Origin of the Japanese People and Language

Origin of the Japanese People and Language

This is a reprint of a post made by muchan on the sci.lang.japan newsgroup. This is but one of many such postings you'll find there. I suggest all serious users look into subscribing to this Usenet group.

The author states that this post is not a definitive piece of work, but presented more to satisfy some curiousity among readers of the sci.lang.japan group. The origins of the Japanese people and language are unusally difficult to trace, but this post makes a good beginning overview to the issues and periods involved. Thanks to muchan for taking the time to present this to us!

This post appears as originally presented, The bold headings are added only to ease browsing

From: muchan (muchan@promikra.si)
Subject: The Origin of the Japanese People & Language
Date: Mon, 23 Mar 1998 13:16:53 +0100

The Origin of the Japanese People & Language

I am posting this message to and . Please follow up to , because that newsgroup is just for that purpose.

(1) Preface

We can read the oldest written form of Japanese from the 7th century. Since that time, the Japanese language has changed, but we can see the continuity very clearly, and we can safely conclude that this is basically the same language that is spoken now on the same islands. Calling this oldest known form "Old Japanese", this message is about the time before that, how this language was formed and where the people who spoke this language came from--about the origin and prehistory of the Japanese people and language.

Because it is about a time before the written history, studies and even many guesses in the fields of archeology, anthropology, mythology, etc., together with linguistical analysis, are also important to knowing the past.

This message does not give the definitive answer to the question, but is just to illustrate the image of prehistory that we can have from the studies that have been done up till now. The author of this message is not an academic researcher in this field, and so this is just to be informative to Usenet readers who are wondering about the origin of us, the Japanese, and to show our own point of view. Most of information here is based on the Book 'Nihongo-no kigen' (Origin of the Japanese Language) by Susumu Oono, Iwanami. I'd be happy to hear if there are some newer findings to replace or confirm he basic image of prehisory that I'm presenting here.

(2) Legends

In Chinese classical literature, at least two texts mention the prehistory of Japan.

Wei Zhi - Dong Yi Chuan (Official history of Wei, about Eastern Strangers, /Gishi-touiden/ -- jp, or known as /Gishi-wajinden/) reports about Japanese in AD 3c. Beside a description of the female governor and the tattooed faces of men, there is a part that says, "When asked, everyone answered they were descendants of TaiBo of Wu (/taihaku/ of /Go/ -- jp )".

Sima Qian (/Shibasen/ -- jp) wrote that Xu Fu (/Johuku/ -- jp) said to Shi Huang Di of Qin (/Shikoutei/ of /Shin/), that he was leaving for the Eastern Sea to search for a medicine for eternal life in Fenglai (/Hourai/ -- jp) islands, which the Chinese people consider to be Japan. He left with about 3000 people, but didn't come back because he became the king there.

From these texts, still many people seem to believe Japanese is just a branch of Chinese. It's too arrogant to ignore these texts, but too naive to believe the legend blindly...

(3) Timetable

To illustrate the prehistory of Japan, I'd put two lines on the timetable. The first line comes around 400 to 300 BC. This is the time when wet rice culture and iron processing came to the Japanese Islands, and the way of life there changed. Yet an older form of the Japanese language started to be spoken from that time. I'd call this phase of the language "proto-Japanese", which later evolved to our Old Japanese.

The second line comes around 200 to 300 AD. By this time, the transformation of people, culture, and language is almost complete, and we see the Yamato people, who will later reign over all the islands of Japan. From this time on until the 7th century, about 2/3 of Japan was under the Yamato people, who spoke Old Japanese.

The historical time between these two lines is called the Yayoi era, named from the name of place where the typical wheel-turned pottery of this time was found.

(4) Pre-Rice Culture Era

Studies of archeology and anthropology suggest that there were at least three groups of people who lived in the Japanese islands before the wet rice culture came.

