Before nationality

Being Japanese from antiquity to Meiji

By William Wetherall

First posted 1 April 2006
Last updated 1 January 2008

Under revision

Ancient past 6th century | 7th century | 8th century | 9th century
Recent past 17th century | 18th century | 19th century

Ancient past

Humans, like other animals, propagate through sexual contact. Survival of the human race, and of any socially organized population within it, hinges on the ability of individuals, families, clans, nations, and regional populations to commingle in economic and other territorial activities that ultimately involve sexual union and mixture. Knowledge of neighboring communities, and the ability to cross rivers, mountains, and seas to reach them, result in sexual contact concomitant either with battle, conquest, and occupation, or with diplomacy, commerce, and trade.

Japan's population, too, is the product of migration and sexual commingling over many millennia. All people now living on the extensive group of islands now called Japan are the products of encounters between settled and new migrants. They even face the same social status problems their ancestors faced, though present-day legal solutions may somewhat differ.

History shows that the human condition has not changed very much over the past fifteen centuries. The legal status of a child born in the 6th century to an Mimana (Imna) woman who had sexual relations with a Yamato man, was about as uncertain as that of a baby born in the 20th century to a Filipina hostess who has slept with a Japanese businessman.


6th century

For roughly two centuries, from AD 362 to 562, according to Yamato legends of uncertain dating and credibility, Yamato armies were involved in civil wars on the Korean peninsula. The Yamato court mounted some of its military and diplomatic operations from a foothold in Imna (Mimana), a small Korean territory wedged between the kingdom of Kudara (Paekche) on the southwestern quadrant of the peninsula, and the kingdom of Shiragi (Silla) on the southeastern quadrant. The kingdom of Kokuri (Koguryŏ) was to the north. The Yamato stronghold appears to have been between present-day Pusan and Masan, across the Korean straits from the Fukuoka area of Kyushu, on a line with the island of Tsushima.

There was great domestic turmoil on the islands as Yamato clans fought one another for the right to control imperial warehouses and treasuries, and Yamato princes plotted against each other over imperial succession. Survivors of these rivalries busied themselves with the subjugation of indigenous non-Yamato tribes like the Hayato, Kumaso, and Ezo, and with the complex politics of intrigue on the Korean peninsula, where Yamato and Korean generals and governors sometimes changed their loyalties and rebelled.

Over the centuries leading up to this period, large numbers of people seem to have migrated from the peninsula to the islands (Source Kazuro Hanihara, "Estimation of the Number of Early Migrants to Japan: A Simulative Study", Jinruigaku zasshi [Journal of the Anthropological Society of Nippon], Vol. 95, No. 3 (July 1987), pp. 391-403).

Some clans on both sides of the Korean straits must have been related, either through recent marriage or ancestrally. During the period that Yamato forces were active on the peninsula, many people, though probably mainly men, also crossed from the islands to the peninsula. Conjugal and other sexual relations between people from the islands and peninsula people, but especially between Yamato men and Korean women, seem to have been common enough to cause concern about the status of their offspring.

According to the Nihon shoki, a Yamato chronicle completed in 720, there was considerable unrest in Mimana (Imna), due to the misgoverning of Kena no Omi, a Yamato commander posted to the territory by Emperor Keitai. A 530 notice charges Kena no Omi with dereliction of duty. In particular, he is accused of aggravating the civil problem of determining the status of the offspring of Yamato and Mimana people, as follows (my translation).

It happens that Yamatoans and Mimanans [Imnans] often produce children, disputes [concerning of such offspring] are difficult to settle, and from the beginning there have not been any competent rulings.

Yamatoans reflects Yamatohito, the Yamato reading of characters that today would be read "Nihonjin" [Japanese] in Sino-Japanese.

Mimanans reflects 任那人, read either "Mimana no hito" [people of Mimana] or "Mimanabito" [Mimanans] in Yamato. The Sino-Korean reading of 任那 is Imna.

See 530 Status of Kara child for a full translation of this account, the original texts, a Yamato translation, another translation, and sources.

Kena no Omi is said to have enjoyed submitting people involved in such disputes to an ordeal by boiling water that was supposed to scald only those who were lying. Many people died from the burns. The Nihon shoki also states that Kena no Omi killed Natori and Shifuri, the Korean children [Karako] of a man named Kibi.

