The Japanese-Koguryoic Language Family


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.

W. David MARX (Marxy)
January 19, 2007

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

47 Responses

  1. Carl Says:

    B-b-but Marxy, ev’ryone knows that for East Asia history is destiny. If it weren’t, why would be spending all our time reading Confucius to see if China will invade Taiwan instead of looking at their politicians and army?

  2. Mike Says:

    Grammatical similiarities and developments are usually the main elements upon which historical linguistics typology is based. Among closer relations, lexical similiarities would be examined, but when languages are too far apart, those dwindle. Thus the emphasis on searching for non-borrowing lexical similiarities is not only very very hard (due to historical linguistic “incest” if you will), but also secondary in importance.

    The Koguryo theory sounds very interesting, unfortunately, I believe that just like most other attempts to reveal Nihongo’s ancestry there isn’t enough evidence to bring it above the level of informed speculation.

    The only concrete evidence that exists is what is shown in the typological hierarchy, which doesn’t necessarily reflect history, but it’s better than anything else we have so far.

    I am relying on existing research, never having examined any Old Korean grammar (I have however looked at modern Japanese, Korean, Turkish, and Mongolian grammars).

    [Yes, I am a linguistics major.]

    And a final comment: linguistics research in Japan as well as most of East Asia is very highly tinged with Nihonjinron and other forms of nationalism. So much so that I approach any research coming out of Japan dealing with their own language with a many times greater amount of skepticism as I would otherwise (and linguistics are skeptical bastards by nature). Finally, something gaijin can do better :>

  3. marxy Says:

    “I believe that just like most other attempts to reveal Nihongo’s ancestry there isn’t enough evidence to bring it above the level of informed speculation.”

    I agree that it’s hard to reach any hard conclusions based on 130 lexical items and no grammar. (Beckwith does, however, find a “na” in Koguryo that acts as “no” in Japanese.) The question is whether this theory is equally or more plausible as the other theories and whether it puts together the archaeological evidence better than the Altaic theory, for example.

  4. Mike Says:

    Perhaps I’d have to look at his book/papers, but as far as I can tell from the PDF there’s nothing substantial, or it would’ve been there, and I’d have heard about this through other linguistic channels :>

    Lexical and perhaps phonetic similiarities are easy to find, example: the scene from My Big Fat Greek Wedding where the father shows how the word ‘Kimono’ is actually from Greek (That scene made the movie for me).

    I don’t see, however, that he has found any sort of systematic lexical change. For example, in Yiddish, in most cases where the vowel “a” is in High German a “u” vowel is used, e.g. schlafen vs. schlufen.

    Due to the very tiny corpus of Koguryo, I doubt there is enough to show any such systematic change. And so these very interesting similarities would have to be relegated to the realm of coincidence or curiosity until there is a bigger corpus uncovered.

    Etymology, which seems to be the business at hand, is something most linguists are terribly afraid to touch. Once an Iranian friend of mine tried to convince me that ‘commander’ came from a Farsi word which means ‘man with a bow’.

    For a nice introduction to the linguist’s unease about etymology see here:

  5. Mike Says:

    Hopefully I am not bludgeoning a deceased equine.

  6. alin Says:

    If you read your Mdme Blavatski thoroughly you’d find that the japanese race is related to the dissapeared 4th (Atlantean) race which would not only give credibility to professor Ono’s dravidian link theory but would also explain the striking similarities between japan and ancient Egypt and would give you enough clues to the the very origin of japanese people.

  7. marxy Says:

    “Hopefully I am not bludgeoning a deceased equine.”

    No, you are pointing out what are the limitations/weaknesses of this theory and many others, which we otherwise may lose sight of.

  8. Your Humble Janitor Says:

    Where is our resident appologist Uncle Momus?

  9. Momus Says:

    I’m over on Jean Snow’s blog.

    Did you know that Simply Design is a new coffee drink with an innovative design concept? Well, the novel package design was created from a fresh perspective by the team ING. The simple and stylish package is fashionable enough to become a collector’s item.

  10. marxy Says:

    “Where is our resident appologist Uncle Momus?”

    I don’t really think this is the most obvious topic for bickering.

    And stop baiting!

  11. der Says:

    “linguistics research in Japan as well as most of East Asia is very highly tinged with Nihonjinron and other forms of nationalism. So much so that I approach any research coming out of Japan dealing with their own language with a many times greater amount of skepticism as I would otherwise”

    Don’t know about the nationalism, but I’ve noticed as well that Japanese linguists (also in fields other than historical linguistics) seem rather quick to assume that features of their language are unique. To the extent that they are surprised when shown that a particular one isn’t (“you also have turn taking particles? I didn’t know that!”). I’ve never been able to work out the connotations of the uniqueness claim for the speaker.

    PS: What happened to <i>?

  12. marxy Says:

    “PS: What happened to ?”

    When I did my quick patch up of the comment reel to make it look like the old version, it got rid of HTML here for some reason. I’d like it back.

