07 January 2019
Mt Fuji

In search of Japan's roots

Japan's historical and cultural roots are very deep. We must try to understand them, to understand the country today.

Geographical isolation

Japan is a group of islands on the eastern edge of the Eurasian landmass. The Japanese archipelago became disconnected from continental Asia after the last ice age, around 11,000 BC.

Japan's history and culture, as well as its relations with continental Asia, have always been marked by its geographical remoteness and isolation. Japan may be compared with the United Kingdom which has always had complex history with continental Europe.

But Japan is further from continental Asia than the UK is from Europe. Today it takes two hours to fly from Tokyo to Seoul, and three full hours to fly to Beijing. In contrast, it takes less than one hour to fly from London to Paris or Brussels.

Where did the Japanese come from?

One answer to this question comes from Japanese mythology, according to which the sun goddess Amaterasu was born from the left eye of the creator god Izanagi, and sent her grandson Ninigo to Earth on the Japanese island of Kyushu to wed an earthly deity. Ninigi's great-grandson Jimmu, aided by a dazzling sacred bird that rendered his enemies helpless, became the first emperor of Japan in 660 B.C. The chronicles then invented 13 other equally fictitious emperors to fill the gap between 660 B.C. and the earliest historically documented Japanese emperors. Japanese schools taught this myth until 1946, and many Japanese still believe this in their bones.

According to archeologists, the story might be more simple. Japan was populated by the north-moving migrants who started their journey "out of Africa". This was not difficult because land bridges connected Japan's islands to each other and also to the Asian mainland during the Ice Ages. Indeed, stone tools indicate human arrival as early as half a million years ago.

Modern Japan seems to have been formed by at least two main migrations. First, there is the Jomon culture, prosperous hunter/gatherers, who arrived more than 30,000 years ago, before sea levels began to rise. The Jomon culture is probably responsible for the invention of pottery. The world's oldest known pottery was made in Japan 12,700 years ago.

The descendants of this Jomon culture are Japan's racial underclass, the Ainu. Today they have a very small population, somewhere between 25,000 and 200,000 (depending on whether you believe the official or unofficial estimates). They are mainly concentrated in the northern island of Hokkaido, which was only annexed by Japan in the second half of the 19th century. Until then, the Ainu were not even considered to be Japanese.

Second, there was a migration around 2,300 years ago from Korea of people with a wet rice, weaving and metalworking culture (wet rice culture started around the current Myanmar and China border, and spread into southern China around 400BC). And as most everywhere in the world, an agricultural people (the Yayoi culture) was able to dominate a hunter-gatherer culture (the Jomon). While there was no doubt some mixing of these two peoples, some Jomon stayed separate and moved north.

So, in short, the Japanese today are mainly descendants of settlers from Korea. A critical step towards achieving lasting peace and prosperity between Japan, Korea and China could be rediscovering, recognizing and celebrating the ancient bonds between them.

Japan as a borrowing culture

Despite Japan's isolation from continental Asia, it benefited greatly by borrowing from the inventiveness of Korea and especially China.

This includes China's "four great inventions" -- the compass, gunpowder, paper-making, and printing. Other observers talk of the top 10 ancient Chinese inventions, which also include pasta, the wheelbarrow, seismograph, alcohol, kites, hang gliders and silk.

In fact, China's cultural influence on Japan has been enormous, especially through writing systems, Buddhism, Confucianism, architecture and arts and crafts, metal-work, shipbuilding, and music and literature. Many of these influences traveled to Japan through its diplomatic embassies to China over the centuries.

Japan resisted Western colonialism

Japan's shoguns (military rulers) feared Western colonialism and so closed the country to foreigners from the early 17th to mid 19th century. Dutch traders in Nagasaki were the only European foreigners tolerated in Japan from 1639 till 1853.

Movements of the Dutch were carefully watched and strictly controlled. They became instrumental, however, in transmitting to Japan knowledge of the industrial and scientific revolution that was occurring in Europe.

Most other Asia countries, including China, were invaded by Western countries. During this period, Japan was ruled by the Tokugawa Shoguns from Edo (Tokyo). The Emperor, a ceremonial figure, lived in Kyoto.

Despite the knowledge transmitted by the Dutch, Japan remained substantially isolated from the rest of the world. This was however a period of peace and economic development in Japan, during which time it overtook China in terms of GDP per capita. Japan benefited from a remarkable rise in literacy at the time, to 30% of the population, arguably the world's highest literacy rate at the time.

Meiji Restoration in 1868

Japan could not remain isolated forever. In the 1850s, American Commodore Perry and his black ships forced Japan to open up to trade. There was then a domestic coup which overthrew the Tokugawa Shogunate. The Emperor Meiji moved to Edo, which became Tokyo.

