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Insider: Turning Japanese Volume 61 Number 1, January/February 2008
by Andrew Curry

Radiocarbon dates fuel a debate over the origins of an ancient Asian culture.

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The cover to the official catalog for Jomon vs. Yayoi, a 2005 exhibit at Tokyo's National Science Museum that explored the controversy over Japanese origins. The teenage model at left is dressed as a young Jomon, the model at right represents the Yayoi. The same catalog featured a debate between two scholars: Kenichi Shinoda of Tokyo's National Museum of Nature and Science's Anthropology Department, left, and Shini'chiro Fujio of the National Museum of Japanese History in Chiba, right. The headline reads: "Archaeology v.s. Anthropology: Are the Jomon people the ancestors of the Yayoi people?"

For the last four years, Shin'ichiro Fujio and Mineo Imamura have been leading a revolution in Japanese archaeology from a warren of fluorescent-lighted hallways under the National Museum of Japanese History in Chiba, just outside Tokyo. The two men--one an upstart archaeologist, the other a chemist nearing the end of his career--argue that Japanese society is significantly older than once thought.

Their findings, which rely heavily on the accelerated mass spectrometry method of radiocarbon dating (AMS), have rocked the traditional world of Japanese archaeology. For more than a century, Japanese archaeologists depended on comparisons of metal artifacts and pottery to date the critical transition to agriculture and rice farming on the islands to around 300 or 400 B.C. The dawn of the agriculture-intensive Yayoi period marked the end of the Jomon, a culture of hunter-gatherers who occupied the islands beginning around 13,000 B.C. The Yayoi period was a sudden cultural and technological leap forward. Within a few hundred years, the introduction of rice paddy farming, iron and bronze tools, and a sophisticated social structure led to a population explosion across the Japanese archipelago. In effect, the Yayoi period was when Japan became "Japanese." For a society obsessed with its heritage and past, the period is a touchstone.

If the Yayoi took five or six centuries to establish themselves as the dominant culture on the islands, as Fujio and Imamura suggest, the scenario pitting Yayoi invaders against the helpless Jomon becomes much less credible. "The new idea is that the newcomers became familiar with the Jomon, and the Jomon adopted new techniques," Fujio says. "There was no battle between Jomon and the newcomers."

Andrew Curry is a freelance journalist based in Berlin.

© 2008 by the Archaeological Institute of America