Though Kibi is not identified, he seems to have been a Yamato person, judging from the next notice in the chronicle, which appears in the text as a remark that the compilers, if not a later editor or copier, had inserted it as an explanatory annotation (my translation).

[A child] born to a barabaria woman a Great Yamato person has taken as his wife, shall be a Kara child.

barbaria woman reflects 蕃女 read "tonariguni no me" [woman of neighboring country]. See notes elsewhere on the ramifications of 蕃 as a term for a peripheral backward territory or "barbaria" -- regarded as such by people who regard their country as the center and source of civilization.

Great Yamato person reflects 大日本人 read "Oho Yamato no hito" in Yamato, "Dai Nihon no hito" [person of Great Nihon] in mixed Sino-Japanese and Yamato.

Kara child reflects 韓子, read "Karako" in Yamato, and meaning "Korea child" -- if 韓 is taken to mean "Korea" generally.

See 530 Status of Kara child for a full translation of this account, the original texts, a Yamato translation, another translation, and sources.

Whether Kena no Omi deserved the criticism, or whether he invited the negative report because he had plotted to join Shiragi (Silla), will never be known. He was recalled to Yamato, and on his way back, he became ill and died on the island of Tsushima. Apparently, though, Kena no Omi received petitions from people who claimed to be Yamato subjects, or otherwise sought to be recognized as Yamato subjects. And legend, at least, has it that he tested the veracity of such claims with boiling water. But how Yamato officials examined the facts in such cases, or how cruelly those like Kena no Omi may have treated the claimants, are irrelevant. What we want to know is what the Nihon shoki and other sources fail to tell us, namely: what exactly was the problem?

During the two centuries of the Yamato occupation of Imna, there must have been many marriages, concubinages, and less formal sexual liaisons between, in particular, Yamato men and non-Yamato women. These unions must have produced numerous children, and apparently there were many cases in which the status of such offspring was either unclear, or clear but not acceptable to one if not both of the parents or the child. If Yamato subjects enjoyed special privileges in Yamato-occupied districts, then people with Yamato fathers, but non-Yamato mothers, would probably be motivated to seek recognition as Yamato subjects.

The Nihon shoki notice implies that, at least outside Yamato, the offspring of Yamato men and non-Yamato women were simply regarded as non-Yamato. But the determination of the status of such offspring may not have always been so cut and dry. Or perhaps it was administratively straight forward, but governors like Kena no Omi might have had discretionary powers to confer Yamato status on any non-Yamato subject -- much like the Minister of Justice today has discretionary powers to grant or refuse a foreign petitioner local affiliation, regardless of the petitioner's qualifications under statute law. As for Kena no Omi's indiscretion, the Nihon shoki account implies that boiling water was not the generally approved way to exercise government power even in the 6th century.

The Nihon shoki says nothing about the offspring of Yamato women and non-Yamato men on the peninsula. Nor does it suggest how Yamato status was determined in Yamato, meaning provinces of the islands that were under the control of the Yamato court. By the middle of the 6th century, Yamato was a confederation of clans which recognized, but also contended for, the right to rule that was claimed by the court. After the court lost its foothold in Imna, it was kept busy protecting itself from the rivalries of clans that threatened to usurp its hegemony.

By the 6th century, numerous immigrant clans, and intermarriage, had caused great confusion in clan lineages and status. Clans vied with one another to increase their social and political standing by adopting more prestigious clan names [uji], and by acquiring higher status titles of nobility [kabane]. Several times, but especially during the 8th and 9th centuries, the Yamato court reviewed the genealogies of aristocratic clans, to identify which clans had genuine claims to imperial ancestry or other indigenous lines, and which were of immigrant origin. (Source Otsuka Tokuro, "Hachi, kyu seiki ni okeru kikajinkei shizoku no keifu ni tsuite" [On the lineages of clans of naturalized person ancestry in the 8th and 9th century], Kodaigaku [Palaeologia], Vol. 14, No. 2 (January 1968), pp. 108-124, 162)