4.a The Ainu People

In the Hokkaido islands and the northernmost part of Honshuu, there were the Ainu people. Biological study suggests that the Ainu people are closer to the people who form European nations. Linguistically, the Ainu language has similar syntax structure to Japanese, but differs in the use of pronouns used as verbal prefixes. Some linguists consider the Ainu language as a distant family of the Finno-Ugric subgroup of Ural-Altaic language group. Some archeological findings and anthropological studies suggest that the Ainu people are probably a branch of a group of people who originally came from the North Ural mountains, and spread from Finland to Northeast Siberia between 700 BC to 700 AD. This is from the cultural & religious similarity found in old ruins, but culture can be transfered by contact of people, so the origin of Ainu people is still not known for sure.

4.b Aduma-hito, People of the Northeast region of Japan

There still remains a sharp distinction of people, culture, language (dialect) northeast and southwest of a line accross the Honshuu, the Japanese main land. The line is almost identical to the Southwest borders of Niigata, Nagano, and Aichi prefectures now. Northeast of this line, there lived people who probably called themselves Emchu, Enju, or Enzo as a word for man (human being). Probably this word was transformed to Emisi or Ezo in the Japanese language, which later just meant 'northern strangers', so the same word is used to name Hokkaido and the Ainu people a thousand years later. From this word "Ezo", some people wonder if the Ainu people lived in half of Honshuu before, but this wasn't the case. These people had a culture with beautiful earthen vessels, which normally are called "Joomon-style vessels". Joomon-style vessels were made in the Southern part of Japan, too, but the center of this culture was more in the north, and later, when the southern people started to use a more advanced style of vessels, these people continued to use Joomon vessels. Here we can see the continuity of the people to a later time.

Most of what are now the Hokuriku, Chuubu, and Kantoo regions were under the Yamato people's control until the late 6th century. Natives of the seized land were then called 'tori-no saezuru Aduma-hito' or "Bird-song Easterners", who spoke Old Japanese with strange accents. (/Adzuma/ in modern Japanese means "East", as does the word /higashi/, but East as direction in Old Japanese was /himugashi/ "the wind to the sun", /Aduma/ was used to refer to the region). Many males of the Aduma region were sent to Kyuushuu as a guard force.

From the 10th century, the Yamato people tried to seize the Northern part of Honshuu, Michinoku, but here the native people, then called Ezo, maintained their autonomy until the end of the 12th century.

The origin of these people (for prehistory they are called Joomon- jin) is not well known. They seem to be a Northern branch of the 'Mongolian' race, and their language is more consonant oriented than the languages of their Southern neighbors. But the language they spoke before contact with the Yamato people is not known. Someone has suggested that Mt.Fuji meant "Fire Mountain" in their language, but we don't have any evidence.

4.c People of the Southwest Coastal Region

The rest of Japan, before the wet rice culture, was populated by people who probably came from the South by sea. Some cultural characteristics of the Japanese are thought to be from these groups of people. Males had tattoos on their faces, and there was a widespread custom of removing the canine teeth. Women's teeth were dyed black when they married. Marriage and families followed maternal lines, the husbands visiting their wives. The young members of the society were organized into groups of same generations, etc.

Their language, though we don't know what syntax structure it had, must have had the open vowel syllables which remain in the Japanese language today. Modern Japanese still conserve many of the words for body parts from this time.

As a conclusion, these people probably belong to the Malay-Indonesia- Polynesia group, and their closest relations are now found on some islands in Polynesia and Micronesia. I'm interested, but I don't know where these people originated, or how they spread over the Pacific Ocean.

(5) Rice Culture, Shock Wave from Korea

Here we will see about how the wet rice culture was introduced into Japanese life. It changed life and language, and surely we imagine there was a movement of people who came with rice and started to live on the Japanese islands. But before that, we'll look around to see who near Japan had wet rice culture at that time.

