Modern Japan: Origins of the Mind:Japanese Traditions and Approaches to Contemporary Life

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It was a remarkable achievement. Now the Japanese people are understandably concerned about maintaining their traditions in the face of massive Western cultural influences. They want to believe that their distinctive language and culture required uniquely complex developmental processes. To acknowledge a relationship of the Japanese language to any other language seems to constitute a surrender of cultural identity.

Modern Japan: Origins Of The Mind - Japanese Traditions And Approaches To Contemporary Life

What makes it especially difficult to discuss Japanese archeology dispassionately is that Japanese interpretations of the past affect present behavior. Who among East Asian peoples brought culture to whom? Who has historical claims to whose land? These are not just academic questions. For instance, there is much archeological evidence that people and material objects passed between Japan and Korea in the period a. Japanese interpret this to mean that Japan conquered Korea and brought Korean slaves and artisans to Japan; Koreans believe instead that Korea conquered Japan and that the founders of the Japanese imperial family were Korean.

Thus, when Japan sent troops to Korea and annexed it in , Japanese military leaders celebrated the annexation as the restoration of the legitimate arrangement of antiquity. For the next 35 years, Japanese occupation forces tried to eradicate Korean culture and to replace the Korean language with Japanese in schools. The effort was a consequence of a centuries-old attitude of disdain.

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Nose tombs in Japan still contain 20, noses severed from Koreans and brought home as trophies of a sixteenth-century Japanese invasion. Not surprisingly, many Koreans loathe the Japanese, and their loathing is returned with contempt. What really was the legitimate arrangement of antiquity? Today, Japan and Korea are both economic powerhouses, facing each other across the Korea Strait and viewing each other through colored lenses of false myths and past atrocities.

Japanese: A Heavily Culture-Laden Language

It bodes ill for the future of East Asia if these two great peoples cannot find common ground. To do so, they will need a correct understanding of who the Japanese people really are. It is, for comparison, far more isolated than Britain, which lies only 22 miles from the French coast. Japan lies miles from the closest point of the Asian mainland South Korea , miles from mainland Russia, and miles from mainland China. Climate, too, sets Japan apart. Its rainfall, up to inches a year, makes it the wettest temperate country in the world. Despite thousands of years of dense human occupation, Japan still offers visitors a first impression of greenness because 70 percent of its land is still covered by forest.

Japanese forest composition varies with latitude and altitude: evergreen leafy forest in the south at low altitude, deciduous leafy forest in central Japan, and coniferous forest in the north and high up. For prehistoric humans, the deciduous leafy forest was the most productive, providing abundant edible nuts such as walnuts, chestnuts, horse chestnuts, acorns, and beechnuts.

Japanese waters are also outstandingly productive. The lakes, rivers, and surrounding seas teem with salmon, trout, tuna, sardines, mackerel, herring, and cod. Today, Japan is the largest consumer of fish in the world. Japanese waters are also rich in clams, oysters, and other shellfish, crabs, shrimp, crayfish, and edible seaweeds. From southwest to northeast, the four main Japanese islands are Kyushu, Shikoku, Honshu, and Hokkaido.

Until the late nineteenth century, Hokkaido and northern Honshu were inhabited mainly by the Ainu, who lived as hunter-gatherers with limited agriculture, while the people we know today as Japanese occupied the rest of the main islands.

In appearance, of course, the Japanese are very similar to other East Asians. As for the Ainu, however, their distinctive appearance has prompted more to be written about their origins and relationships than about any other single people on Earth. Partly because Ainu men have luxuriant beards and the most profuse body hair of any people, they are often classified as Caucasoids so-called white people who somehow migrated east through Eurasia to Japan. In their overall genetic makeup, though, the Ainu are related to other East Asians, including the Japanese and Koreans.

But this view is difficult to reconcile with the distinctiveness of the Japanese language. Everyone agrees that Japanese does not bear a close relation to any other language in the world. Korean is also often considered to be an isolated member of this family, and within the family Japanese and Korean may be more closely related to each other than to other Altaic languages. However, the similarities between Japanese and Korean are confined to general grammatical features and about 15 percent of their basic vocabularies, rather than the detailed shared features of grammar and vocabulary that link, say, French to Spanish; they are more different from each other than Russian is from English.

Since languages change over time, the more similar two languages are, the more recently they must have diverged. By counting common words and features, linguists can estimate how long ago languages diverged, and such estimates suggest that Japanese and Korean parted company at least 4, years ago.