Many scholars of Japan refer to all persons that early texts suggest are immigrants or their descendants as "naturalized people" [kikajin]. Some scholars dispute the application of this label to individuals who came to the islands before the 7th century, the earliest that the Yamato court is thought to have had sufficient governmental control, of the provinces it claimed to rule, to register their residents and levy taxes in the manner of a state. Whatever interest the Yamato court may have played in deciding who was allowed to come to and stay in those parts of the islands it controlled, or what role it might have played in determining a person's or clan's social or legal status, the process of "immigration and naturalization" in the pre-Nara, Nara, Heian, and even the much later Tokugawa period, seems to have been administratively different from what it became during the Meiji period and continues to be today. (Source Kim Talsu, Kodai bunka to "kikajin" [Ancient culture and "naturalized people"], Tokyo: Shinjinbutsu Orai Sha, 1972, pp. 8-18)

In early Yamato, there was no concept of nationality, either in the civil sense of subjecthood or citizenship, or in the genetic or cultural sense of race or ethnicity. Everyone living in parts of the islands that were under Yamato control, including non-Yamato people, and Yamatoized clans that were conscious of their immigrant origins, seems to have been recognized as belonging to the domains they occupied. The principal political concern of the Yamato court was to protect the religious foundations of its expanding territorial hegemony, which it did by conferring hereditary titles that reflected the distance between a non-imperial clan's ancestral deities and those of the imperial clan.

Though large scale migration from the continent had ceased by the start of the 8th century, Japan was still an end of the trail for people who came, were brought, or drifted from all quarters to the islands until the mid 19th century, and the beginning of the trail for children born of unions between newcomers and locals. Encounters and mixing with peripheral Ainu and Okinawans also intensified during this millennium. In 1868, after two and a half centuries of isolationism, ambitious leaders set out to build a nation capable of holding its own with the foreign powers that were anchoring their ships off Japan's shores, demanding provisions, trade, and -- until Japan had became a legally competent state -- extraterritorial rights for their nationals.


530 notice on Korean and Yamato status

Until late in the 6th century, Yamato is said to have controlled a Korean territory called Mimana (Imna), which was located between present-day Pusan and Masan.

Given the proximity of this part of Korea to the island of Tsushima in the Korean Straits on a line with present-day Fukuoka city on Kyushu, through Tsushima, and archaeological similarities, it is likely that Mimana was originally part of a cross-straits maritime culture that thrived on facing coasts of the Korean peninsula and the Japanese island now called Kyushu. Whatever its origins, this Yamato foothold on the peninsula was the venue for the first recorded dispute involving the status of children born between Yamato and non-Yamato parents.

A 530 notice in the Nihon shoki (Chronicles of Japan), an official chronology completed in 720, records that Kena no Omi, a Yamato commander sent to the peninsula by Emperor Keitai (26th, r507-531), was charged with dereliction of duty and cruelty. According to the notice:

A Yamato person [Yamatohito] and a person of Imna [Mimana no hito] often produce a child, and disputes [concerning such children] are difficult to settle; and from the beginning [officials] have been unable to decide.

Kena no Omi is alleged to have immersed claimants in a cauldron of boiling water, to see who was telling the truth, and reportedly many died this way. He is also said to have killed the two Korean [i.e., Paekche] children [Karako] of a man named Kibi.

Nothing more was said about Kibi. But as though to explain who he was, the text remarks, in an interlineal annotation, that:

When a Great Yamato person takes a barbarian [i.e., neighboring county's] woman as a wife and a child is born, it shall be Korean.

No further information sheds any light as to why this should have been so. One could speculate a territorial principle, or a matrilineal principle, or any number of other criteria that might have been customary at the time. But all that is certain today, 15 centuries later, is that conflicts concerning children in unions that straddle one border or another continue. As for Kena no Omi, he was recalled and died on Tsushima en route back to Yamato.

Kena no Omi's mission on the peninsula was diplomatic and military. He was supposed to improve relations with Shiragi (Silla), which was trying to unify the peninsula, but his intrigues made things worse for Yamato and Kudara (Paekche), with whom Yamato had been allied for a couple of centuries. Kudara was the source of most of the continental culture that Yamato embraced during the 6th century, including Buddhism (538, 545, 552). It was also the origin of many of the people that crossed the sea to Yamato in droves between the 4th and 7th centuries, as one war led to another, and Kudara finally fell to Shiragi and Tang (T'ang) forces (663), a century after Shiragi had forced Yamato to abandon Mimana (562).


