One of the enduring mysteries of Japan is the origin of the language. Besides the clearly-related Ryukyuan languages (not dialects) spoken in Okinawa and the other islands stretching from south of Kyushu to Taiwan, no other contemporary language resembles Japanese enough to easily claim a genetic relationship or common origin. Some familiar with both Japanese and Korean may balk at this, since the contemporary forms of the two languages share much vocabulary and a similar grammar, but the lexical resemblance is due to an enormous number of Chinese loan words, and the grammatically similarities are typological attributes, which alone cannot be used to prove a common origin. Also oddly, when you compare Old Japanese and Old Korean, there is almost nothing in common.
Many have been eager to call the quest off and cast Japanese as a language isolate — a classification that syncs well with larger ideas of the “uniqueness” of the people and nation.1 The Japanese, however, must have come from somewhere on the Asian continent, seeing that scientists and archaeologists now agree that the “Japanese” culture is more related to the Yayoi race who came to Japan in 400 B.C. rather than the Jomon culture existent in Japan from 10,000 B.C. (The aboriginal Ainu, on the other hand, are probably related to the Jomon, at least its northern expansion.)
Over the last century, linguists have set out expeditions in many areas of our rich global linguistic diversity to find Japan a a proper brother or cousin. The most accepted theory of recent years points towards a connection to Korean and the inclusion of both languages in the Altaic family of languages: Turkic, Mongolian, and Tungusic (Manchu). For a while, Japanese theoreticians preferred the “Southern Theory” which posits Japan as a Malayo-Polynesian (Austronesian) language (due to some simple sound similarity and a love of word-duplication), but this has fallen out of favor due to an almost complete lack of hard evidence. Some believe in a “mixed language” between the Altaic and Austronesian strains, but very few types of these languages are accounted for on the globe. And out on the extremes of possibility, the venerable Ono Susumu of Tokyo University started seriously pursuing a connection between Japanese and the Dravidian languages in India. Right.
Although a general lack of hard evidence makes all speculation equally suspect, the current theories have enormous problems or place the genetic relationship between the two languages so far back as not to really matter much. For example, scholar Hattori Shiro puts the Japanese-Korean split back at least 4,700 years. The Altaic theory sounds plausible in principle, but there is very little connecting Japanese to Korean, let alone Korean to Tungusic or Turkish to Mongolian. Besides the much-vaunted “vowel harmony” and “agglutinative grammar,” there are only a few known lexical similarities, and these may be from borrowing rather than genetic divergence.
Indiana University-Bloomington linguistics professor Christopher Beckwith‘s relatively new tome Koguryo: The Language of Japan’s Continental Relatives offers a fascinating and plausible solution to the enduring origin puzzle. From around 100 B.C. to the 7th century A.D., modern day Korea was divided into three kingdoms: Koguryo, Shilla, and Paekche. The three states were eventually unified under Shilla in 668, and the modern Korean language originates from the language spoken in Shilla. Koguryo and Paekche, however, had different languages which are posited to be related to each other. Scholars thus make two groupings of Korean peninsula languages: the Han2 languages — spoken in Shilla and among the subjugated class in Paekche — and the Puyo-Koguryoic languages of Koguryo, Puyo (another Northern Korea state), and Paekche’s ruling class. The latter family is now totally extinct and probably made a minor impact on modern Korean. The lack of written records and remaining vocabulary items from these languages make it difficult to learn much about the nature of the “Koguryoic” family.
There are, however, two sets of Chinese records that list words from the Koguryo language. Beckwith identifies thirteen words (“Archaic Koguryo”) contained in a 3rd century Chinese record about the language of the Koguryo people. The second record is the Samsuk Sagi, the “Three Kingdoms of Korea” work that includes a record of a king in 755 changing all the place names in Korea into Chinese. The older toponyms in the Koguryoic areas do not resemble modern day Korean, and despite some controversy of whether the names were given by the Koguryo people or by other peoples populating the area before their arrival, Beckwith shows that a match between these and the Archaic Koguryo lexical items strongly suggest that the toponyms are from the “Old Koguryo” language. For many of these Koguryo place names, the record shows a Chinese transcription of the word’s pronunciation as well as a meaning for the word. Beckwith identifies around 130 distinct Old Koguryo words from this document.
Scholars have known about these Koguryo lexical items for almost a century now, but the main problem has been reconstructing the proper Chinese pronunciation of the era in which the words were transcribed. There have been many improvements upon this knowledge in recent years, and Beckwith employs this new understanding of old Chinese to reconstructing many of these Koguryo words with more accuracy than before.