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As for the Ainu language, its origins are thoroughly in doubt; it may not have any special relationship to Japanese. After genes and language, a third type of evidence about Japanese origins comes from ancient portraits. Those statues unmistakably depict East Asians. They do not resemble the heavily bearded Ainu.

If the Japanese did replace the Ainu in Japan south of Hokkaido, that replacement must have occurred before a. Our earliest written information about Japan comes from Chinese chronicles, because China developed literacy long before Korea or Japan. In early Chinese accounts of various peoples referred to as Eastern Barbarians, Japan is described under the name Wa, whose inhabitants were said to be divided into more than a hundred quarreling states.


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Only a few Korean or Japanese inscriptions before a. Those reveal massive transmission of culture to Japan from Korea itself, and from China via Korea. The chronicles are also full of accounts of Koreans in Japan and of Japanese in Korea—interpreted by Japanese or Korean historians, respectively, as evidence of Japanese conquest of Korea or the reverse. The ancestors of the Japanese, then, seem to have reached Japan before they had writing. Their biology suggests a recent arrival, but their language suggests arrival long ago.

To resolve this paradox, we must now turn to archeology.

Table of Contents: Being modern in Japan :

The seas that surround much of Japan and coastal East Asia are shallow enough to have been dry land during the ice ages, when much of the ocean water was locked up in glaciers and sea level lay at about feet below its present measurement. Stone tools indicate human arrival as early as half a million years ago. Around 13, years ago, as glaciers melted rapidly all over the world, conditions in Japan changed spectacularly for the better, as far as humans were concerned.

Temperature, rainfall, and humidity all increased, raising plant productivity to present high levels. Deciduous leafy forests full of nut trees, which had been confined to southern Japan during the ice ages, expanded northward at the expense of coniferous forest, thereby replacing a forest type that had been rather sterile for humans with a much more productive one.

The rise in sea level severed the land bridges, converted Japan from a piece of the Asian continent to a big archipelago, turned what had been a plain into rich shallow seas, and created thousands of miles of productive new coastline with innumerable islands, bays, tidal flats, and estuaries, all teeming with seafood. That end of the Ice Age was accompanied by the first of the two most decisive changes in Japanese history: the invention of pottery. For the first time in human experience, people had watertight containers readily available in any desired shape.

With their new ability to boil or steam food, they gained access to abundant resources that had previously been difficult to use: leafy vegetables, which would burn or dry out if cooked on an open fire; shellfish, which could now be opened easily; and toxic foods like acorns, which could now have their toxins boiled out. Soft-boiled foods could be fed to small children, permitting earlier weaning and more closely spaced babies.

Toothless old people, the repositories of information in a preliterate society, could now be fed and live longer.


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  8. In addition, those first Japanese potters were clearly hunter-gatherers, which also violated established views. Usually only sedentary societies own pottery: what nomad wants to carry heavy, fragile pots, as well as weapons and the baby, whenever time comes to shift camp? Most sedentary societies elsewhere in the world arose only with the adoption of agriculture. But the Japanese environment is so productive that people could settle down and make pottery while still living by hunting and gathering. Much ancient Japanese pottery was decorated by rolling or pressing a cord on soft clay.

    The classical period

    Because the Japanese word for cord marking is jomon, the term Jomon is applied to the pottery itself, to the ancient Japanese people who made it, and to that whole period in Japanese prehistory beginning with the invention of pottery and ending only 10, years later. The earliest Jomon pottery, of 12, years ago, comes from Kyushu, the southernmost Japanese island. Thereafter, pottery spread north, reaching the vicinity of modern Tokyo around 9, years ago and the northernmost island of Hokkaido by 7, years ago.

    The bygone days of Japan - Trip to see the life, tradition, and culture of Japan's past

    How did Jomon people make their living? We have abundant evidence from the garbage they left behind at hundreds of thousands of excavated archeological sites all over Japan. They apparently enjoyed a well-balanced diet, one that modern nutritionists would applaud. One major food category was nuts, especially chestnuts and walnuts, plus horse chestnuts and acorns leached or boiled free of their bitter poisons. Nuts could be harvested in autumn in prodigious quantities, then stored for the winter in underground pits up to six feet deep and six feet wide.

    Other plant foods included berries, fruits, seeds, leaves, shoots, bulbs, and roots.