The Origin of the Japanese: Ruins of Identity Review

Updated on May 14, 2018

Ruins of Identity: Ethnogensis in the Japanese Islands by Mark James Hudson, deals with the origin of the Japanese people. Any question over the origins of a people is naturally prone to be a political battle, and in Japan competing views over the origins of the Japanese has been part and parcel of a long-running debate over the Japanese ethnicity, with the author seeing the current model as being one which is politically appealing but false - that the Japanese have been one people with a minimal amount of population movement into Japan, ever since the settlement of the islands. By contrast, he suggests a dual approach hypothesis, including both population transfers, where the Yayoi farmers came into Japan to largely, if not entirely, replace the Joman hunter gatherers who were there previously, along with cultural evolution within Japan himself. This book largely focuses on defending this hypothesis, splitting it up into different sections - the initial introduction and historiography, the discussion of the replacement of the Joman by the Yayoi, and ethnic transformations in Japan in post-Yayoi era, particularly under the Yamato state (a Japanese polity from the 1st millennia AD)

Chapter 1 constitutes the introduction, which introduces his theory and focuses upon theoretical aspects of the idea of cultural and linguistic diffusion. Japanese ideas of their ethnicity argue that they are linguistically, biologically, and culturally unique and largely self-contained, that their culture and ethnos are closed and bounded, and that even though there may be multiple building blocks for modern Japanese identity, these are tied together by an essential unity. This has formed the modern context into which Japanese anthropology is placed, and the author aims to propose what he sees as being the actual historical reality of the origins of the Japanese people, that there was widespread movements of people into Japan and that the idea of immemorial Japanese ethnic unity is a myth.

Chapter 2, "Tales Told in a Dream" is my favorite chapter despite the rather cryptic title. It covers the historiography of the development of ideas concerning Japanese history. Initially, this was mostly expressed in terms of dealing with texts and myths of the origins of the Japanese people, alternatively focused upon origin from the Chinese (a view expounded by pro-Chinese/Confucian writers), and a divine, purely Japanese origin (expounded by advocates of "National Learning", which was opposed to Chinese influence). Later this transitioned to a more archeological and ethnological approach, which created a strict ethnic division among the historical peoples of the Japanese island, viewing the Ainu as a type of remnant precursor people, while the Japanese were the conquering new arrivals. After the Second World War, in fact even beforehand, this lost currency in archeological circles, rejected for its nationalism and support for the Japanese imperial ideology. Thus, Japanese origin has focused extensively upon the idea of the Japanese being one people from time immemorial, with things such as the introduction of agriculture being cultural innovations that the Japanese learned, rather than being brought with newcomers.

Chapter 3, "Biological Anthropology and the Dual-Structure Hypothesis" deals with the relationship of the Okinawa people, the Ainu, Jomon, Yayoi, and thus the Japanese. The case made by the author is that the Yayoi people, rather than being outgrowths of the Jomon as a cultural model would say, actually are largely genetically different and thus demonstrate that significant population transfers of neo-Mongoloid took place into Japan, serving to replace the indigenous Joman people. Meanwhile the Okinawans and above all else the Ainu represent to a greater extent the previous populations of Japan. Evidence presented includes skull types, genetic samples, bones, and present population traits - these being that the Japanese have traits which different wildly from the Ainu and the Okinawans, this including a reduced rate of those able to wink, and much more people who have dry instead of wet earwax. The Okinawans are more similar to the Japanese in these traits than the Ainu.

Chapter 4, "The Linguistic Archaeology of the Japanese Islands", is concerned with how the Japanese language came into being. Since the Japanese language is quite unique, quite a variety of different opinions have circulated as to what its origin is. This includes, according to the author, an Altaic origin, an Austronesian origin, or a mixed language. There is furthermore no real consensus on the matter. Given the relative linguistic uniformity in Japan, the author claims that any expansion into Japan must have happened relatively recently. The author presents no real conclusions in this chapter other than arguing that Ainu was probably a language existing from the initial paleolithic colonization of the island, and that Ryukyan is descended from Japanese.


Chapter 5, From Jômon to Yayoi: The Archaeology of the First Japanese", deals with covering archaeological elements of the Yayoi expansion. Yayoi are generally seen as the start of agricultural food production in Japan, but claims exist for pre-Yayoi food production and Joman subsidence food gathering did intensify over time. The author assembles a variety of evidence such as the level of domesticated crops and animals, house structure, pottery type, megalithic structures, and tooth ablation to show that there was increasing contact with Korea and that the Yayoi represented a sharp break with the Joman era, which would come about through population movement and displacement.

