - successfully fended off invaders until well into the Jomon, and in doing so were able to contribute greatly to the genetic make-up of modern Japanese people.

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information from External Links: Japan-Guide.com, and Researchers in reed canoes fall short in bid to replicate Stone Age voyage (The Japan Times), and Heritage of Japan, and Ryukyu Cultural Archives.)

Ice age

c.35,000 BC

Generally-accepted theory is that modern humans arrive on the Japanese islands around this time. A land bridge exists towards the north. Hunter-gatherers migrate along it, probably following herds of Naumann elephant (Palaeoloxodon naumanni) and other large animals such as Yabe's giant deer (Sinomegaceros yabei), both of which are now extinct.

c.32,000 BC

Yamashita Daiichi cave in Okinawa Prefecture is a semi-ruined cave complex. Because it is used around this time as a final resting place for the Palaeolithic inhabitants of Japan it escapes post-war destruction by quarrying. The bones of an eight year-old girl, subsequently called the Yamashita-dojin, are laid about this time, later producing one of the most significant finds in the entire East Asia region.

c.30,000 BC

It seems that a sea crossing may be possible between Taiwan and the southern island of Okinawa in the Ryuku (or Nansei) Islands chain. Many relics have been found which prove the existence of humans on the islands around this time and, despite the low sea levels, there is no land bridge.

Palaeolithic boats near Japan
This artist's recreation depicts Late Upper Palaeolithic occupiers of Japan (it is too early to refer to them as settlers), carrying obsidian from Kozu Island by Teru Va

However, in 2016 a team of researchers who set off in raupo (reed) canoes in a bid to replicate a theorised sea journey find that they require help to complete the voyage after encountering rough seas. The journey may still be possible, but would have to be completed during calmer weather.

c.19,000 BC

Between this point and around 16,000 BC the temperature is around seven or eight degrees lower than it is today. This is the peak of the most recent glacial cold spell, during which tundra covers much of Hokkaido in the north. Much of the rest of eastern and central Japan (in the sub-arctic zone) is covered by boreal forests which include larch, spruce, and Japanese hemlock. Western Japan from the Kanto Plain around Tokyo to Kyushu is covered with a temperate coniferous forest.

c.16,000 BC

Minatogawa Man is the most famous of the Stone Age residents of the Japanese islands. He is considered to be a direct, albeit remote ancestor of some of the modern day Japanese population. This fossilised resident of Naha city in Okinawa is 155 centimetres tall, and has a jaw with two of his large teeth knocked out - the earliest known example to date of this rather common global tribal custom. He has a high, broad, pinched nose but a low and narrow forehead with a prominent brow ridge. It may be his descendants over the next four thousand years who begin to use pottery which introduces the Jomon period of Japan's prehistory.

Japan's dynasties continue here.