Horseriders march on

By William Wetherall

A review of
Jon Carter Covell and Alan Covell
Japan's Hidden History:
Korean Impact on Japanese Culture

Elizabeth (New Jersey), Seoul: Hollym International Corp., 1984

A version of this article appeared in
Far Eastern Economic Review, 136(23), 4 June 1987, pages 54-55

The authors of this book believe that Korean horse-riders conquered Japan in the fourth century. It has been dedicated to "the multitudes in Japan, Korea and the rest of the world who have yet to realise the central position of Korea in Japan's early history and her cultural development." And it is dated the "1,515th year [1984] of the 'Horseriders' coming to Japan."

This is precisely 100 years short of the 1,615 years which have passed since AD 369, when the authors claim that Empress Jingo came from Korea to conquer Japan, thus disputing Japan's earliest histories, according to which Jingu invaded Korea from Japan. Even in a book "intended for popular consumption, rather than the specialist's tedious reading," such computational errors mar the facts and conjectures which the authors have marshalled in support of their romantic but improbable theory.

In AD 346 "a small, weary group of once-proud Puyo tribesmen" moved southward into the Korean peninsula after their homeland between the Sungari and Yalu rivers in Manchuria had been destroyed by another tribe. A group of perhaps only "a few hundred" refugees worked its way down the peninsula with an infant princess--the future Jingu.

An older Jingo became the consort of Chuai. In Japan's earliest histories Chuai is a Japanese emperor, but in the present theory he is the chief of the Kaya, a Korean tribe which "surveyed a loosely bound trading empire . . . a widespread maritime conglomerate of small city-states [which] apparently included the island of Tsushima, the northern coast of Kyushu Island, and a shipping network which stretched from what is now Pusan to present-day Taegu, along the Naktong River which connected the two settlements."

Chuai did not want more heirs and did not share Jingu's dream of conquering Japan. And so the frustrated Jingu turned to Chuai's "Prime Minister and leading male shaman" and became pregnant. She delivered Ojin in Japan, where her lover defeated the armies of Chuai's sons. Having achieved her goal of conquest, Jingu received a seven-pronged sword from the king of Paekche, a rival Korean state, in AD 372 according to Japanese records.

"Thus Ojin was the first of a line of ten 'emperors' with Horserider blood who occupied the throne of Japan from the late fourth century to AD 510. Then a compromise candidate was put on the throne." He was half horserider, and half Shintoist of Korean ancestry.

During the more than 100-year reign of Horserider emperors, "religious beliefs were 100% Shamanist." The rulers were buried in colossal keyhole-shaped double-mound tumuli, in decorated tomb chambers filled with provisions for life in the next world. "At some time, the former practice of burying actual horses and people was given up and clay statuettes substituted."

Similar keyhole tumuli have been found on the southern coast of the Korean peninsula. The practice of building mounds over stone tomb chambers "had begun centuries before in the Caucasus Mountains [and] had travelled across Siberia" and down into China and Korea, and then across the sea to Japan. But "none is as high or as extensive as the tumulus which [Ojin's son Nintoku] is said to have supervised for his own demise." Nintoku's tomb "stretches 475 m long and originally was surrounded by three moats."

The authors explain that only one moat remains today. "Nintoku's mound had 26,000 M3 of stone used for its inner structure, with then earth and later trees allowed to grow on top. Its area in its original state was half that of an Egyptian pyramid."

This highly imaginative account of Chuai, Jingu and Ojin is not an impossible interpretation of the corresponding chapters of the AD 720 Nihonshoki, one of Japan's earliest histories. But the Covells have not supported their Korean nationalist preconception, that Japan's imperial line and civilisation were founded by Koreans, with hard archival and archaeological scholarship. And their descriptions of monuments are inaccurate.

Even in the book's poor-quality photos, it is clear that the mausoleum assigned to Nintoku still has three moats. The narrow outer moat was not built until around 1870. The tumulus has nearly three times the base area and over half the volume of the Great Pyramid of Khufu at Giza. And there is no archaeological evidence that the clay figures found on some Japanese mounds were "substitutes for the human sacrifices carried out by the early Horseriders"--or by anyone else.