Akihito's Korean roots

The Fujiwara embrace of Kudara

By William Wetherall

First posted 4 April 2006
Last updated 10 April 2017

Akihito's 68th birthday present Press conference Akihito's remarks Media response

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Akihito's 68th birthday present

At his 68th birthday press conference in 2001, Emperor Akihito cited the Shoku Nihongi (Continued Chronicles of Japan), an official chronology compiled in 797, as the authority of his admission that the mother of Emperor Kanmu (r. 781-806) was a descendant of Prince Sunta, a son of the Paekche King Muryong (501-523), who was therefore one of his ancestors. It was Kanmu who moved the Yamato capital to Heiankyo in 794, five years after his mother's death. The new capital, and a series of important changes that Kanmu set into motion, came to define the beginning of the Heian period.

Objection to the accession of a Yamato prince whose mother had a Korean pedigree was overcome by Fujiwara no Momokawa, whose own daughter became Kanmu's wife and mother of the next Emperor. The Fujiwara, already a powerful family, came to control the court for the better part of four centuries, by marrying Fujiwara women to princes who later became sovereigns. The princes were usually raised in their mother's household, to be dominated by Fujiwara uncles and grandfathers, many of whom came to hold the highest posts, including regent.

Such matrilineal affiliation was common in the Heian aristocracy, where marriages were typically duolocal: a husband visited his wife at night and departed the next morning. Patrilocal marriage, according to which a wife moved into her husband's family and gave up membership in her natal family, and patrilineal affiliation, didn't become the norm until much latter in Japan, where marital customs regionally varied down to the 19th century, when Japan became a state and enacted a common Civil Code.


68th birthday press conference

The Imperial Household Agency, which posts Japanese and English versions of proceedings of press coverences and other public appearances by Imperial Family members, showed the following Japanese transcription and "unofficial translation" of the "question" and "response" concerning Japan and Korea on the occasion of Akihito's on 18 December 2001.

While reading the Japanese and English versions of the following question and reply, keep in mind these four facts.

1. No country on the Korean peninsula has ever been the closest geographical neighbor of any entity on the Japanese islands -- unless we are talking about the period when the two regions were bridged by land, or the period when the straits between the two regions were much narrower than they have been in historical times.

2. There was no "Korea" at the time of Paekche and there is no "Korea" today.

3. 韓国 (Kankoku), i.e., the Republic of Korea, did not exist until 1948. The term 韓国 (Karakuni) appears in Nihon shoki (Chronicles of Japan) and Shoku Nihongi (Continued Chronicles of Japan) only as part of the personal names of servants of the court.

A 672 account in Nihon shoki reports the feats of Iki no Fubito Karakuni (壹伎史韓國), who is described only as a general of Ōmi (近江 Afumi) province (NS 28, Tenmu 1-7-23, 672-8-24 [21], NKBT 68:400-405, Aston 2:315-318).

731 and 732 entries in Shoku Nihongi refer to a promotion and appointment of Mononobe no Karakuni no Muraji Hirotari (物部韓國連廣足) (SN 11, Tenpyō 3-1-27, 731-3-13 [9], SZKT 1:125, and SN 11, Tenpyō 4-10-17, 732-11-13 [9], SZKT 1:130). A 699 entry states that he was a disciple of En no Otsunu (役小角 En no Wotsunu, En no Otsuno, En no Odzuno 634-706), also known as En no Gōja (役行者), who is supposed to have founded the ascetic Shūgendō (修験道) sect (SN 1, Monmu 3-5-24, 699-6-29 [26], SZKT 1:4).

4. Akihito spoke of "migrants" who "migrated" -- not people who "came" or "came over" or "immigrated". Nor did he say that anyone "came" much less "came over" from Korea to "Japan" -- which, like "Korea", did not then exist as a national entity.

While Akihito's remarks were undoubtedly well-intended as a gesture of personal diplomacy, at the same time they reflect the kind of fuzzy ahistorical talk that feeds romantic nationalist thinking about the past, in which neither "Korea" nor "Japan" -- even loosely speaking -- were the national entities that many people today seem to want to imagine.

Note also, in the English version, the provision of historical dates and other clarifications that are absent in the Japanese version -- although the vast majority of Japanese readers would not have understood the whos, whats, wheres, and whens of Akihito's history lecture.


Akihito's remarks about Kanmu's Paekche roots

Japanese and English texts

The following Japanese and English texts are from the website of the Imperial Household Agency. The bold highlighting is as received. The layout, the colored highlighting, and the underscoring are mine. All bracketed romanization and English, including the [ bracketed English translations ] in the received English version, are also mine.


