ancient japan and korea -- 5/17/22

Today's selection -- from Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared M. Diamond. The complicated history of the Japanese and Korean peoples:

"Whereas archaeological deposits in the United States were left by peo­ples (Native Americans) unrelated to most modern Americans, deposits in Japan, no matter how ancient, are believed to have been left by ancestors of the modern Japanese themselves. Hence archaeology in Japan is sup­ported by astronomically large budgets and draws public attention to a degree inconceivable anywhere else in the world. Each year, Japanese archaeologists excavate over 10,000 digs and employ up to 50,000 field workers. Twenty times more Neolithic sites have thereby been discovered in Japan than in the whole of China. Accounts of excavations appear almost daily on TV and on the front page of Japan's largest newspapers. Determined to prove that the ancestors of the modern Japanese came to Japan in the remote past, archaeologists reporting on the excavations emphasize how different Japan's ancient inhabitants were from contem­porary peoples elsewhere, but how similar they were to the Japanese today. For instance, an archaeologist lecturing about a site 2,000 years old would draw attention to the garbage pits into which the site's inhabitants threw their raw garbage, illustrating that Japanese at those distant times already practiced the cleanliness on which their supposed descendants pride themselves today.

"What makes it especially difficult to discuss Japanese archaeology dis­passionately is that Japanese interpretations of their past affect their present behavior. Among East Asian peoples, who brought culture to whom, who is culturally superior and who is a barbarian, and who has historic claims to what land? For instance, there is much archaeological evidence for exchanges of people and material objects between Japan and Korea in the period A.D. 300-700. The Japanese interpret this to mean that Japan conquered Korea then and brought Korean slaves and artisans to Japan; the Korean interpretation is instead that Korea conquered Japan, and that the founders of the Japanese imperial family were Korean. 

"Hence when Japan sent troops to Korea and annexed it in 1910, Japan­ese military leaders celebrated the annexation as 'the restoration of the legitimate arrangement of antiquity.' For the next 35 years, Japanese occupation forces tried to eradicate Korean culture and to replace Korean with the Japanese language in schools. Korean families that have lived in Japan for several generations still find it difficult to acquire Japanese citi­zenship. 'Nose tombs' in Japan still contain the noses cut off of 20,000 Koreans and brought to Japan as trophies of a 16th-century Japanese invasion of that country. Not surprisingly, loathing of the Japanese is widespread in Korea, and contempt for Koreans is widespread in Japan.

Eta Funayama Sword: iron blade with inlaid silver inscription.

"As just one example of how seemingly arcane archaeological disputes can arouse passion, consider the best-known archaeological relic of pre­-chronicle Japan: the Eta-Funayama sword of the 5th century A.D., desig­nated a national treasure and held in the Tokyo National Museum. Inlaid in silver on the iron sword is an inscription in Chinese characters, one of the oldest surviving samples of writing in Japan, referring to a Great King and an official serving him and a Korean scribe named Chōan. Several of the Chinese characters are incomplete, rusted, or missing and must be guessed at. Japanese scholars traditionally took the missing characters to mean that the king was the Japanese emperor Mizuha-wake of the Beautiful Teeth named in the 8th century Japanese chronicle. In 1966, however, the Korean historian Kim Sokhyong showed Japanese scholars with the suggestion that the missing name was actually King Kaero of Korea, and that the named official was one of his Korean vassals who were then occupying parts of Japan. What really was 'the legitimate arrangement of antiquity'?

"Today, Japan and Korea are both economic powerhouses, facing each other across Tsushima Strait, and viewing each other through poisoned lenses of false myths and real past atrocities. It bodes ill for the future of East Asia if these two great peoples cannot find common ground. A cor­rect understanding of who the Japanese people really are, and how they diverged from the closely related Korean people, will be essential to find­ing that common ground."



Jared M. Diamond


Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies


W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.


Copyright 2005, 2003, 1997 by Jared Diamond


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