540 notice on Emishi and Hayato status

A 540 notice in the Nihon shoki records that, during the spring of the first year of Emperor Kinmei, contingents of Emishi, a northern frontier people possibly related to ancestors of Ainu, and Hayato, a southern Kyushu people who became imperial guards, submitted and attached themselves [kifu] to the court.

The 6th century also saw non-Yamato peoples submitting to the Yamato court, sometimes through population registration. In 540 contingents of Emishi, a northern frontier people who were probably related to present-day Ainu, and Hayato, a southern Kyushu people who became imperial guards, attached themselves [kifu] to the Yamato court (NG Kinmei 1-3, Sakamoto 2:64-65, Aston 2:38).


540 Qin and Han people registers

The Nihon shoki also reports that, in the fall of 540, envoys from the Korean polities of Koryo [Koguryo, Y. Kokuri], Paekche, Silla, and Imna paid tribute. Qin people [Hadahito], Han people [Ayahito], and others who had come from barbarian [neighboring] countries [shoban] were summoned, settled in the provinces and districts [kuni koori], and enrolled [henkan] in household registers [koseki].

Qin [Chin] and Han people has been coming to Yamato for about two centuries, but this is the first record that any had been registered. Notices about earlier migrations, before Chinese writing had taken root in Yamato, say only that the people who came from peninsula submitted themselves to local authority [kika, raiki]. By the mid 6th century, however, the lineages of the most powerful families in Yamato were being recorded in registers. And even people of a certain status who had come from the peninsula, whether on their accord, or having been sent, or as war refugees, were embraced by Yamato localities by enrollment in a domicile register.

The 540 notice observes that 7,053 Qin households were registered. No figure is cited for Han or other households. The Qin and Han immigrants, as their name implies, might have been the descendants of Chinese who had settled in the peninsula in earlier times, when Chinese from these dynasties, or remnants thereof, settled in, or fled to, the peninsula, and contributed to the Sinification of the various Korean clans. Or they might have been, or at least included, Koreans who had served Qin and Han families in the peninsula. Whatever their lineage, most were undoubtedly bearers of skills then in demand in Yamato, whose turn it had become to undergo Sinification, through Korea, which had already adopted Chinese writing and culture, including Buddhism.

To be continued.

Later in 540 envoys from the Koma (Kora), Kudara (Paekche), Shiraki (Silla), and Mimana (Imna) paid tribute to the court. This notice is followed by the following very interesting description of how large numbers of Qin and Han people came to be were affiliated with Yamato (NS Kinmei 1-8, Sakamoto 2:64-65, Aston 2:38-39)

[The court] summoned whose of barbarian countries [shoban / tonari no kuni] who had thrown themselves on the mercy of the court and changed their allegiance [toka], Qin people [Hadahito] and Han people [Ayahito] and others, peacefully placed them [naberashimete] in the provices and districts [kunikoori], and enrolled them in household registers [henkan koseki / he no futami ni tsuku]. The number of Qin people households [ko] totaled 7,053 households [ko]. [The court] made Hada no Tomo no Miyakko the Director of Treasury [Ookura no Fubito].

Sakamoto translates the "shoban toka sha" as "tonari no kuni no onodzukara maukeru hito", which means "people of neighboring countries who came of their own accord". The verb is "mauku", a euphonic form of "mawiku" or "mairikuru", the Yamato reading for "sanrai". The term describes the "coming" of someone of lower status. In present-day Japanese one would say "maitte kuru". The this is an interpretation, not a translation, of the Chinese term.

The first notice of people coming from overseas and giving their allegiance to the Yamato court appears in the chapter on Sujin, the legendary 10th emperor (NS Sujin 12-spring-3-11, Sakamoto 1:248-249, Aston 1:160).

Different tibes with interpretors came. Already [these people from] beyond the sea [kaigai / wata no hoka] [people] have submitted and changed [kika].

Regarding this notice, Sakamoto remarks that "There are no notices of foreigner [gaikokujin] coming to the court [raichō] or submitting and changing [kika] until this. Or does this refer to the notice about the submission [fukuzoku] outside the capital [kigai] by the generals of the four roads [shidō shōgun]?" (Ibib. n. 11) The remark alludes to the preceding notice, which the emperor reports to his ministers (NS Sujin 9-fuyu-10, Sakamoto 2:248-249; Aston 1:159):

Now those who have rebelled have completely prostrated to punishment [by death]. The inner provinces [kinai] are without events. Only the rowdy tribes beyond the sea, their disturbances have not stopped. Generals the four roads, now hasten and set out [to suppress them]."