  13. Yago Says:

    I read some data about Koguryo language, and number 3 being written as 密, which in tang chinese would be “mit” c.f. japanese “mitsu”, and other data looked quite solid.
    We know the time when Yayoi culture came to Japan, and the aproximate place, so I guess it shouldn’t be too hard to ascertain it. The Wa being a peaceful offshoot of the Koguryo sounds a bit hippy but I guess it’s plausible.

    thanks for the pdf, I love this kind of stuff.

  14. Aceface Says:

    “linguistics research in Japan as well as most of East Asia is very highly tinged with Nihonjinron and other forms of nationalism.”

    Mike,isn’t this the trend among 国語学者 scholars who specialize on the Japanese language and not the case for 言語学者 the linguist,who practice the comparative study on various language?
    Because as far as I concern there are many Japanese linguists who do not take the side of essentialism of Nihonjinron日本人論 nor Nihongoron日本語論.They even criticize them.
    In fact I have an impression that linguists are the one who promote the multicultural basis of the Japanese identity more than scholars of other disciplines.

    I took major in Ethnology and Archaeology. but I was a VERY lazy student,so it’s not my task to say what the real trend in linguistic study practiced in Japanese academia ,especially seen from objective outsiders.
    But Ono and his strange obsession to the Tamil language were target of vicious jokes among professors and students in my department back in the days.And we chatted about the divergence of 民俗学者folklorist,who were the protagonist of Nihonjinron.and民族学者ethnologist or cultural anthropologist who seems to be taking the opposite in Japanese academia,along with the comparison with the divergence of 国語学者symbolized by Ono and言語学者.

  15. marxy Says:

    Despite Ono’s insane Tamil theory, his book “The origin of the Japanese language” seemed pretty fair to all the main theories. I hear a lot of pointing at shadows in terms of “ethnocentric bias” in the origin of the language, but there seem to be a lot of very qualified and interesting Japanese linguists who do not have these problems. Who in particular is bad?

    Also, this Koguryo theory takes the Japanese people away from being “nomadic barbarians” from the Altaic family and closer to being a unique group.

    I don’t want to claim the same type of abuses in Korean scholarship, but there would be a national interest in connecting the Koguryo and Shilla language groups in order to prove the “Korean” origin of all the peninsula’s languages.

  16. Aceface Says:

    “Despite Ono’s insane Tamil theory, his book “The origin of the Japanese language” seemed pretty fair to all the main theories.”

    Most of the Nihonjinnron or ethnocentric Nihongoron authors are NOT scholar of the required descipline.I don’t think I can find anyone who is more troublesome than Ono.And frankly Ono is not entirely bad linguist,after all you can’t be an Iwanami author if you are a total weirdo.And if my memory serves, he brought the tamil theory up AFTER he became the venerable.Ono is severely criticized by linguist Tanaka Katsuhiko in one of the book published from Iwanami.But Tanaka is a specialist on Mongolian,a言語学者.Not 国語学者.
    Now there is undoubtly some academic politics working here.

    I’ll get back at Nomadic Barbarians and twisted world of Kogryo studies later,meanwhile I’ve got go see my boss.

  17. Aceface Says:

    “Who(Japanese linguist) in particular is bad? ”

    山田孝雄,I’ve been thinking and all I come up is Yamada Yoshioand nobody else.But I think he died in 50’s.He had sons who became linguist too though.

    Normadic Barbarians:
    The whole idea came from Egami Namio江上波夫,an archaeologist of Todai from pre-war days.He was a specialist on Huns and Mongolians,but not Japanese archaeology.He spoke about this media crazed theory of nomadic conquest dynasty is the origin of the throne to the chrysanthemum.
    This hypothesis is not supported by serious archaeologist expertising Japanese archaeology,but caught the imagination of many fiction writers and manga artist including Tezuka Osamu,and that helped publicizing.It is indeed a Nihonjinron but open to foreign culture and multicultural identity plus iconoclastic to the divinity to Imperial identity.So liberals could hop onto this without risking danger of being ethnocetric.

    People liked the hypothesis because they didn’t want to consider their cultural identity to be’unique’ at least not in the way that pre-war emperor worshippers wanted.And it brought historical dynamism of Eurasia into the context of somewhat static island oriented Japanese history,and many found it romantic.So I don’t think anyone was bothered to be seen as the descendant of Nomadic Barbarians.Just this theory was brought up by Egami in form of Taidan対談,kind of casual interview talks and not as academic paper,all the arcaheologist was shocked by surprise.And personaly I have no reason to think Altaic nomads are ‘barbarians’nor objection that they are related to Japanese.
    I’m married to a Mongolian!

    I’ll write about what I think about the great Kogyo debate tommorow.

  18. Brown Says:

    Aceface, let me reiterate what others have said before: Your contributions to this blog and others are really excellent! Actually, praise all around for the high level of discussion on this blog and others, like Mutantfrog.

