Jomon Japan is fantastic. It ought to be preserved in stone. It was preserved in stone. For 10,000 years, this New Stone Age culture flourished. It is one of the longest-running single traditions in the world. A man, woman or child dying in, say, 10,000 B.C. and coming back to life circa 400 B.C. would have found the essentials of life pretty much unchanged.
Not entirely. Pottery styles evolved, stone tools grew slightly more refined, housing marginally more comfortable. But metal? None. Woodworking? None. Agriculture? Almost none.
No war either, apparently. Archaeologists conjecture as much from a general absence of hacked bones and bashed-in skulls.
You can write volumes about the Jomon Period (circa 10,500 B.C. to circa 300 B.C.), but you can also, if pressed, sum up all those millennia in a paragraph or two. Jomon pottery is among the world’s oldest. Jomon ceramic figurines likewise. They are known as dogu and are startlingly, starkly, primitively, hideously beautiful — representing, for the most part, pregnant women; fertility symbols, in all probability. Emerging very early in the period, they endured until the very end, as did the hunting-gathering economy that was bountiful enough, evidently, to make the revolutionary leap to agriculture unnecessary .
Think of all the world civilizations that rose, evolved, fell and (sometimes) rose again while Jomon remained obdurately Jomon: Mesopotamia; Egypt; Shang, Chou and Ch’in China; Harappan and Vedic India; classical Greece, Old Testament Israel. Would Japan remain eternally sunk in primeval darkness? — (or, if you prefer, eternally preserved in uncorrupted, free and happy innocence?)
The decisive event, in the third century B.C., was an immigrant wave charmingly mythologized as a Chinese mission in search of the “isles of the immortals” mentioned in Taoist lore. More likely the voyagers were war refugees, China then being in the throes of turmoil that proved mother to the majestic Han Dynasty (206 B.C. to A.D. 220). The immigrants brought with them seeds of civilization — wet rice agriculture, metal-working and notions of social organization that somehow, for better or for worse, the Jomon never hit on themselves. That was Japan’s first revolution — its first change, almost.
The Yayoi Period (circa 300 B.C. to A.D. circa 300) edges Japan at last, slowly, from prehistory into history. What do we know about it? What bones, shards, fragments of this and traces of that tell us — tell the specialists, rather, who contradict each other at almost every turn. Let the explorer beware. Certainties are few.
Agriculture revolutionizes everything, not just food production. Nomad bands settle down, become villagers, submit to rulers. Gods evolve, priests emerge, ritual grows complex. A food surplus stimulates crafts by liberating some workers from food production. Some get rich, others stay poor or grow poorer, the pride of the former no doubt kindling the resentment of the latter. Scholars detect class distinctions in graves, the rich buried with grave goods, the poor buried naked, so to speak.
Metal strengthens tools and weapons. Which to wield, the plow or the sword? Moats and watchtowers unearthed around Yayoi agricultural settlements imply the need for constant vigilance against the earliest practitioners of the “way of the sword.”
Iron was the practical metal, bronze the ornamental one. Conspicuous among Yayoi bronze artifacts are mirrors and bells. The mirrors, it is speculated, were shamans’ media to the gods. The bells, mostly without clappers, were not for sound, evidently. What then? Display? Prestige? Many resemble bells that in Korea were attached to horse trappings. But did Yayoi Japan raise horses? Or pigs, or cattle? Some scholars say yes, others no.
Beauty takes many forms. The raw beauty of Jomon dogu is tamed by Yayoi. Decoration “combed into” some of the bells include what has been called the flowing water motif — parallel horizontal undulating lines; signifying what? A magical appeal for adequate water for the rice crop? That’s one hypothesis.
Perhaps the 14 shell bracelets found on the right arm of a male skeleton needs no explanation, jewelry speaking a universal language, but the thing to note here is the bracelets’ apparent provenance — the Ryukyu Islands, hundreds of kilometers away from the skeleton’s burial ground in northern Kyushu. This suggests extensive trade networks, as do rice grains unearthed in Tohoku, whose cold climate would have prevented local cultivation.
We are on the threshold of something momentous: Japan’s entry into written history. Japan had nothing to do with it — Japanese literacy was centuries down the road. But Yayoi Japan drew the attention of Chinese historians as early as the first century A.D. They gave Japan its first known name: Wa — an apparently belittling term signifying dwarfishness.
The first ever written reference to Japan, circa A.D. 82, speaks of the Wa people as “divided into 100 countries. Each year envoys from Wa bring tribute (to the capital of Chinese-occupied Korea).”
A century or so later: “The country of the Wa was in a state of great confusion, war and conflict raging on all sides.”
Another milestone is in sight: the emergence of Japan’s first nonmythical, historical (though very hazy) character, Queen Himiko. A third-century Chinese chronicler says of her, “She was old and unmarried and had devoted herself to magic, by her skill in which she gained favor with the people, who made her their queen.”
She sought, and found, favor in Chinese eyes — she needed it for support in wars against her neighboring enemies. A delegation she sent to Han Korea in A.D. 238 returned the following year with an encouraging (if patronizing) missive: “Herein we address Himiko, queen of Wa … (your vassals) have arrived here with your tribute of four male slaves and six female slaves, together with two pieces of patterned cloth. You live very far across the sea, yet you have sent an embassy with tribute. Your loyalty and filial piety please us exceedingly.” Gifts expressive of this pleasure included 100 bronze mirrors.
And where, one wonders, was the “country” which Himiko ruled? Astonishingly, no one knows. For 1,000 years some have said Kyushu, others central Honshu. The controversy continues.
Michael Hoffman blogs at www.michael-hoffman-18kh.squarespace.com.