Sakamoto remarks that "kaigai" [beyond the sea] actually refers to "kigai" [beyond the inner provinces] -- the counterpart of "kinai" [the inner provinces] -- and not "umi no soto" or "beyond the sea" (which he dubs "wata no hoka" in translation (Sakamoto 2:248, note 3).

See Reports from early records: Natives and barbarians at the dawn of Japanese history for texts, translations, and commentary on these and other accounts in Japan's early chronologies.


7th century

Late in the 7th century, the Yamto court, which had called its dominion Nihon since no earlier than 621 (Sakamoto 2:204-205, Aston 2:148-149) or 670 (Sakamoto 2:204-205, Aston 2:148-149) introduced a Chinese-inspired legal system that included the selective use of population registers to keep track of certain groups of people, particularly aristocratic clans. Under the new administrative system, consisting of offices and laws that reached throughout the provinces, the reformed Japan came closer to being a nation than Yamato had been, though clan rivalries and divisiveness would prevail for another millennium and prevent the emergence of a state until the late 19th century.

Some early chronologies speak of Koreans and Chinese only as "coming across" (torai) the sea. Others describe them as "submitting and changing" (kika) in the classical Chinese sense of accepting the moral influence of a sovereign. "Kika" now means "naturalization," a legal process not defined in Japanese law until 1899.

In the late 7th century, concurrent with the defeat of Paekche and Yamato in Korea, and after decades of court intrigue and civil war in Yamato, victorious clans adapted to their own visions of social order a Chinese-inspired administrative and legal system that included the idea of domicile registration as a means of keeping track of people and their status. Yamato became Nihon, a new name for new country. Under the reformed government system, which consisted of offices and codes [ritsuryo] that reached throughout the provinces, the new Japan came closer to being a nation than Yamato had ever been -- though the clannish divisiveness of the Yamato centuries would prevail for another millennium, and prevent the emergence of a true nation, until the late 19th century.

Under the new legal system, being registered was tantamount to being assigned a place in the social and political hierarchy, often of a particular territory. The affiliation of whole villages, too, might be changed simply by associating their registers with another territory. This principle of territorial affiliation continues to define the relationship between a populace and a municipality and prefecture in Japan even today.

A semi-autonomous populace continues to be defined by a set of domicile registers. Each register (even when consisting of only one member) defines a corporate family, which constitutes the smallest and most primary "territorial" nexus within the nested municipal, prefectural, and state polities that add up to the sovereign nation and territory of Japan. This way of thinking about populace and territory provided the rationale for territorial nationality in the Japanese Empire of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.


8th century

In the 8th century, to return to our story, the ethnic composition of Japan was both complex and dynamic. Japan's earliest records document a number of groups, including people or peoples closely related to, if not actual ancestors of, the Ainu, who still inhabited northern parts of the main island now called Honshu. But the most salient groups were the descendants of immigrants and refugees, including many aristocrats and even royalty, mostly from Korea or via Korea.


9th century

The Shinsen Shojiroku (Newly compiled Register of clan names and titles of nobility), an early 9th century peerage, confirms that nearly thirty percent of the titled aristocracy residing around present-day Kyoto were of Korean or Chinese descent. By this time, of course, the members of such clans would have been from several to many generations removed from the original immigrants, and they would have become extremely mixed through intermarriage.


815 Shinsen Shojiroku

The most significant population register in early Japan was the Shinsen Shojiroku, a peerage last compiled around 815. According to this register, about thirty percent of all aristocratic clans in the vicinity of the Heian capital in present-day Kyoto were of continental origin. By then, migration from the peninsula had stopped. Families mixed. Old families faded and new ones emerged. The passage of time and memory made it increasingly difficult, if not pointless, to keep track of lineal origins that no longer mattered.

The imperial family and other putatively indigenous clans maintained their powers by reserving the highest ranks of nobility for themselves. To clarify the caste-like status of all clans, the Yamato court commissioned the compilation of aristocratic peerages, which listed titled clans residing in the Heiankyo capital at present-day Kyoto and in the five surrounding provinces. The Shinsen Shojiroku (Newly compiled Register of clan names and titles of nobility), the last such peerage to be compiled in early times, was completed around 815.