    I hesitate to distract everyone, as this is largely off-topic (and I may have said this before, can’t remember), but I’d like to caution the liberals here not to be too dismissive of continental European philosophies. They are often animated by the resident adversaries here in *ahem* unique ways (sorry if this comes off as baiting). It’s much more useful to enagage with these ideas. On the subject of linguistics, take this Columbia syllabus as an example (more germane to previous discussions, sorry):

    Long story short, Derrida was all wrong about ideograms (a la Richie), but there’s more to his thought than just that. I especially encourage you all to further “problematize” your view of Western(-style) liberal democracy and the universal subject thereof (don’t worry, you can reconstruct it in struggle, I promise!), but that’s up to you, of course. Anyway, nice work all.

    In closing, let me say that I work with a half-dozen Japanese linguists, and I seriously doubt that any of them entertain any Nihonjinron sympathies, which would support Aceface’s observations. They are very much rootless cosmopolitans in the best sense. Then again, all earned PhDs overseas, so maybe they are an irretrievably skewed sample.

  19. marxy Says:

    As far as I can tell, no one still supports Egami’s Horserider theory. That being said, we would still learn a lot about Japanese history if scholars could open up the Kofun. The Emperor did admit recently, however, that the Imperial line did contain some Paekche royals who intermarried in, but I don’t think this was ever a secret.

    “I seriously doubt that any of them entertain any Nihonjinron sympathies”

    Yeah, and most of the good work of foreign linguists wouldn’t be possible without the Japanese work. Reading Roy Andrew Miller gave me an impression that the state of Japanese linguistics was much worse, but I forgot who he singled-out.

  20. Aceface Says:

    Thank you for kind comment and good to know a linguist is agreeing my views and also that someone of shared interest is reading what appears to me one of the best of neomarxisme ever,aside of natto ,of course.

    Kogryo and Japan:
    I love bookhunting at Jinbocho ,famous for streets of second hand bookshops in Kanda.There,I have my favourite bookshop where the shop owner collects old books from pre-war days specializing East asian and Japanese history.They too sell a lots of Korea related books by Japanese authors.Many are based on 日鮮同祖論Japan-Korea single ancestry theory.

    During the days of colonial rule of Korea,it was necessary to promote this theory as propaganda to legitimize the annexation of Korea amd also for the racial integration of two groups within the empire.So it was by no means a taboo to say Japanese are from Korean peninsula or Imperial family have some roots in the loyals in Paekche.The Korean ancestry of Japan theory has longer history than colonization itself,it even go back to the time of Kokugaku国学,study of nation,the proto-nihonjinnron of Late Edo period.
    Gag rules were made after the war,as sort of reactionary to this once wide spread propaganda.Progressives and Korean nationalist were more interested in differentiation of two cultures , to make sure that Korea has always been and continues to be an independent entity from Japan.It was almost elevated to a taboo to say anything about 日鮮同祖論.Because many historians and archaeologists of both Japan and Korea had perticipated in joint efforts of editing Korean historiography organized by the governors general’s office of Korea.

    So that is why I don’t trust the DISCOVERY article by Jared Diamond.Japanese always imagined Korea as the ancestral land oppose to what Diamond writes.(Diamond is a respectable researcher in his field ,zoo-archaeology that is,and I think he was studying extinction of birdlife in Papua Newguinea from Neolithic period to today,But he is no Asia specialist.) The Korea-Japan ancestral connection is still a matter of big debate,but there is no such thing of reluctance to admit nor denial of Korean ancestry in Japan despite the international hype.

    In the shop in Jinbocho,I’ve found lot’s of Korea books with Kogryo related essays and thesis under the title such as 満鮮or満韓,Manchuria -Korea.An effort to connects newly acquired territory with old one,but it has one historical basis in the geography,and that was Koguryo.
    Koguryo study was accelerated after Invasion of Manchuria,for it gave the arcaheologist security and freedom for excavation .Koguryo was also essencial to Japanese,because it was not only the largest korean nation in the history,but also a multi-ethnic empire with strong cultural ties with Japan.It was by no means a coincidence for Japanese to promote Koguryo as the golden age for Koreans.

    I want to write about a few more on Koguryo,but I want have permission from you,Marxy .Since I have a feeling I’m sort of Hijacking your post.

  21. marxy Says:

    The greatest thing about the internet is that you need no permission, but of course, please go ahead.

    I agree with what you are saying, although I think Koreans also have it in their interest to make Koguryo a “proto-Korean” state rather than something foreign that Shilla took over. In the same way, many may want the Jomon culture to be proto-Japanese as to extend the Japanese people’s presence in the islands back to 10,000 BC.

  22. Les Says:

    While it may be true that this Korea-Japan historical interconnection may have been known for a while, what seems to be different now days is the interpretation. In my 25-year old Encyclopaedia Britannica, it is stated that Japan had control of Southern Korea ~1600+ years ago, as a greater power. Modern interpretation seems to counter this, that technology and power flowed in the other direction, from Korea (China as well) to Japan. This seems to have come about only in the past 20 years or so.

