Waraugumi enters a new series of historical articles that will influence the way you see Japan. History? For real? Don’t worry, what we offer you is only a snippet of our library of knowledge. At the end of it all, you’re gonna crave for more. The articles are broken into parts for ease of reading and understanding. Our study into Japanese history begins with the Paleolithic Period of Japanese Civilization (30,000-10,000 BCE). “Paleolithic” denotes the early phase of the Stone Age. It refers to a period when humans were using primitive stone tools. 

Like every garden, civilization begins with seeds and soil. The Japanese archipelago was uninhabited prior to it becoming a garden of beauty, culture, and wonder. Tadahiro Aizawa was the first archaeologist to discover evidence for the study into Japan’s Paleolithic past. He made the discovery not long after the end of the Second World War, in Iwajuku, in 1949. Iwajuku is located in Midori, in the Gunma Prefecture of Honshu’s Kanto region. Prior to the Second World War, no such discoveries had been made. Since then, many similar excavations and research have been conducted to learn more about Japan in the Paleolithic Period. Two interesting methods were used in the investigation – Dentition (the study of dental structures) and DNA studies (focusing on White Chromosomes). We will explore this in another article, in relation to Paleolithic Japan.

In this first part of the overview of Paleolithic Japan, we look at the GEOGRAPHY & ENVIRONMENT of Japan, the POPULATION (Humans and Animals) History of Japan, and the RELIGIOUS and CULTURAL History of Paleolithic Japan.

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Map of Paleolithic Japan (Wikipedia)

“One kind word can warm 3 winter months” [Geography/Environment]

During the Paleolithic Period, it was possible to walk on land from various places (Korea, Taiwan, and Russia) into the Japanese Archipelago, because of the land bridges formed mostly by ice during the Ice Age. There were about 4 ice ages during the Paleolithic Period and temperatures were approximately 7-8 degrees lower than modern Japan. Sea levels were also much lower. Japan was a frozen tundra, towards the north (Tohoku and Hokkaido region). Western Japan might have been more liveable back then as it was less arctic and covered with a temperate coniferous forest. Most of eastern and central Japan was subarctic with conditions of snow and ice. Central Japan was also covered with boreal forests. Not much more has been revealed about the geography and climate.

Investigating the geography and climate of the Japanese archipelago gives us an idea of who were the founders of Japanese civilization, the types of cultures and religious groups that entered in, the social and population history of Japan, the science, technology, arts, knowledge, and even the living conditions of the time.

“The early one wins” [Population]

Humans

Remains of the earliest Paleolithic people in Japan were found in modern-day Okinawa (previously known as Ryukyu), Kyushu, Shikoku, and Shizuoka. Archaeologists and scientists are concluding that the earliest of Paleolithic people in Japan were not from the Japanese archipelago itself but from other neighboring countries and parts of Asia.

Recent studies identified four separate groups of people who could have migrated into the Japanese archipelago. The first group is believed to have arrived from South China through Taiwan and Ryukyu. The second one is also from South China but is believed to have arrived in only after journeying to Southeast Asia. Group 3 is believed to be a mix of South Chinese origin and Tibetan origin, via Lake Baikal in Russia, and group 4 is believed to have migrated into Japan through the Korea Peninsula, which means the Chinese, the Tibetans and Russians could have come in through ancient Korea as well.

A famous stone age resident has been identified as the Minatogawa Man. His remains were found on Naha, Okinawa, and have been dated back to 18,000 years ago, not too long before the transition into the Jomon Period. He was about 1.55m tall with large teeth. The talk is that Minatogawa resembled people from South China (Liukiang man and Zhenpiyan man) and North Indochina (Lang Cuom and Phobinhgia man). Some others dispute that he looks more like Sinanthropus of China and Wajak man of Indonesia.

Whatever the theories have been, there seems to be a growing trend in tracing the roots of the first settlers in Japan – South China. What about the mystery of Ainu? We’ll explore that in another article. There is still no clue to suggest the population size of humans during the Paleolithic Period of Japan.

Animals

Let’s not forget animals. What kind of creatures dwelt in that land? The animals were believed to be predominantly temperate-forest species and that more than half of them were endemic (meaning that they evolved locally in Japan). There were elephants (Stegodon and Mammuthus), rhinos, Yabe’s elks (extinct giant deers), deer (Cervus and Moschus), milu (Elaphurus) and several bovids (Buffalos, Bison etc.) Wild boars existed (the extinct species and the currently existing species) as well. Of course, they had the smaller sized animals such as badgers, weasels, foxes, shrews, moles, hamsters, bats, and hares. Let’s not forget the scary looking ones – bears, wolves and large cats.

Some other animals were believed to have existed during the period but are now extinct – Wild boars, mammoths, Naumann’s elephants, Yabe’s elks and Siberian lions.

The value in learning the population and social history of Paleolithic Japan is connecting the knowledge to questions such as, “Who were the first settlers?” or “cultural and technological roots of Japan” or “What were the first possible things introduced to Japan that still exists today?”

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(Wikipedia)

“Sincerity is the single virtue that binds the divine and the man in one” [Religion & Culture]

Religion plays a big role in the development of a civilization. It often sets the culture the individuals/communities choose to live by. Folklore and religion have greatly influenced Japanese culture. Much of Japanese life revolves around the principles of Shinto (Way of Shin/Kami[God]) and Busatsudo (Way of the Buddha). What about the early settlers of Paleolithic Japan? Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism never came to Japan until much later in history. Certainly not any of the monotheistic faiths either.

Paleolithic settlers in Japan are believed to have been shamanistic (Kitagawa and Miller, 1968) in practice and dependent on folklore. Several archaeological remains highlight the possibility of rituals for the dead. Even then, they were still seeking answers to questions about life and death.

Not much more is known about religious practices and beliefs during the Paleolithic Period of Japan, so there is not much to identify in terms of culture. If there is any clue to this mystery, it ties back to the previous point about who the early settlers were.

Coming Up Next

In this article, we’ve highlighted points about the geography and environment of Paleolithic Japan, the social history and population of the time (including the species of animals that dwelt in the land), and the religious and cultural roots of the Japanese people.

Part II of the Overview of Paleolithic Japan, we look into points about the Life of the Settlers, the Technology and Arts of the time, and the economy of the time.

Sources:

  1. Along the Paleolithic Path, Heritage of Japan
  2. Charles T. Keally (May 1993). A Cultural Anthropological Perspective on the Question of Early and Middle Paleolithic Cultures in Japan
  3. Early Japan (50,000 BC – 710 AD), About Japan A Teacher’s Resource 
  4. Early Japan (until 710), Japan-guide.com
  5. Early Japanese History, Japan Zone
  6. History of Japan, Web-japan.org
  7. History of Japan, Wikipedia
  8. Japanese Paleolithic Period, t-net.ne.jp
  9. Kitagawa, J.M., & Miller, A.L. (Eds). Hori, I. (Author). (1968). Folk Religion in Japan: Continuity and Change. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
  10. Origins of the Paleolithic people of Japan, Heritage of Japan
  11. Out of Africa to East Asia: Gleaning the genetic tale of origins and migration from our mitochondria, Heritage of Japan
  12. Paleolithic Japan, Facts and Details