This 9th-century peerage lists 1182 clans, of which 326 (28 percent) were of immigrant (Korean or Chinese) origin, while 335 (28 percent) were imperial (sun-deity) clans. Some 404 (34 percent) were other indigenous (deity) clans, and 117 (10 percent) were of unauthenticated (undetermined) lineage. (Source Percents are mine, computed from tallies in Richard J. Miller, Ancient Japanese Nobility (The Kabane Ranking System), Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974, p. 190. Comment Imperial clans were designated "kobetsu", indigenous clans with titular deities other than the sun goddess were called "shinbetsu", and immigrant clans were labeled "shoban" -- the "ban" being the same Chinese graph that was used in the Nihon shoki to label the Imna wives of Yamato men as "barbarian".)

Over half of the imperial clans (54 percenet) and the immigrant clans (53 percent) lived in the Chinese-style capital itself, while the vast majority of the clans in the other two categories resided in the provinces. Of the clans that were domiciled in the capital, most imperial clans (57 percent) and most other indigenous clans (56 percent) lived in the left district [sakyo], while most immigrant clans (59 percent) and unauthenticated clans (68 percent) lived in the right district [ukyo]. While the immigrant clans were as likely as the imperial clans to be domiciled in the capital, they were more apt to co-reside with the lower ranking clans of unconfirmed ancestry. (Source Miller 1974, p. 190. Comment District subtotals were tallied by Miller. Heiankyo and district subtotals were tallied by me using Miller's figures. All percents are my calculations.)

The titles of nobility corresponded to the services that a clan rendered the Yamato court at a time when families were essentially occupational guilds. The higher the title, the more prestigious if not essential the service, and the more likely the service was rendered by an indigenous clan. Of the first six titles listed in the peerage, the imperial clans clearly dominated the first two and the fifth and sixth, while the other indigenous clans dominated the third, and the immigrant clans dominated the fourth. Yet immigrant clans are generally well represented in the next six titles on the list, and they dominate one. This would seem to indicate that, by the end of the 7th century, when most of the titles had been assigned, immigrant clans had become an indispensable part of the Yamato nobility. (Source Miller 1974, pp. 189-190, 94-101)


Recent past: Become Japanese

Commingling in Japan, between settled people recent migrants from other countries, especially Korea and China, has always been relatively common. Mixing also occurred in neighboring countries between Japanese migrants and local people.

From the middle of the 16th century, Europeans, mainly men, began coming to Japan. Some of these men had relationships with local women as prostitutes or mistresses, but also as wives.

By the third decade of the 17th century, however, an isolationist mood led to restrictions of travel by Japanese subjects away from and back to Japan, and to the exile from Japan of men from selected European countries, with their Japanese wives or mistresses, and with their offspring,


17th century


18th century


19th century

By the middle of the 19th century, the 1715 decree seems to have become the standard for treating the local offspring of all non-Japanese men in Japan. European fathers petitioned the authorities to recognize the right of patrilineal nationality, which was the standard in continental Europe.

Apparently this patrilineal view was adopted in 1862, enabling the local offspring of mixed parentage to accompany their fathers to Europe (Takasaki 1953:197). Takasaki claims that a 1873 Great Council of State proclamation made the offspring of unmarried Japanese women Japanese, but I have yet to find this. There is mention of offspring in the 1873 proclamation on intermarriage (see article on 1873 Proclamation).

Nationality in the 19th century

Rules (not yet "laws") determining who was affiliated with Japan were changed again in 1873 by the Council of State (Dajokan), making the offspring of unmarried Japanese women nationals (subjects, not yet citizens) of Japan. [n 20] The same edict provided that foreign women who married Japanese men became Japanese nationals, and that Japanese women who married foreign men lost their status as Japanese nationals. [n 21]

pure race equals jus sanguisi   Sawaki Takao, "Haigai shugi to haigai shugi no kimyo-na kongo (Kokusekiho kara mita 'Nihonjin to wa nani ka') [The peculiar amalgam of worship of the outside and exclusion of the outside ('What are Japanese people?' seen from the Nationality Law)], Asahi Jaanaru, 23(32)1173 (7 August 1981), p. 95.