    As for the Koguryo past, it is China that is claiming its ownership, via their “Northeast Project.”

  23. Aceface Says:

    If you could read either Japanese or Korean,I recommend you to check日韓文化交流基金’s日韓歴史共同研究委員会Japan-Korea joint study group on history’s report.It covers from 4century to present day.You will know the latest of the studies of both nation and what they agree and disagree.

    “As for the Koguryo past, it is China that is claiming its ownership, via their “Northeast Project.”

    I didn’t say Japan claimed Koguryo.But Koguryo studies were accelerated because the Yalu and beyond had become Japan’s sphere of influence in the 30’s,although I believe the implication to the political use of the study was secondary interest to historians and archaeologist.

    BTW about China’s claim on Koguryo,I think China has their right of claiming Koguryo as much as Korea does.

    I agree that some want to say Jomon is a proto-Japanese,But conventional wisdoms don’t think they were Japanese as we know of.The nationhood was developed around 8th century and that is what being taught in history class.

  24. Aceface Says:

    When I was in school I’ve read collected letters of Kim Dae Jung when he was imprisoned by military regime.There was a list of books that Kim requested from prison to his family and supporters and among them was Egami’s “Nomadic conquest nation”
    At first I thought it was a bit strange selection for a dissident politician to read in the cell.But I was shocked to find out that another dissident politician,Kim Yong Sam,had also read the book when he was in house imprisonment at the same time.
    Both KIms who later became the presidents of the republic of Korea definitely liked the idea that Koguryo,aka proto-Korean was the ancestor of Japanese Imperial family.

  25. Brown Says:

    You’re quite welcome Aceface. I think we’re all happy to read more from you! By the way, I should perhaps make clear that I am not myself a linguist, just in case anyone inferred that from the way I phrased my earlier post.

    On a related topic, I got some serious Neomarxisme deja vu when I peaked into the Korean mirror universe on this blog a while back:

    Follow the meme: Western racism -> nihonjinron -> minjokhak

  26. lewpaul Says:

    The second sentence in your article should give you a clue to where Nihongo came from… “Besides the clearly-related Ryukyuan languages (not dialects) spoken in Okinawa and the other islands stretching from south of Kyushu to TAIWAN…”

    Here’s another clue;

  27. marxy Says:

    But Japanese does not look to be Austronesian, and I don’t think there is any archeological evidence that puts the Japanese coming from the south (the so-called Southern Theory).

  28. lewpaul Says:

    One of the theories about Nihongo is that “Japanese is an Austronesian language related to Papuan, Malayan and other Pacific languages” –

    “But Japanese does not look to be Austronesian”
    That’s a little silly. In many parts of the world, particularly in Africa, completely different language groups exist side-by-side (even within the same village). Would ancient aboriginal Taiwan be any different?

    I suppose it sells a lot of books to look elsewhere, but I’m not sure why people don’t just look at the obvious facts: A chain of islands link Japan to Taiwan. Those islands speak a language related to Japanese. What exactly is the “mystery”?.

  29. marxy Says:

    Yes, one of the theories is that Japanese is an Austronesian language (I mention it in my essay), but no one can find hard linguistic evidence outside of a couple of vocabulary items. Also, you have to account for the fact that the Yayoi cultural artifacts are found on the continent at the same time as they came to Japan. Plus, did the original Taiwanese even know how to farm rice?

    My point is that, yes, a lot of people have considered the Austronesians as a source, but after a century of explanation, almost nobody takes the idea seriously. The Ryukyuan islanders came to their home either after the Japanese came to Japan or simultaneously.

  30. Aceface Says:

    One of the DNA test on the bone excavated from tomb in Okinawa suggests they are close to Ainu.
    And I thought Taiwan aboriginals reached to Taiwan quite late.

  31. lewpaul Says:

    “but no one can find hard linguistic evidence outside of a couple of vocabulary items”

    Of course there wouldn’t be evidence if it was a separate language group from Taiwan. Let’s not be chronocentric and assume the ancient language groups of aboriginal Taiwan were the same as the ones today.

    “And I thought Taiwan aboriginals reached to Taiwan quite late.”
    Yeah, but who was there before them?

    Have you ever wondered why Kogal never caught on in Korea in Northeast China? Because they can’t tan that dark. Only a people from the south would have that capability.

  32. Aceface Says:

    Did you know that the first Japanologist in the world,British scholar Basil Hall Chamberlain was the big brother to the Germanist Houston Stewart Chamberlain,who became the mentor to Adolf Hitler?
    B.H being decent scholar and translates Kojiki ,studies Ainu and Ryukyu language,writes books like “Things Japanese”; a proto Nihonjinron and influence Yanagida Kunio, who would be the first Japanese folklorist.H.S writes Aryan race praising book”The Foundation of 19th century” and become UberDoitsujinron author.

    The difference between the brothers are symmetry.