5.a. The Origin of Rice, and the Mon-Khmer People

Wet rice culture is started in the area around aroung the current border between Myanmar and China. In around 400 BC, it spread widely over the lower Yangtze region, where the Han (Chinese) people had not yet come. Here in the region, now the southern part of China (Zhejiang, Fujian, etc.), many kinds of people seem to have been living. Chinese literature of the time describes the people in this southern region as strangers, with customs like tattooing, dying and removing teeth, etc.

Among them, people called "Mon" attract our attention. The Mon people were widespread over the lower Yangtze and had their peak in about the 7th century AD. Now they are living as a minority nationality in China and Myanmar. One of 1996 issues of the Japanese edition of _National Geographic_ had an article on visiting this people. The reporter was impressed by their having faces very similar to Japanese, and found customs to similar some commonly found in Japan, such as carrying babies on the mothers' backs, etc. Their language, belongs to the Mon-Khmer language group. However, it is not considered to be close to Japanese, except some of the words for body parts and the system of indexing pronouns, known as ko-,so-, a-, idu(do) in Japanese. This pronoun system for distinguishing near, near(common), far, and indefinite things are common to Korean and Japanese but not in Northern neighbors of Altaic languages.

5.b. Rice Moving to the Southern Part of the Korean Peninsula

It was still during the time that the Han people considered these southern parts of China as a land of strangers, so we don't know exactly which of the people among those who were here with rice started to move out. It seems that they didn't go directly to Japan, but settled first in the southern part of the Korean peninsula until 300 BC. The reason for their moving is unknown, but I imagine it was the time of war between countries in the ancient world of China, and people may have moved out seeking a peaceful land.

Takasi Akiba studied the ethnology of the Korean people, and wrote about the custom of binding rope as a religious ceremony ("shimenawa" in Japanese). This culture must be bound to rice culture, and it can be found widely in the half of today's Korea on the south side of 38 degree line. It indicate that this was the boundary of rice culturing people.

5.c. South Korea, Where the North and South Waves Met

The fact that rice culture didn't came directly to Japan, but it was buffered in Korean peninsula, is an important thing. The rice as southern culture didn't came alone, but it was imported to Japan with many factors of Northern Tungusic cultures together. This mixing of North and South occurred in southern Korea just before it started to move to Japan.

Northern factors: They had a paternal family system. (ul, kara in Korean, udi, kara in Japanese), "5" as a religious number, a three- layered idea of the universe: Heaven(ama)-Middle(nakatu)-Earth(ne), the belief that gods descended from Heaven to a mountain, etc. These factors are common to Tungusic culture and Japanese Shintoism. Many linguistical characteristics of Japanese, common to most of Altaic language groups, are of course among those we count as Northern factors.

5.d. the Wave from Korea

An interesting study shows that the average Korean (163 cm) was taller than the average Japanese (160 cm) throughout history. (Now the younger generation of both countries is taller than that. This is a historical average). The study shows that the average Japanese before rice culture was about 160 cm, but this increased to about 163 cm, but later, in the 5th century AD, it came back to 160 cm. The interpretation is that there was a wave of immigration from Korea, which was big enough to change the average height of the Japanese, but not enough to change the nature of the gene pool on the Islands entirely, and that wave was not followed by any more waves. As time went by, these immigrant people were mixed and assimilated in the sea of native people.

5.e. After the Rice Came

From a cultural point of view, this wave was a shock that changed the way of life entirely. Wet rice culture requires organization of people in a village to make collective work effective. The possession of land and the accumulation of wealth leads to wars and bigger political forces. Rice culture and new technologies changed life in the southern half of Japan, then this new way gradually influenced the Eastern Aduma people's life. From a linguistical point of view, this wave changed the syntax of the language, and replaced many of the basic words.

