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Jomon vs. Yayoi


The National Science Museum is having an exhibition this summer entitled “Jomon vs. Yayoi”, comparing the first two human cultures found on the Japanese archipelago. The Jomon (10,000 BC to 300 BC) are named after their distinctive “cord-mark” pottery. Yayoi culture (300 BC to 250 AD) followed the Jomon period and introduced organized rice cultivation to Japan. What I find interesting about the ad for the exhibition is that they use two young fashionable female models with looks approximating the dominant theories about the two cultural periods.

Archeologists and historians have become increasingly confident about the idea that the Jomon and Yayoi were entirely different ethnic groups. The most common theories make out the Jomon to be either related to the Ainu peoples, or perhaps, less plausibly Austronesians. Several parts of the Japanese language resemble South Pacific languages — especially reduplication like giri giri, butsu butsu, kira kira etc. — and having the Jomon not be from mainland Asia but from southern islands instead would give credence to the idea that the Japanese language has an Austronesian superstratum to go along with its Altaic/Northeast Asian base. (This theory, however, is currently out of academic vogue.)

The Yayoi, on the other hand, are believed to have come from an area approximate to the proto-Korean states of Koguryo and Paekche. Immigrants from these regions introduced many aspects of “Japanese” civilization to Japan — for example, wet-rice farming and Shinto beliefs. Most agree that there was some manner of immigration from Korea around 400-300 BC, but there is much debate on the size of this influx and its impact. For a while, the dominant idea was that four million people filtered into Japan through Kyushu, but now this is seen to be impossible in the recognized time span. The jury is still out: Did the Yayoi mix with the Jomon to form a new period of Japanese civilization or replace the Jomon culture completely? Regardless of the various theories, the model on the right in the ad representing the Yayoi looks stereotypically Northeast Asian with slender eyes and lighter skin.

I’m not sure which theory this exhibition is supporting, but the picture seems to indicate a belief in two distinct racial/language groups meeting in Japan.

Marxy wrote a lot of essays back on his old site Néomarxisme. This is one of them.

18 Responses

  1. Sarmoung Says:

    I’ve never been too convinced by the Austronesian argument for the Jomon, not that there’s much evidence to go on whichever way you go, as it would seem in part an attempt to stress non-mainland (Korean/Chinese) origins of culture.

    I quite like the look of this imagined Jomon costume though, very Bow Wow Wow.

  2. r. Says:

    right! i dig the hot jomon look. i’m sure we’ll see this on the streets of urahara soon enough!

  3. Sameer Says:

    I thought “Austronesians” (i.e. people who look like present-day New Guinea aboriginals) came originally from Taiwan. Granted, my knowledge on this comes from reading Guns, germs, and steel, and I don’t know how authoritative that book is on this point…

    In any case, I think you’re reading too much into the photo — the skin tone of the two gals is almost identical…

  4. pbolton Says:

    Polynesians, including Maoris, came from Hawaiki (Taiwan). Perhaps these Polynesians went to Japan as well. Considering that Maoris and Ainu both have a tradition of tattooing, it’s not improbable.

  5. marxy Says:

    I get the sense that those who want Japan to be “unique” and not 100% East Asian really emphasize the Austronesian/Polynesian connection, but as far as I remember from my one historical linguistics class, there does not seem to be a lot of other languages that have the hypothesized hybrid substratum/superstratum. No one really knows where Japanese came from, but it’s a pretty political issue to answer. Godforbid the Japanese be related to nomadic Mongolians and other Altaic peoples!

    Reknowned Japanese linguistic professor Ono Susumu somehow believes that Japanese shows an affinity to Tamil – a Dravidian language. This seems historically impossible.

  6. dave Says:

    The Japanese who preach their uniqueness are extremely tedious. They’re almost as bad as the Jews.

  7. marxy Says:

    I don’t know if you can use the words “almost as bad as the Jews” without it sounding anti-Semitic.

  8. Sameer Says:

    One of my pet peeves in language is the widespread (nay, universal) use of “anti-Semitic” as a fancy way of saying “anti-Jewish”.

    Arabs are also “Semites” in the anthropological taxonomy, but nobody who says “anti-Semitic” ever intends it to mean “anti-Arab” or “anti-Jewish and anti-Arab”.

    Regarding your substratum/superstratum thing: look at modern English. We have heavy French influence sitting on a Germanic base.

  9. marxy Says:

    Wasn’t French just mostly a lexical addition to English? Did the grammar really change?

    I think with Japanese, they’re trying to say with that stratum theory that Polynesian sound and lexical structures went on top of Altaic grammar. Korean grammar is very similar to Japanese, but I think these are mostly typographical similarities, which cannot be used to prove genetic relations. (Linguistics is hard.)

    By the way, while I think there are a lot of similarities between the Jews and the Japanese, I don’t think anyone has tried to prove that Hebrew is somehow a unique language unrelated to any other language families. It’s very obviously a Semitic language related to the other Semitic languages. Japanese is pretty much a language isolate, so it probably descended straight from the gods.

  10. Sameer Says:

    OK, I think you are correct that English syntax did not change much with the French influence. But morphology (specifically, inflections at the end of words) changed a lot.