For examples of the close relation of some Koguryo words and Old Japanese, download this 2-page PDF. Almost all scholars agree that the language contained in this “Koguryo” set looks much like Old Japanese. Roy Andrew Miller — who is famously convinced that Japanese is an Altaic language — believed these words to be Proto-Japanese from Wa people who were living on the peninsula. There, however, is no evidence of a Proto-Japanese/Wa conquest in Korea that could have caused a change in place names. An important side note, which Beckwith emphasizes in the paper, Korean words look absolutely nothing like the Koguryo vocabulary, and the weakness of this connection puts the Japanese-Korean relation theory in doubt.
If the Japanese (Wa/Yayoi) and Koguryo/Paekche peoples are truly related, how in the world did they get all the way through the Korean peninsula and down to Japan which there is no record of happening? They didn’t. Based on the work of Gisaburo N. Kiyose, Beckwith proposes a somewhat radical immigration narrative for the Wa. He puts the original Koguryoic homeland in Liao-Hsi (present day Liaoning) on the coast of Northeast China. Once the Chinese put pressure on this racial group, the more nomadic and warlike Puyo-Koguryo peoples (who had already split from the Wa at this point) made their way up to Korea and Manchuria. The Wa — who were mostly fishermen and farmers — left by boat to Korea, Kyushu, and the Ryukyuan islands at the same time. Archaeologists have artifacts that show a connection between the Yayoi culture and the culture of that period on the peninsula, and Beckwith suggests that this does not necessarily mean a voyage from settlements in Korea to Japan but a simultaneous settlement of both areas. He also re-emphasizes that no traces of this farming culture can be found in Manchuria or North Korea — which would be critical to proving Japanese came from Northeast Asia as the Altaic family theory would suggest.
Is there evidence for the proto-Japanese presence in China? First of all, Beckwith identifies a set of “native” Japanese words clearly derived from Chinese — with ume (plum) and uma (horse) being the most obvious. (Plums and horses are not even native to the Japanese archipelago.) Furthermore, the Mongolic Hsien-pei captured “people from Wa” in 178 A.D. near the present day Lao-ha River in China, meaning the Proto-Japanese still lived in China during the Yayoi period. In the original accepted theory that continental Koreans came to Japan to spread Yayoi culture, they came by boat. Why could the Wa have not originally come to Korea, Japan, and the Ryukyu islands by boat from somewhere other than the Korean peninsula?
Surely trained linguists and archaeologists will be able to find holes in Beckwith’s theory that I do not see (here’s one criticism), but the closer resemblance of Japanese to Koguryo than Shilla-based Korean puts a serious dent into the basic idea that the Japanese and Korean peoples are “related.” For example, in Jared Diamond’s essay on the roots of the Japanese people, he comes to the conclusion that:
As reluctant as Japanese and Koreans are to admit it, they are like twin brothers who shared their formative years. The political future of East Asia depends in large part on their success in rediscovering those ancient bonds between them.
Beckwith’s theory pretty much puts the Japanese and Koreans as distant relatives — cousins at best and definitely not the “brothers” as Diamond would like them to be. Even if Koguryo and Paekche peoples were subsumed into the “Korean people,” they did not add much to the linguistic tradition. Beckwith talks about the fact that Koguryo may have been going extinct even before the fall of the kingdom since so many of the inhabitants spoke a Han Korean language. Once T’ang China took over Koguryo, they exiled many of the Koguryo people to the middle of China to die off there.3 At best, the modern day Koreans have a minority strain of Koguryo in their DNA and language. The means that the Japanese people’s cousins — Koguryo and Paekche peoples — happened to be the uncle in a big Korean family mostly made up of Han peoples. The Wa, therefore, have no blood relations to the Shilla side of the family and were never themselves “continental Koreans.” Before and after the fall of Paekche in 660, many Paekche elites fled to Japan. In fact, one-third of the nobility in Nara (in the Nara period) was “foreign” — which I assume to mean Paekche Koreans. Although this complicates the “racial purity” of the Japanese today, this still does not make the Japanese people directly related to the majority ancestor of Koreans.
Beckwith’s theory may not be the definitive account, but it gets closer to placing the Japanese people’s origin in the correct zone of the East Asian continent and helps break the age-old myth of the “isolated language.” The theory, however, creates greater historical questions regarding the link between the Japanese and Korean people. The Japanese are only “Korean” in a broad sense (related to peoples of the Korean kingdoms), but almost totally unrelated the primary ancestors of the modern Korean people. Since the “brother” argument may now fail in our attempts to pressure the two countries to take up better relations, I guess we should just ask them to get along for the 1,000 other legitimate reasons.
1 Although the “uniqueness” emphasis seems related to Nihonjinron and/or ideas of “pure blood,” the Japan state during WWII officially called Korean and other Asian languages “dialects” of Japanese to justify their imperialist expansion.
2 Not to be confused with Han Chinese.
3 The whole “Is Koguryo Chinese or Korean?” is a whole ‘nother bag.