Japanese roots

Who some Japanese
think they were and are

By William Wetherall

How did people come to be
in what is now Japan?
Originally they walked.

A version of this article appeared in
Mainichi Daily News, 20 June 1993, page 9 (Waiwai Waido)


"The roots of Japanese people are not one," begins the teaser to the cover story of the May issue of Newton, a popular science monthly. Japanese people "are a mixture of the blood of both southern people and northern people [who came from] the great continent. Vestiges of these [mixed origins] remain in the structure of the face and the form of the body, the genes, culture, and elsewhere," the blurb ends. The article is credited to the cooperation of four experts, and the first listed is Hanihara Kazuro, the best-known proponent of the view that Japan has been peopled by multiple migrations, and that populations in Japan have been undergoing micro (local) evolution.

The first and largest of several maps shows Asia and Oceania as of 30,000 years ago. The ocean was 100 meters lower than today, and dry land connected Borneo, Java, and Sumatra to parts of the Philippines, and to the Malay Peninsula, the rest of Southeast Asia, and southern China. Geologists call this now largely submerged continent Sundaland, and anthropologists regard it as the cradle of Mongoloid civilization.

As the glaciers melted, people from this equatorial Eden began to venture north, presumably after game. Descendants of those who moved along the Pacific coast eventually walked into Japan across land bridges that were not flooded until about 10,000 years ago. Others made their way to Central Asia, and significant numbers of their descendants arrived in Japan between 3,000 and 2,000 years ago.

A series of maps shows how, over the centuries, these "southern" (old mongoloid) and "northern" (new mongoloid) peoples have been mixing. Today, "southern ancestry" people are still well represented in southern Kyushu and the Okinawan islands, and in Hokkaido. "Northern ancestry" people are highly represented in northern Kyushu, Shikoku, and western Honshu. People in eastern and northern Honshu are mainly of a "middle ancestry" or "mixed" type. Ditto for dogs -- and, though the Newton article doesn't say so, field mice.

The article uses state-of-the-art graphics both to profile some of the wealth of biological data that has been compiled in comparative studies of such genetically determined substances as blood proteins and ear wax, and also to summarize collaborating archaeological findings. The urge to impose sweeping generalizations on a very complex genetic and cultural picture, however, results in the racialist reductionism that's evident in the article's conclusion:

"[We] searched for the roots of Japanese people in the faces of prominent literary figures from the Meiji through the Showa periods. Some [writers] display the typical traits of southern ancestry or northern ancestry, but practically all are people in whom both [sets of] traits are mixed. [So] it's okay to say that all of us Japanese [wareware Nihonjin no daremo] are "mixed bloods" who have received the blood of both Jomon (southern) people and Yayoi [northern] people."

Elsewhere in a book about Japanese genetic origins, Hanihara and Omoto Keiichi, another contributor to the Newton feature, offered a less racially restricted, more "natural" (i.e., geographical or Mendelian) definition of population. In Karada kara Nihonjin no kigen o saguru (Fukutake Shoten, 1986, page 39), they wrote:

"Japanese people (Nihonjin) could be 'Japanese citizens' [Nihon kokumin] who hold 'the nationality of Japan' [Nihon no kokuseki]; or 'the Japanese nation/race' [Nihon minzoku] that speaks the Japanese language; or humans [hito] as a biological species which lives in the Japanese archipelago.' . . . [And] anthropologically, [we] can define Japanese people as 'the humans [hito] who are presently living in the Japanese archipelago.' Here too let's define Japanese this way."

Hey, that includes me! But no one sampled my blood or ear wax.

As presented in Newton and most other mass media (and even a lot of academic literature), the statistically raw results of research on genetic origins, without qualifications of the kind made by Hanihara and Omoto in their book, play to the romantic nativist gallery, rather than enlightened readers who live in a de facto multiethnic society.

But science knows no deadlines. Days after Newton went to press, its "latest edition" of the theory about Japanese origins was modified by front-page speculation that several stone tools unearthed in Miyagi Prefecture had been made by human beings living in the area as long as 500,000 years ago. Two weeks earlier, in Kanagawa Prefecture, to the delight of those who would like to believe that Japanese people evolved from Japanese monkeys, paleontologists had found the fossilized skull of a simian creature that had lived there some 2.5 million years ago.

Sophia University's resident neocon Watanabe Shoichi may have had this time series in mind back in 1974 when he remarked as follows in his now classic Nihonjinron thesis, Nihongo no kokoro (Kodansha, pages 11-12):

"So long as one renders [Chinese characters] in Japanese readings, no matter what difficult Chinese characters are used, [the readings] are in principle Yamato words; they are words that the Japanese race has continued to use through oral transmission from before history. To put [this] in evolutionary terms -- though I don't believe the theory of evolution -- [they] go straight back to the age in which ape-like animals, as the ancestors of Japanese, first produced coherent sounds from their mouths. To put [it] in other terms, it is all right to say that Yamato words are directly rooted in the sources of the soul of the race."

Whether by natural selection or not, one major theory of evolution would trace the soul of Watanabe's "race" first to Sunda -- where Java man predates all other known early human relics in Asia, notwithstanding Peking man and his postulated near contemporary in Japan; but then to Africa -- where all humankind is presumed to have originated from the womb of a mitochondrially common Eve.

One thing is certain: all manner of people are still coming to Japan, today from all quarters. And whatever their ancestral roots, they possess that set of genes that makes them all humans.


In the spirit of Brian M. Fagan's The Journey From Eden: The Peopling of Our World (Thames and Hudson, 1990), William Wetherall recasts the Newton article and related book in poetic form. (The haniwa [illustrations to the left and right of the poem], by the way, date from the Kofun Period, which started after the Yayoi Period in the 4th Century AD.)

By William Wetherall

No ports of entry, sea or air,
nor passbooks or quarantines;
if pursuit of game led them there,
they stalked their prey
all the way from Sunda.
North, ever north they walked
come spring when the thaw exposed
a fresh valley to the sun.

Today they come in greater droves,
spilling through the guarded gates
from the maws of metallic dinosaurs,
or washing ashore at night
in the rusty bowels of a junk.
But they come just the same
in quest of the Japanese dream,
for pure 3K gold, if not in want of
new treads on old souls;
and all still chasing those beasts of life
that bare their loins come spring.