With the opening of the country, Japanese leaders realized that the country was way behind the West. They launched a policy of westernization, borrowing knowledge and technology from West. Japan would then develop very quickly.

Japan's reaction to the West was very different from that of China, which thought that it had little to learn from the outside world -- even though it was very clearly way behind the West. China remained well behind Japan and the West for a long time, and would only start its catchup process with Deng Xiaoping's open door policies starting in 1978.

Japan as a rising power

Japan rose very quickly as an economic, military and colonial power. It beat Russia in the 1904/05 war. It colonized Taiwan, Korea and parts of China.

It was a leading protagonist in World War 2, invading much of East Asia. Japan dropped more bombs on Darwin (Australia) than it did on Pearl Habor. Japanese midget submarines entered Sydney Harbor.

Ultimately, Japan was defeated in World war 2, with atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki leading to its surrender.

Japan's relations with its Asian neighbors are still marked by this war time history.

Post-war Japan

Following its defeat in World War 2, Japan was occupied for a few years by the US, under the leadership of General Douglas MacArthur.

The Americans completely refashioned Japan. A new constitution replaced Japan's previous militaristic and absolute monarchy system. For the first time, Japan became a liberal democracy. Some argue that Japan remains a "shallow democracy". One party, the Liberal Democratic Party, has been in power for almost all of the past 60 years.

Under the new constitution, the Emperor of Japan is "the symbol of the State and of the unity of the people" and exercises a purely ceremonial role without the possession of sovereignty. According to Article 9, Japan renounced the right to wage war. To this very day, Japan does not have an Army, but a Self Defence Forces.

Japan has ever since been a close ally of the US, with a Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security, under which both parties assumed an obligation to assist each other in case of armed attack on territories under Japanese administration.

For historical reasons, there has never been a deep post-war reconciliation between Japan and its neighbors, notably China and Korea. This is in sharp contrast to the situation in Europe where there has been a complete reconciliation between Germany and its neighbors. The reasons lies in the political circumstances in post-war East Asia, where Japan was surrounded by enemies in the form of Communist China, North Korea and the USSR. The US was most concerned about developing Japan, and saving it from communism, rather than reconciliation.

Japan is resource poor and prone to natural disasters

Japan is resource poor. It has very little energy resources, other than geothermal. It imports 60% of food requirement.

Thus energy and food security are important vulnerabilities of Japan. Its structure is very complementary with Australia, which underpins the very strong trade relationship.

Japan is also very prone to natural disasters -- earthquakes, tsunamis, typhoons and volcanic eruptions. It is sitting on the "Ring of Fire" in the Pacific Ocean, a 40,000 km (25,000 mi) horseshoe shape which is home to over 75% of the world's active and dormant volcanoes. About 90% of the world's earthquakes occur along the Ring of Fire.

Perhaps the most famous earthquake and tsunami occurred on 3/11 in the year 2011. This led to the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

Until that time, 30% of Japan's electricity was supplied by nuclear energy. Most nuclear power plants are still closed. But the government is pushing to re-open these plants, even though public opinion is against.

About 72% of Japan is mountainous. This means that most of the countries population is concentrated in the Kanto and Kansei regions. This also limits the agricultural potential of the country.

Japan had an ancient tradition of eating whale meat. This was revived following World War 2 by the American occupiers, in light of food shortages at the time. Although few Japanese now eat whale meat, Japan persists in whale hunting to the great displeasure of many members of the global community.

Japan's economic roller coaster

Japan's post-war economy has been a roller coaster. Following World War 2, it achieved very rapid growth until 1990, when a bubble economy burst leading to a financial crisis. Two decades of stagnation followed. In late 2012, Shinzo Abe was elected Prime Minister, and launched a new program dubbed "Abenmics" to revitalise Japanese economy. Following a period of great promise, Abenomics is now struggling.


Japan is a unique mix of ancient traditions, and a high-tech and hyper-modern lifestyle.

Symbols of ancient Japan include its temples, shrines, festivals, traditional lifestyles, salarymen, office ladies, geriatric farmers, Toyota, and Sony.

The hyper-modern can be seen in manga, anime, computer games, Akihabara, robots, otaku, Harajuku girls, maid cafes, youth living in Internet cafes, hikkikomori, Uniqlo, and Rakutan.

Perhaps the most eternal image of Japan is Mount Fuji, as former Cultural Commissioner Seiichi Kondo recounts -- see link below.
Tags: japan, jomon, ainu, yayoi, china's cultural influence on japan

Social share