    B.H remained as an outsider and wrote”ThingsJapanese”as rather an ethnography.Being an Englishman of Victorian Britain and visiting professor to Tokyo Imperial University was satisfying enough.For B.H,Japan was an object of interest for study and not much else.
    H.S got naturalized to Germany and became born again nationalist and wrote”The foundation..”as sort of manifest for national supremacy of Gemany,probably because H.S was a physically weak kid and a failure who could not stand neither the boarding school nor his parent’s expectation to be a career officer of the Royal Navy.It was a heavy and painful burden for him,so he switched his target of loyalty to Germany ,the rival of the British Empire.H.S felt the world as he knew,aka 19th century Europe was about to collapse because of the tide of modernization and the rise of masses.To H.S, Germany was the fortress he could retreat.

    “Things Japanese” wasn’t interested by the ordinary Japanese at the time,so it remained as minor academic work by a foreigner.
    “The Foundation..”was important for German in early 20’s,because Germany was lost in WW1 and isolated from entire Europe,threat of communist revolution was at their doors.So Germans needed books to cheer them up.something Japanese didn’t need until late 30’s.

    The mental landscape and political motivation of both authors and readers must synchronize for a sucessful Nihonjinronesque book.But not necessarily the nationality nor ethnicity.
    In fact it is much more important that the author is from someone outside of the trival community,because the existence of the foreign renegades and their support give added intellectual legitimacy to the cause.

    Quotes from Scribbling of the Metropolitician:
    “Ideologies of racial purity superiority eventually played a large part in an ideology that would justify Japan’s bloody wars of conquest and empire.”

    Now this is troublesome,since as I wrote racial purity was not the propaganda many Japanese nationalist chose in the late 30’s.
    As you know Japanese (and Korean) didn’t need any ethnic cleansing in their society,because the amount of ethnic minority were so small,they are not tangible.
    More like “Pan-Asian Japan confronts racist western imperialist” was more preffered.And the continuity of Imperial genealogy was claims to be a superiority compared to Chinese dynasty.And of course Japan was the only asian country which kept independence and experienced indutrial revolution.These were the basis of the Japanese superiority against other asians.Not that I’m saying racial prejudice didn’t exist(surely it did)but it was not elevated to the status of dogma that legitimatize the action nor regime like Nazis.
    At least that’s what I think.

  33. Aceface Says:

    “The difference between the brothers are symmetry.”
    It’s asymmetry.of course,shame.

  34. Brown Says:

    Again Aceface, fantastic stuff! I had absolutely no idea about the Germanist Chamberlain, and I like your psychobiographical assessment of his motivations. I’d be curious sometime to hear your take on the strange figure of Nitobe Inazo. I know the basics, but he’s still an enigma to me…

    I was also wondering, was there ever any racialization of the burakumin? I seem to remember something about them having been ascribed certain distinctive physical or biological characteristics…

    (But please don’t feel you have to answer my questions, I should do some digging of my own!)

    “Now this is troublesome,since as I wrote racial purity was not the propaganda many Japanese nationalist chose in the late 30’s.”

    You are correct. I’m really looking forward to reading Oguma Eiji’s “A Genealogy of ‘Japanese’ Self-images”『単一民族神話の起源「日本人」の自画像の系譜』to get up to speed on this topic. The publisher’s blurb has my mouth watering (I’m a big nerd for this stuff):

    “The book presents a counter-argument to the widely held view that the Japanese have believed that they are a homogeneous nation since the Meiji period. Oguma demonstrates that the myth of ethnic homogeneity was not established during the Meiji period, nor during the Pacific War, but only after the end of World War II. The study covers a large range of areas, including archaeology, ancient history, linguistics, anthropology, ethnology, folk law, eugenics and philosophy, to obtain an overview of how a variety of authors dealt with the theme of ethnicity. It also examines how the peoples of the Japanese colonies, Korea and Taiwan, were viewed in the prewar literature on ethnic identity.”

    As for wartime ideology/propaganda, have you ever seen 桃太郎の海鷲? I think I was introduced to it by another Japan-related blog, though I don’t recall which one. Wikipedia says:

    “This [animated] film was aimed at children, telling the story of a naval unit consisting of the human Momotarō and several animal species representing the Far Eastern races fighting together for a common goal.”

    Here’s a clip from the sequel 桃太郎 海の神兵:

    It sure makes the Co-Prosperity Sphere seem both noble and cute- and multiethnic as well (heck, multi-species even), but not without hierarchy- if I understand it correctly (haven’t seen the whole film myself), only the Japanese get to be fully human.