This strictly patrilocal and patrilineal criterion for nationality was in concert with the laws of most other countries in the world. Yet it also reflected the fact that in Japan, as in most other parts of the world, a man's wife, and the children she bore him, were generally regarded as affiliated with his family, clan, race, or ethnic group. Anthropologists, and other students of how family and clan affiliations are determined, recognize that Japan, like other geographically extensive countries with socially complex populations, has been the locale for a variety of affiliation practices at any given time in its history. [n 22] Still, by the 19th century, over two millennia of exposure to Confucian thought about primogeniture had made both patrilocality and patrilineality the criteria for the family affiliation of the wives and children of at least first sons, who were really all that mattered in the vast majority of extended corporate families. Such patriarchy fell, of course, within the mainstream of practices throughout the world.

The emerging notion of the state (kokka), as an extension of the imperial family headed by the Tenno, was not without strongly racialist sentiments. By the late 1800s, these sentiments had taken the form of a supremacist ideology that viewed the state of Japan as the heart and muscle of the Yamato race (Yamato minzoku), and this ideology fueled several decades of expansionist aggression that continued until the summer of 1942, but was totally reversed by the fall of 1945.

Yet the fact that one became Japanese through birth primarily on the basis of whether one's father was a Japanese national, and never on the basis of his race or ethnicity--and the fact that neither race nor ethnicity was a qualification for acquiring Japanese nationality through adoption or naturalization--meant that no one become Japanese in accordance with "pure race equals jus sanguinis" (junsui-na minzoku = ketsuen shugi). [n 23]

By the beginning of World War II, millions of non-Yamato peoples had been nationalized by Japan against their will, through conquest, annexation, and colonization. The list of peoples who were made Japanese nationals without their consent includes the people of Okinawa, the Ainu of Hokkaido and the Southern and Northern Kurils, the Ainu, Uilta (Orokko), and Nivkh (Gilyak) of South Sakhalin, the wholly or partly non-Mongoloid settlers of the Ogasawara (Bonin) Islands, the peoples of Taiwan (Formosa), and the people of Korea. As minorities, these new Japanese nationals were subjected to assimilation policies that sought to erase their non-Yamato ethnicities and non-Japanese allegiances. These policies differed according to whether the minority was relatively indigenous (Ainu and Okinawans), relatively immigrant (Ogasawara Islands), or mainly colonial (Taiwan and Korea).

This granting of Japanese nationality to such a variety of new imperial subjects, in the heyday of Yamatoism, was proof, however macabre in light of the statist coercion involved, that being Japanese was formally, at least, a matter of neither race nor ethnicity. The manner in which a person became Japanese through birth, or was later granted nationality through adoption or naturalization without little or no obligation to be assimilated, was further proof that being Japanese was essentially a question of legal status, not genes or culture.




Cited and consulted sources are shown in parentheses in the body of the text. Full descriptions of the sources, and a key to abbreviations, are found under References at the end.

Nihon shoki

The primary source for accounts of how overseas migrants came to be affiliated with the population of Yamato in early Japan is Nihon shoki [Chronicles of Japan], the first of six national histories which cover from legendary times down to 971. Nihon shoki gives more play to Emperor Tenmu (r. c672-686), followed by Empress Jito (r. c686-697), his neice and principal wife, who succeeded him. This is fortuitous for us because it is during their reigns that Paekche was defeated by Silla and Tang and refugees from all three Korean kingdoms, including some Chinese, came to the islands.

Nihon shoki is without question the most important single source of information about early Japan. Its sequel, Shoku Nihongi, calls it Nihongi, and states that it was presented to the Empress Gensho in 720 (Yoro 4-5-21) by Prince Toneri (676-735), a son of Tenmu by another neice (SN 1:81, Reischauer 1937:177). Its 30 chapters begin with the Age of the Gods and end with Jito's abdiction in 697. One of its compilers, Oo no Yasumaro (d723), was the principle compiler of the Kojiki [Record of ancient matters], an earlier account of the past completed in 712.


Unless otherwise noted, all translations are mine. In principle I have translated original texts literally in order to preserve structures that are not consistently rendered in other translations.