宮殿 石橋の間

Responses to Questions on the Occasion of
the Birthday of His Majesty the Emperor
[ Heisei 13 = 2001 ]

[ Press conference of the Emperor ]
[ Conference date: Heisei 13-12-18 ] December 18, 2001
[ Kyūden / Shakkyō no Ma = Palace / Hall of Lion Dance ]







Question 3

Next year Japan and the Republic of Korea will co-host the global event, the 2002 FIFA World Cup. As the tournament draws ever nearer, exchange on a person-to-person level between the two countries is intensifying. Could Your Majesty tell us of any interests or thoughts you have concerning the Republic of Korea, which both historically and geographically is Japan's close neighbor?

Answer 3 [ The Emperor ]

That the people of Korea and Japan have from ages past had deep interchange is recorded in detail in the Nihon Shoki (Chronicles of Japan, compiled in 720), among other historical records. Those who immigrated or were invited to come to Japan from Korea [ People who migrated, and people who were invited, from Kankoku ] introduced culture and technology. Of the musicians in the Music Department of the Imperial Household Agency, some are direct descendants of musicians who came over to Japan from Korea [ descendants of the migrants ] at that time, and have inherited the music for generations and still perform the Gagaku (Imperial Court Music) on various occasions. It was truly fortunate that such culture and technology was brought to Japan through the enthusiasm of Japanese people and the friendly attitude of the Korean people. I also believe that it contributed greatly to Japan's subsequent development. I, on my part, feel a certain kinship with Korea, given the fact that it is recorded in the Shoku Nihongi (Chronicles of Japan [ Continued Chronicles of Japan ], compiled in 797), that the mother of Emperor Kammu (reign 781-806) was of the line of King Muryong (reign 501-523) of the Kingdom of Paekche*. King Muryong had strong relations with Japan, and it was from his time that masters of the Five Chinese Classics (books compiling the teaching of Confucianism) were invited to Japan one after another to teach Confucianism. King Song Myong (reign 523-554), son of King Muryong, is recognized as the one who introduced Buddhism to Japan.

It is regrettable however that Japan's exchanges with Korea have not all been of this kind. This is something that we should never forget.

The FIFA World Cup 2002 is an event that is further energizing exchange between the peoples of the two countries. In order that this course be followed through, I believe that it is important that the people of both countries try to understand correctly the individual course of events that their respective countries have followed and that they each understand on a person-to-person basis the other's position. I hope that the World Cup will, through cooperation between the two peoples, run smoothly and that this will result in enhancing understanding and mutual trust between the Japanese and Korean people.

* Paekche is one of three kingdoms of ancient korea. It is said to have been established in 18 B.C. and perished in 660 A.D.


Media response

Akihito's remarks were widely reported in Korea. They also attracted a lot of rather lame commentary in the English press in Japan and overseas.

Local staff writers and foreign correspondents who report on Japan in English typically expose their preconceptions and prejudices when it comes to reporting on Japan-Korea relations. The major flaw in English reports on Akihito's remarks was not that writers saw them as unusual for a sovereign to make in public (possible true), but that they considered them unusual for any Japanese to make about Korean ties (untrue).

A friend made this comment in email, referring to how The New York Times and The Japan Times reported the story.

JT has jumped on the NYT bandwagon with an "emperor is a kimchi-farter" story on page 1.

I sent him this reply.

The "Close Neighbors" piece by Matsubara? A real disappointment. Maybe JT staff writers have blood ties with NYT correspondents.

Postwar scholars have debated the "invasion" versus "diffusion" issue to death. All have recognized some physical migration from Korea. Most have acknowledged at least some intermarriage with the Yamato aristocracy. Not a few have suggested that the Yamato clan itself has continental origins. But none, to my knowledge, have contested Kanmu's parentage, described in the Shoku Nihongi, which was complied during his own reign.

There is some confusion in the English press, in both Japan and Korea, as to Akihito's source of information. Many articles I've read have dubbed the "Shoku Nihongi" as "Chronicles of Japan". But as the name implies ("shoku" = "zoku"), it should be called "Continued Chronicles of the Japan". In fact it is the sequal to the Nihon shoki, sometimes called Nihongi, or the "Chronicles of Japan" as translated by Aston.

Also contemporary with Kanmu's time was the well-known Shinsen Shojiroku, the last (extant) early peerage. This source lists the aristocratic clans in Heiankyo and the Kinki area generally, and nearly 30 percent of the clans are of immigrant (Korean or Chinese) origin. Most better educated Japanese have at least heard of this, though they may not connect with what it says about the presence of "kikajin" in pre-Heian and early Heian Japan.

Certainly since the excavation of Takamatsuzuka in 1972, the bookstores have barely been able to keep up with the flood of publications sifting through the evidence of early Korean connections. How many NHK specials have been devoted to documentaries on the discoveries of early Korean and Japanese ties at various sites in Japan, including Tsushima?

I get the impression (as did at least some observers in Korea) that many Japanese, if they even took notice of Akihito's remarks, took them to be just a natural expression of what is obvious to anyone who knows anything about early Japanese history in general, and Kanmu in particular. He was, afterall, the emperor who moved the capital from Nara to Nagaoka and then to Kyoto, thus launching the Heian Period.