  35. Aceface Says:

    Oguma Eiji:
    I never saw neither of the militaristic 桃太郎 animations.But I have talked Oguma Eiji on the phone,when “The Last Samurai” was a big hit in Japan and despite everyone knew the movie rewrote the Japanese history into almost surreal,too few were skeptic about it.So I wanted hear what Oguma thinks about the movie and this rediculous sudden bushido craze for the media that I work for.
    In his seminar’s homepage,students use the picture of him playing the acoustic guitar on stage.That “philospher unplugged” photo was so creepy,I reserved a strong prejudice for the man along with that big fat 「民主と愛国」”The democracy and the patriotism”book,with all the thinker that I’m familiar with are being quoted.I thought it could be written within the third of what it is.So my thought was Oguma is a man full of self esteem.But nevertheless I called his office,after all I’m looking for someone to critisize a Tom Cruise film,allowing the assignment to a hotshot and a rising star of that year,not a bad idea,right?
    Although I couldn’t have him accept my request He gave me a very good impression.Maybe because he was an editor for Iwanami before he became an acadmic,he understood my intension instantly.I was surprised that he was a very open hearted against my prejudice,and said he only wants to make his idea public in his own writing ,so that he can have full control of it.Impressive,I thought.For many acdemic simply rush and hasty about making their judgement on any nihonjinron.And that had become somewhat of my precept on the issue.
    I heared either one of his parents is a Korean.So that could be the reason to persuade him to write “A Genealogy of ‘Japanese’ Self-images『単一民族神話の起源「日本人」の自画像の系譜』.
    Hughly recommended.

    I might write something about Nitobe tommorow.
    I got an interest on him like you do ,Brown.

  36. Aceface Says:

    “I was also wondering, was there ever any racialization of the burakumin? I seem to remember something about them having been ascribed certain distinctive physical or biological characteristics”

    Never in my memory I had read about this.
    Buraku was formed around 11th century and others say it was 16th century.Some think it was formed because of the spread of the buddhist idea,others say because of feudalism and caste system.So it is difficult to say when and how.
    This is because the debate associate with the pressure groups who want to use it as today’s issue.and these groups were made under the influence of marxistic paradigm of the class struggle ,they prefer burakumin was made in16th century under feudalism of Hideyoshi.
    The current trend among historians in my view,support 11th century theory.

  37. tomojiro Says:

    Hello!very interesting discussions. As a Japanese randomly reading the english blogs concerning east asia, I was frustrated with the popularity of the Jared Diamond’s “Discovery” article and the notion in many english blogs that Japanese nationalism has tried to cover up the connection or origin of the japanese in regard to Korea. I am a Jared Diamond fan, but his observation about contemporary Japanese nationalism is completely wrong. I wholy agree what Aceface has written. As my English and my knowledge were not enough, I couldn’t express what I wanted to say, so I was realy glad to see Aceface’s discussion. Thanks to Aceface.

    By the way, Eiji Oguma is a true must read.
    There is an interesting article on the net about his work.

    Thanks a lot to all your discussions and ofcourse thanks to this blog. I am really happy that I found it.


  38. Aceface Says:

    Some how people here tolerate lots of my spelling and gramatrical mistakes,so I think we don’t have to worry about the level of English that much.You should write youself a comment here once in a while.
    Again I share the same frustration with you that foreign coverage of Japan has tendency of Japanese “cover up”wrong doings or ashamed part of the society.While they ignore concrete evidence that in most cases the very point is already covered by local medias and intellectuals.

  39. marxy Says:

    “Again I share the same frustration with you that foreign coverage of Japan has tendency of Japanese “cover up”wrong doings or ashamed part of the society.While they ignore concrete evidence that in most cases the very point is already covered by local medias and intellectuals.”

    I make an attempt on this blog to show that my complaints against the Japanese media and pop culture system are not new nor are they “foreign” perspectives. I don’t think yarase is okay, but neither do Japanese intellectuals, media watchdogs, and most of the population.

    That being said, there are still a few areas in Japanese society where the taboo itself is more interesting than the content of the story. And even fringe Japanese magazines make this the point of their coverage. (See Cyzo on Johnny’s for example.)

    While maybe a majority disagree with the whitewashing of WWII history in Japan, there is something that needs to be said about those in power (and who have been in power for the last 50 years) supporting a revival in nationalistic sentiment, patriotic education, etc. Not everyone likes or agrees with Abe, but he is PM.

    And there will also always be an interest overseas in “taboo” topics like the Burakumin – not because the Japanese media hides it, but because it sounds weird and interesting to Westerners.


    Without sounding patronizing, you (and Aceface’s) English is amazing and we are happy to hear your contributions. (Please feel free to write in Japanese as well, since many of us are literate.)

  40. Aceface Says:

    Forgot to post this.

    Marxy wrote: “That being said, we would still learn a lot about Japanese history if scholars could open up the Kofun.”

    I wouldn’t deny the idea ,But we have mountain of problems.mountains.

    Kofun古墳 is the mounded tomb of ancient Japan that were made from 3rd to 7th century.Believed to be the burial place of the ancient nobles.Some of them which are known to be the imperial tomb,Tennouryou,天皇陵.About 80 of them are under the control of Imperial house hold agency.Kept undisturbed for centuries.The origin of the chrisanthemum throne is said to be buried in those tombs.Some big shot arcaheologist,like Mori Kouichi is a go for digging,while the agency had been very relictant to do so.