Chapter 6, "An Emerging Synthesis", deals with the author opposing what he sees as an excessively dismissive view of the important and nature of migrations in archaeology. Recognizing migrations can however, be a difficult task.To attempt to do this there have been a number of models, such as direct models looking at what we can concerning the movement of migrating peoples, or ones looking at source area and end areas to try to examine the social dynamics that drove them (such as in this case, Southern Korea and Kyushu, for the Yayoi expansion). The author uses this to spring into his theory : a dual model of both organic cultural development and migration, occurring over a long time in Japan and where the Joman and Yamoi intermingled and the Joman assimilated. Supporting this are examples from the Iroquois and the Anglo-Saxons to discuss migration and change's differing portrayals in changing archaeological historiography, as well as the colonial contexts of French, British, and particularly Spanish colonialism in the New World with the relationships of natives to the newcomers. The author uses this to express his case of how both continuity and migration could co-exist.

Part III, Post-Yayoi Interaction and Ethnogesis, commences with Chapter 7 "Ethnicity and the Ancient State: A Core/Periphery Approach". This attempts to explain how ethnicity and identity was constructed in Japan during the Yamayo period, placing extensive focus upon economic inter-linkages which crafted identity in the periphery (such as the Ryukans or the Ainus) in relationship to the core. Core and periphery relationships did not really exist under the Joman, only coming into being with the Yamoi and the establishment of the Yamato kingdom. Kinai and Kanto were the centers of this in geographic terms; while periphery groups like the Ainu or the Emishi were constructed in opposition, with other areas first being placed into periphery status politically and later economically. This era of Japanese history was not ethnically homogeneous, but rather heterogeneous and widely varied.

Ainus in 1904
Ainus in 1904

Chapter 8, "The Unbroken Forest? Ainu Ethnogenesis and the East Asian World-System", continues in the same theme in its discourse on the Ainu, the central point being that the Ainu were formed in relationship and interaction with the Japanese. A litany of elements of the Ainu "cultural complex" were presented, such as their ceremonies and material culture. The East Easian world system of trade and communications drove increasing relationships between the Japanese and the Ainu which were vital in helping to sharpen the difference between the Ainu and the Japanese ethnically.

Chapter 9 "Japanese Ethnicity: Some Final Thoughts" returns once again to the question of how to define Japan, the problems of Japaneseness, what has defined and shaped Japan, and some elements commonly cited in its identity, such as rice. It concludes in an overview of what constitutes nation and unity in pre-modern times and the influence in Japan of shared identity and culture, and to some extent the way such arguments are mobilized and used today.

A postscript tells the author's personal connection and this is followed with notes and the citations.

Hudson's book is upon a difficult topic, and this can be confirmed by looking at the sheer number of review which have been pout out on the topic, which a brief perusal of scholarly journals will show. There are a host of different reviews, and these tend to have differing opinions, although they are universally positive in regards to their general opinion of the book. Many of the reasons for why they have opposition to different sections are beyond my understanding of the topic, but nevertheless demonstrate that it is hardly a settled field. However, this said, it can nevertheless be confidently said that there was historically large migrations of people into Japan, and thus the dual-approach method which Hudson favors is probably correct.

There are some things which I would have liked to see differently in the book. My favorite chapter was Chapter 2, which constituted a overview of the historiography of the origin of Japanese identity. To my eyes, this fits much better with Part III, Post-Yayoi Interaction and Ethnogenesis, which really reads almost like a different book than Part II, focused on dealing with more cultural aspects of identity and utilizing principally social arguments rather than archaeological evidence - indeed, the entirety of Part III seems very much speculative, and relies upon the author using a model of ethnic develop which derives from Industrial Revolution Britain, which seems like quite a reach. I'm personally quite doubtful about just how much impact the state could have had in forming pre-modern ethnic identity, but then I am not an expert on Japanese history. Personally I think that separating the book into two books, with one book devoted to the archaeological Yayoi era elements - which I am sure could be expanded - and the other upon a more detailed historiographical and post-Yayoi ethnic evolutions would have enabled the book to be more rationally divided and better meet its different subjects.

This asides, I think the book is quite fascinating and useful. It has some intriguing ideas, such as connecting the world systems theory (that the world is divided into cores, peripheries, and semi-peripheries, of power and economic linkages) to ethnic development in Japan. It presents convincing arguments concerning the idea of large scale migration into Japan. For historians of Japanese history, especially pre-history, it would be a useful book, as would it be for those interested in the history of ethnicity, and to some extent about Japanese ethnography and anthropology. The subject is one which is of broader relevance and importance to Japanese history, given the broader connection to the idea of the Japanese kokutai, the family state, and thus as part of a general study of Japanese history makes sense.

4 stars for Ruins of Identity

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    © 2018 Ryan Thomas

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