Japanese roots surprisingly shallow
Migrants from mainland planted new culture around 400 B.C.
The invaders came from across the sea.
With their advanced technology and overwhelming numbers, they quickly seized a foothold in the new world. The original inhabitants tribes of hunter-gatherers, were driven back or perished.
The story may sound familiar, but this is not the European conquest of the Americas. It is what archaeological research suggests may have happened in prehistoric Japan.
It is a controversial view of Japan's past that should raise eyebrows in a country of history buffs. But it doesn't. Most Japanese have never even heard of it.
That's because while Japanese archaeologists have come to accept the view that their ancestors migrated from the Asian mainland, most popular discussion still adheres to the pre-World War II ideology that the Japanese are racially distinct from other Asians.
"There has been a gap in thinking," said Hisao Baba, curator of anthropology at the National Science Museum in Tokyo. "Archaeology has made a lot of progress, but politics has made it difficult for the general public to take a critical look at their own past."
Of course, Japan isn't alone in mixing history with politics. British archaeologists argue over the extent of Celtic vs. Anglo-Saxon heritage, and Americans have only recently begun to view their past from the perspective of American Indians.
But in few countries are the issues as charged as here.
The question of origin cuts to the core of Japan's identity. Japanese have long celebrated themselves as ethnically unique, partly to offset the humiliation of having to borrow from the modern West.
A sense of difference also made it easier to justify the military occupation of neighbors like Korea and China earlier in the century.
Archaeology in Japan long followed that line.
For much of this century, Japanese archaeologists said Japan's gene pool had remained isolated since the end of the last ice age, more than 20,000 years ago.
Confronted with evidence that a sudden change had swept Japan in about 400 B.C. replacing a millennia-old hunter-gatherer culture with a society that could grow rice and forge iron weapons and tools archaeologists attributed it to nothing more than technological borrowing from the mainland.
But more recent analysis of skull shapes has shown the rice farmers who appeared 2,400 years ago were racially quite different from the hunters whom they replaced.
In the l980s new research on DNA taken from burial remains revealed even more startling results: The islands' first inhabitants had little in common with most modern Japanese but were almost identical to the Ainu, a tiny indigenous group now found on Hokkaido.
The same analysis also showed modern Japanese are close genetic kin to Koreans and Chinese.
A younger generation of Japanese archaeologists now accepts that some sort of migration took place and that ethnic minorities like the Ainu are much more closely related to Japan's original inhabitants.
Debate among researchers focuses on just how many migrants came and whether they violently displaced the natives or peacefully intermarried with them.
"It's only since the 1970s that we started to see this period in history more dispassionately," said Yoshinori Yasuda, a professor of archaeology at the International Research Center for Japanese Studies in Kyoto.
The public remains largely ignorant of these developments, despite the enormous popular interest in Japan's past.
Newspapers, which devote a remarkable amount of print to archaeological finds, proclaim any site, no matter how old, as left by "our ancestors."
School textbooks still give the last ice age as the date of the most recent migration to Japan from mainland Asia if they mention outside influence at all.
Even the museums curated by archaeologists themselves often display diagrams showing how ancient hunters evolved into the present-day Japanese "salaryman."
So widely accepted are such views that when NHK aired a documentary two months ago describing some of the recent DNA findings, it was immediately deluged by more than 200 calls.
"Most of the viewers expressed shock or surprise," said NHK spokeswoman Akiko Toda. "A few refused to believe it."
Archaeologists have a hard time explaining the gap in thinking.
One reason, they say, is it takes time for academic theories to gain public acceptance. Then there is the caution shown by textbook compilers against adding ideas that are still in dispute.
But at root, they say, may be a deep-seated reluctance among Japanese to accept that they share the same genes with their Korean and Chinese neighbors.
The attitude is left over from the start of this century, when Japan was building a colonial empire and justified its domination in terms of cultural and racial superiority.
Until 1945, schoolchildren were taught that the emperor was of divine descent and the Japanese had lived on their islands since the creation of the world.
While such attitudes may finally be changing, saying that the Japanese share recent roots with other Asians remains a social taboo that some researchers even today say they hesitate to break.
"I was afraid when I first published my work. I didn't know what sort of reaction I'd get," said Satoshi Horai, a professor at the Graduate University for Advanced Studies near Tokyo, who conducted the DNA research linking Japanese with Koreans and Chinese.
"Nothing has happened yet," he said, "but that might just mean the public hasn't read my book."
Source: Satoshi Horai, "DNA Jinrui Shinkaron," AP
BOYS LOOK AT A SKULL from the Yayoi Period (300 B.C. to A.D. 300) at the National Science Museum in Tokyo on Aug. 10. Recent evidence indicates that Yayoi people crossed from the mainland and were distinct from their Ainu-like predecessors in the Jomon Period a finding that contradicts the common idea that Japanese have an unbroken lineage stretching back to the ice age. AP PHOTO