    Now back in my school days us undergraduates and postgraduates of the department talked about whether we should dig them or not.Interestingly with very minor differences the naysayers won.(I was for a yea)
    The Japanese archaeologists are roughly divided into two groups.Those obtain post at the university or museums.and others(which are majority)finds jobs at the local cultural artifact preservation unit.And there is a tendency that former pays little attention to the problem latter face in their every day practice,like how to finish the excavation in the construction site where there is a dead line or how to preserve the artifact in the limited space and the budgets,and how to finish up the field report while doing with your own studies simultaneously.

    Our department ,just like any other archaeological department of the country,have lots of graduates getting jobs in the local preservation depts.So ,many thought aristocrats like Mori wouldn’t understand the consequence of excarvating more than 80 tombs(some are the largest tombs in the world) all over the country,Where can we get the budget and personal for such mega-project?With all the construction going on all over the country,arcaheological sites everywhere are threatened along with the artifacts buried deep inside.Imperial tombs are the least threatend site in all Japan.Why the rush and haste?
    In early 90’s it’s been said that some 80% of the arcaeological excavation in the world were done just in Japan.I’m not sure how accurate this stats but this is what had been spread around us. Most of these digs are done ,because of the construction boom that associate with the public spendings by the local government.So it is not a real academic excavation.Nevertheless the dig continues and the number of the artifacts obtained from the site multiplies every years,situation was pretty catastrophic,in another word we couldn’t tolerate big project like Imperial digging without governmental support that matches,say space program.
    Why space program?Because since most of the tombs are protect for centuries,they are not just important historic site but from ecological view point they become sort of Noah’s ark of indigeneous flora and fauna.Especially some of the botanical species are on the red data book of endangered species,we cannot cut any trees in the site.So the digging has to be done by building trenches.All the earth has to be put back after digging and that would make the excavation budget astronomical.
    There is more.House hold Agency is the keeper of these tombs,but who is the owner of these estates?The emperor?or is it the government property?What will Shinto clerics reacts for them the tombs are sacred place?Who can make the decision of excavation.Monbusho?The cultural agency?The Prime minister?The Imperial council?

    These were something we chatted over coffee about 15years ago and some may not be factualy accurate,or may not be valid by now.But since there is no green light for the excavation until today or in the near future,some of these argument still lives,I guess.

    Les wrote:”In my 25-year old Encyclopaedia Britannica, it is stated that Japan had control of Southern Korea ~1600+ years ago, as a greater power. Modern interpretation seems to counter this, that technology and power flowed in the other direction, from Korea (China as well) to Japan. This seems to have come about only in the past 20 years or so.”

    The flow of the technology and knowledge didn’t mean much in those days compared to military power.(i.gMongols>Chinese,Germans>Romans).
    There had been some reports of discovering Japanese style keyhole-shaped kofun前方後円墳had been found in South Korea from 80’s.The korean archaeologist claimed they were the origin of the Japanese keyhole kohun,but carbonite tells it is relatively newer and the proof of cultural influence from Japan to Korea.Although the korean side is very reluctant to admit this for it could be the proof of Japanese control of southern Korea which had ended by the invasion from Koguryo.

  41. Aceface Says:

    “That being said, there are still a few areas in Japanese society where the taboo itself is more interesting than the content of the story (See Cyzo on Johnny’s for example.)”

    And DENTSU too I imagine(笑)
    But thanks for the kind words for us non-English speakers.I will post more on nihonjinron tonight( with a lots of spelling mistakes!)

  42. Mutantfrog Says:

    “And I thought Taiwan aboriginals reached to Taiwan quite late.”
    Actually there is good evidence from a variety of fields that the entire Australasian language group/culture/ethnic group spread out from Taiwan. One of the more interesting pieces of evidence I have seen is linguistic analysis showing that every Australasian language outside of Taiwan has vocabulary related to sailing, which all the Taiwanese languages are missing, implying that the Taiwanese aboriginals are the only group which did not sail a long distance.

    Of course that alone would is not proof, but linguistic analysis has also shown that all of the non-Taiwanese Australasian languages, which are spread out over a vast area, show less linguistic variation than the dozen or so related languages found in Taiwan, suggesting that they were all derived from just one branch of the Taiwanese aboriginal language family.

    Of course the Taiwanese aborigines originally crossed over from the Chinese mainland, but this is a very short passage compared to the long trips needed to get to say, the Philippines, and it seems that they spend a fairly long time on Taiwan before branching out.

  43. Mutantfrog Says:

    Aceface, very good point about the reasons for not excavating the kofun. While I am still sure that there are people in the Imperial Household Agency and so on who do not want them excavated for political reasons, I simply had not considered that there were also a large number of people opposed for practical reasons, but who would want to see them excavated in the future.

    Interestingly, there is a parallel with the tomb of the Qin Emperor, the founder of the first real unified dynasty in China. His tomb was only discovered in the 70s after some shepherd accidentally fell into a pit with a terra cotta warrior in it or something. Since then China has heavily excavated the terra cotta warriors (although a LOT remains undone), but while the exterior of the tomb has been investigated, it has not been cracked open.