5.f. Proto-Japanese and Korean

During the early Yayoi era, probably the language of South Koreans and our proto-Japanese were identical. But as time went by, the language on the island started to be influenced by the phonetics of native islanders. Island people didn't have consonant ending syllables so they couldn't hear them clearly. Susumu Oono show many examples to corresponding words.

mil -> midu (water), nunmil -> namida (tear),
nat -> nata (hatchet), pat -> pata (farm),
kot -> kusi (spit), sal -> sa (arrow) -- /sa/ of /ikusa/
kama = kama (sickle), mail -> mura (village)

(Bart mentioned here that the evidence is getting pretty strong that early Korean didn't have consonant-final syllables either.)

Between Ancient Korean and Ancient Japanese, over 20 phonetical corresponding rules were found:
k-k, s-s, s-ch, t-t, n-n, P(F)-p, m-m, s.z-r.l, etc.

The basic vocabulary of body part names from Korea didn't replace Japanese words, but it was transformed into verbs, related to the part of body originally in ancient Korean.

ip (mouth) -> ipu (to say)
ko (nose) -> kagu (to smell)
kui (ear) -> kiku (to hear)
al (egg) -> aru (to be born), etc.
(examples are from "Origin of the Japanese Language" by Susumu Oono)

As for syntax structure, Japanese and Korean are very close, and Japanese, especially in its ancient form, can be thought of as an Altaic language.

(6) The Yamato Expansion

Yamato is the name of a place where the people settled who later seized all of Japan. When these people came to the Yamato region (in Nara prefecture), is not yet known clearly, but their orally inherited myths talk about the war when they came east to settle in Yamato. I think these people were the last wave from the Korean peninsula, who organized politically and started to conquer people who had wet rice culture from former waves. Their myths talk about the war against Idumo in the West, Kumaso (or Hayate) in the South, and later Ezo or Aduma people in the East. As they expanded their territory, their language prior to Old Japanese became the common language on the island.

Ryuukuian, or the language of the Okinawa Islands separated from Old Japanese somewhere between the 3rd and 5th centuries. So, it is either the closest language or the most distant dialect of Japanese.

(7) Civilization

Chinese civilization had one of its peaks in the 6th century. The Yamato people learned from the most advanced civilization of the time by bringing scholars and artisans from Korea. Half of the clans in Yamato were considered to be native clans of this place, and the rest of the clans, which got stronger and stronger later, were those who settled as conquerors and still had stronger ties with the Korean people. Many Korean people immigrated to Japan during this time, bringing technologies and thought like Confucianism and Buddhism, and, yes, knowledge of Chinese characters, too. Later, Japan sent intellectuals to China, to study and absorb their civilization directly. As a result, Japanese borrowed many words from Chinese, but it didn't change the language. The Japanese language is not related to Chinese.

(8) End of Altaic Vowel Accordances

In 1909, Shinkichi Hashimoto found that Old Japanese had two groups of the vowels /i/, /e/, and /o/, so there were 8 vowels and everyone could distinguish them clearly, except those from the distant Aduma people in the East. Further studies on the usage and distinction of these vowels indicate that Old Japanese had vowel accordance, something close to vowel harmony, which is characteristic of Altaic languages like Turkish, Mongolian, and Tungusic languages. It's one of important aspects that indicates the relation of Altaic languages and Japanese, but this vowel accordance and even the distinction of two groups of vowels disappeared by the 10th century. Isn't this a linguistic version of same phenomena, that the average Japanese became 160 cm tall hundreds of years after the shock wave from Korea? As time passes, the Japanese language has been losing the characteristic Altaic part of its origin.

Phonetically speaking, Japanese belongs to the Southern Islanders languages.

Japanese and Korean thus separated about 1800 to 2300 years ago. Korean seems to have been losing its Southern elements, and Japanese has been losing its Northern elements. So, it's not easy for students of today's forms of both languages to find similarities between the two, except for syntax structure and common borrowed words from Chinese.

Return to Tumbleweed's Resources for Japanese


check out sci.lang.japan.