    Regarding Japanese, I don’t know much about theories as to the evolutionary descent of the original syntax and morphology. But at the least, it’s obvious that present-day Japanese relies heavily on Chinese vocab to express basic concepts (it seems that the on-yomi of kanji were imported at the same time as the kanji). Was early Japanese (Polynesian + Altaic, before Chinese influence) simply a language with sparse vocab, or have Chinese vocab words crowded out and destroyed the early-Japanese counterparts?

  11. richard Says:

    “I don’t think anyone has tried to prove that Hebrew is somehow a unique language unrelated to any other language families.”
    It’s not our language that’s unique, it’s us. We are the chosen after all.

  12. Sarmoung Says:

    Sameer: It’s an interesting question as to how long it took Chinese words to filter down from the early court into everyday speech of the commoner. As to what spoken language(s) there were prior to the Yayoi period, who knows… Japanese free from mainland vocabulary and loanwords (Yamato kotoba) is entirely sufficient for life at the time and you could still more or less speak it exclusively today although you’d have to work around the missing vocabulary. I’m sure someone somewhere in Japan has come up with yamato kotoba ways of describing telephones or curry rice.

    Marxy: Surely you’re aware that the Jewish origins of the Japanese people are already proven!

  13. marxy Says:

    Was early Japanese (Polynesian + Altaic, before Chinese influence) simply a language with sparse vocab?

    Yes. I don’t particularly think that pre-kanji Japanese had a lot of concepts that it does now. Japan didn’t really have “civilization” before Chinese influences. Certainly, all the Buddhist words were new. Most likely, proto-Japanese never had the “e” sound (only four vowels a, i, u, o), which account for the fact that there are almost no original Japanese words starting with the “e” sound. Chinese also introduced the sounds “kya, kyu, kyo” etc. Old Japanese words did not have any internal mora without consonants –> for example, “aoi” (blue/green) was “afoi” (and before that, probably “apoi”). (A side note: around the writing of the Manyoshu, Japanese probably expanded to 8 or more vowels, which have no retracted down to 5.)

    The saddest thing about Japanese is that it inhereted vocab from a tonal language, and all of the words that sound distinct in spoken Chinese all sound in the same in spoken Japanese (look up “kousei” or “seikou”), which leads to essentially only one or two of each pair being used in daily Japanese. The written language has a wealth of vocab, but the burdens of contextualization essentially make speaking into a very shallow activity.

  14. r. Says:

    didn’t realize you had such strong feelings on this topic. bravo!

  15. r. Says:


    david sez: The saddest thing about Japanese is that it inhereted vocab from a tonal language, and all of the words that sound distinct in spoken Chinese all sound in the same in spoken Japanese…[break]…around the writing of the Manyoshu

    and i say: but from a very different perspective, since it sounds like you’ve read the manyoshu (or at least parts of it) i’m sure you’ll be the first to admit that this ‘blurring’ of the language from what it inherited from chinese accounts for a lot of the wit and beauty of the liberal use of homonyms in the poems; almost everyone of the major poems in the collection contains a ‘play’ on words that wouldn’t be possible if not for this. the part of you that makes you begin your comment with the pharse “the saddest thing is” reveals a lot you might be experiencing as a scholar or a speaker of modern japanese frustrated with the ‘low’ level that the language seems to have sunk to, but for heaven’s sake, don’t let your comment color what from another pov is a huge poetic gain for the language!

  16. marxy Says:

    Although kanji take a lot of time to learn, written Japanese is a-okay. It’s the fact that you can’t say a lot of words outloud that is disappointing.

  17. r. Says:

    “disappointing”…IN SOME CONTEXTS. but again, i think that one of the big problems with using ‘big words’ in japanese (in terms of their complexity of content, not their lenght) is that, even more important than the point that you bring up (which is indeed valid in discussions outside the realm of POETRY) is simply that most people don’t KNOW what they mean. standard university educated europeans and americans tend to know the ‘big words’…and THEN not use them, but this is mostly from an anti-intellectual posture (originally an american one) that has spilled over into mass culture at large. there is the notion that a lot of university educated japanese simply aren’t exposed to the same level of concept(ual) based learning. or from another angle…being ‘hyper-literate’ in the english language doesn’t directly imply having a deep knowledge of other languages. being ‘hyper-literate’ in japanese, means, to a certian extent, ALSO being quite good at english as well…NOT as a secondary language, but as an IMPORT language, since a lot of the key concepts will be coming in english (thru katakana transformation) format. this takes alot of time and effort no doubt, and is quickly evident in the context of any kind of scholarly or political discussion where a sizable percentage of the ‘key’ terms will be from english with no real equiv. in japanese.

  18. Jeshii Says:

    I just saw those posters in Ueno today (what you get for living in the INAKA). I love them both. “Oh, catfight!”

    And Japanese linguistics is wonderful. I had to take a class to learn most the stuff you went over. Thanks for the refresher. :D

    I am of the opinion (as an English teacher in Japan) that kids have to learn english in Japan or they lose out on trends in Japanese. My kids always say, “I’m Japanese, I don’t need English.” But how many signs are in romaji?! English is everywhere! (of course usually paired with katakana, but it is there!)

    And where is your feed?! :(