    The tomb is actually so large that it appears to be a small natural mountain, and its artificiality was only realized after the millenia of plant growth was cleared and people could see how flat it is. No one knows exactly what it inside, but there are plaques nearby claiming that it is full of treasure and traps that sounds exactly like something out of Indiana Jones! I’m talking spikes, rivers of mercury, etc.

    While naturally any archaeologist would love to see what is inside the tomb of Qin Shi Huang, they are more worried about the damage that might be caused by opening it. Egyptologists have pretty good experience with similar things, but this tomb poses its own problems (especially if it really has rivers of mercury!) so they continue to study it, and may not actually crack open the mountain for a few more decades.

  44. Aceface Says:

    The political means of the excavation of Qin Emperor’s tomb and Our Kofun have stark contrast,
    I think.

    The communist Chinese government can deal with this matter as simple archaeology,for the dynasty of Qin has ended in the long gone past.
    No serious political debate on neither the excavation nor the required governmental expence,for they can restrict them,if necessary.

    The democratic Japanese government has to consider many political aspect since She is still a sort of monarchy.And the burial tomb is also related to the religion of Shinto.Polarization of the opinions would make formation of the public consensus unlikely.And as I wrote ,the budget will be a big problem.

    Qin tomb can be the propaganda vehicle for the unity of China,for he was the first emperor to unite the whole nation.and all the terracotta warriors can also be used as a tool for enhancement of the national prestige to outside world.Thus strengthen Han centric identity.

    While Kofun excavation is intending to demythicize the Japanese imperial genealogy.The expected artifacts will be interpreted as the multicultural background of the regime,thus water down the ethnocentrism of Japanese historical identity.

    Emperor of Qin,Battle of Wits,and Japan:
    The new joint asian costume pic”The Battle of Wits”starring Hong Kong Megastar Andy Lau is going to be shown in Japan,next month.It is based on Japanese manga
    “墨攻”,serialized on BI-WEEKLY BIG COMIC in early 90’s.The story sets in warring states era at the eve of Qin emperor unifies China.The head temple of the Mohists墨家, mesmerized by the secular profit,betray the teachings of the founder Mozi墨子,which is to protect and serve for the weak and only fight for the self defence.Most of the Mohist decide to join the venture of Qin emperor and break the century old commandment of pacifism they imposed upon themselves.But One Mohist,which is the protagonist, turns his back to this attempt and starts the David-against-Goliath battle to protect the sole standing fortified city from the massive Qin invasion single handedly.

    I was reading this manga with full of amusement right after the Gulf war.Few could deny that Qin is the metaphor of the United States at the time was the sole superpower heading for the unipolar world.The proselytized Mohists were Post-War Japan.Stumbled at it’s inability in the gulf crisis,trying to follow the instruction from Washington,hastly decides to send peacekeepers to Cambodia by breaking the record of keeping it’s troops home since 1945.

    Now in this manga,The would-be first emperor and his attempt to unify China are portrayed as a megalomaniac hegemon destroying the peace and bringing the more hardships to the peasants.But as I read(and trust) some internet comments on the upcoming movie,which is directed by a Chinese director,this whole Qin emperor related part are gone completely.So it is just one guy stands up to fight millions of army,but no actual historic implication,which was the beef in manga.
    It recollected me of Zhang Yi Mou’s “HERO” .Jet Li did not accomplish his assassination plot on the tyrant Qin emperor for the sake of higher good,which according to director Zhang was the unity of China.

    In original manga,after Qin built the powerful empire.The protagonist decides that there’s no more place in the whole China for the genuine Mohist,sails eastward to Jomon Japan along with the war orphans he picked up on the way.Eventually they establish the settlement and lived happily ever after,suggesting the assimilation to Japanese ancestry.
    The coda of the manga consists the pictures of the battle ship Yamato and the mush room cloud over Hiroshima (No imagery of Nanjing,as I recall)and some scenery of Japan today ,and asks are we not departed from our ancestral Chinese protagonist’s ideal.

  45. Mutantfrog Says:

    Aceface: Certainly the political situation is very different. What I was saying is that previously I had ONLY considered the political reasons for not excavating Imperials tombs in Japan, but your above post made me think that there are also some practical reasons. Are the main reasons still political? Probably. If the politicians wanted to excavate them they could fund the archaeologists enough to erase the scientific and financial problems.

  46. Andreas Says:

    I just discovered that a full version of this book is available on Google Books:


  47. Marek Says:

    As far as I am concerned Japanese is very much a Polynesian/Pacific language – just because there are a few hundred similar words from the continental neighbours is just a matter of contact situation which has been going on for centuries – in 300 hundred yrs people may talk about similarities of Japanese to English because of a great numbers of loanwords from English etc – otherwise, pronunciation-wise and probably grammar to some extent show similarities to some??? polynesian languages!! maybe I am wrong!