Kojiki, Nihon shoki, and other such works were written primarily in Chinese. In time the Chinese texts came to be puncutated and sometimes even annotated to facilitate on-site translation into Japanese. Today most people read translations based on these punctuated texts.

In comparing published Japanese and English translations with the original texts, I have found most translations to be too free in their renderings of key expressions. Repititions of the same phrases and words are often rendered many ways, which destroys the structural and lexical consistency of the original.

Aston's translation of Nihon shoki, while remarkably close and accurate, is simply too free when it comes to the terminology used to describe how migrants from the continent were integrated into the Yamato population. Sakamoto is comparatively more consistent than Aston, but he too imposes external interpretions on some key expressions, and also conflates some expressions which, on the surface, are not the same and should be illuminated differently.

I have therefore tried to be as faithful as possible to the received Chinese phrasing and metaphors. While at times this may result in awkward English, the literalness pays off in greater understanding of what was actually written.

Chinese literacy

The literati in Yamato at the time Kojiki and Nihon shoki were compliled included not a few people of recent continental descent. In fact, their compilers appear to have included several such people.

Many of the migrants from the continent had been welcome in Yamato precisely because they were fluent in Chinese. They were, afterall, the bearers and conveyors, as teachers, of everything written in Chinese, from Buddhist texts to works of literature, philosophy, history, and law.

Practically all of the Nihon shoki is written in Chinese. Yamato names, and a few Yamato poems, are written in Yamato using Chinese characters phonetically, but even they are embedded in an essentially Chinese text.

Compilers of works like Kojiki and Nihon shiki were undoubtedly native speakers of one or more dialects of Yamato if not Korean. Yet most must also have been able to speak Chinese, or at least be able to read and write Chinese as Chinese. Their literate contemporaries, too, must also have been able to understand written Chinese as Chinese.


K      Kojiki
NSK    Nihon shoki
SNG    Shoku Nihongi
SSJR   Shinsen Shojiroku


Aston, W.G. [William George] (translator) [1841-1911]

Nihongi (Chronicles of Japan from the Earliest Times to AD 697)
Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle Company (two volumes in one)
Aston's translation was first published in two separate volumes by the Japan Society in 1896. The two volumes were republished as two volumes in one in 1924, and the 1972 Tuttle publication is a facsimile of this later edition. This continues to be the only complete translation in English. It is remarkably reliable, but is best used together with the original text and other Japanese sources.

Chamberlain, Basil Hall (translator) [1850-1935]

Translation of "Ko-Ji-Ki"
(Or "Records of Ancient Matters")
Second Edition
[With Annotations by the late W.G. Aston]
Kobe: J.L. Thompson & Co. (Retail) Ltd.
Chamberlain's translation first appeared in 1882 as supplement to Volume X of the Transactions of the Asiatic Society of Japan. Remaining stock was destroyed in the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. This edition was prepared from a copy of the supplement belonging to Aston and reproduces the notes he had penciled in the margins. It includes cross references to Aston's Chronicles of Japan, which had not yet been published he made the annotations to Chamberlain's translation of Kojiki.

Kurano Kenji and Takeda Yukichi (translators and annotators)

Kojiki / Norito
[Records of ancient matters / Words of prayer]
Nihon koten bungaku taikei [NKBT]
[Survey of classical literature of Japan]
Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten
NKBT Volume 1, 1978 [22nd printing]
Kojiki has been studied over the centuries possibly even more than Nihon shoki on account of its being less a Chinese-style chronology of political events than a collection of legendary tales. Though many annotated editions have appeared since volume in the NKBT collection, it continues to be a valuable guide.

Miller, Richard J.

Ancient Japanese Nobility
(The Kabane Ranking System)
Berkeley: University of California Press
University of California Publications: Occasional Papers Number 7: History

Philippi, Donald L. (translator)

Princeton: Princeton University Press

Sakamoto Taro, et al. (translators and annotators)

Nihon shoki [Chronicles of Japan]
Nihon koten bungaku taikei [NKBT]
[Survey of classical literature of Japan]
Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten (two volumes, jo/ge)
Volume 1 [Jo], NKBT Volume 67, 1967
Volume 2 [Ge], NKBT Volume 68, 1965
There are numerous scholarly and popular guides to this important chronology, but this NKBT edition continues to be an adequate standard if used with care.