Is There a Homogeneous Japanese Nationality?
February 12, 2005

Shinya Ono (The original draft written last August 9th was reviewed by Dr. Yugo Ono of Hokkaido University and edited by Mariko Ono of Smith College School for Social Work. All remaining errors are mine.)


As an increasing majority of Japanese Americans intermarry, some people are asking, how long will the JA community and Nikkei survive? What kind of vibrant future can we envision for the Nikkei and JA community? Despite such concerns, or perhaps because of them, many active Nikkei are committed to sustaining and developing J-towns with their Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines—preserving these and many other historical sites as a spiritual place, arena of interchange and mutual help, and as a fellowship cooperation with other communities (intercommunalism).

Based on my search for a perspective on this question which has impacted upon my own identity, I would like to present a view on the evolution of Japanese people with a focus on the spiritual and cultural heritage of the Jomon people, a view based on an emerging picture shared by many top researchers who study this subject.


1.     Our creole ancestors: Jomon people

To put the conclusion first: Japanese are all creoles. There is no ethnically, culturally, or linguistically homogeneous Japanese nationality (ethnic group), let alone any Japanese "race." Our ancestors were “creoles” and Japanese today, are “creoles.” 

The native inhabitants of what is now Japan were the Jomon people, a community who were the first to use earthenware (pottery) 12,000 years ago. They began evolving as an ethnic group at the time Japan’s frozen bridges with the Asian continent—via Sakhalin, and possibly via Korea as well—melted at the end of the last Ice Age. The period of this geological shift marked waves of migrations of incredibly diverse ethnic groups—hailing from present day Siberia (Lake Baikal), Mongolia, and Korea, with subsequent migrations from Burma, Malaysia, the Pacific islands, Philippines, Indonesia, as well as China. They traveled peacefully to escape climate changes, natural disasters, and subsequent wars, in search of a mythical land rich with nature and eternal life. The Japanese archipelago became the point of arrival, beyond which was just the Pacific Ocean. On an incidental note, Native Americans are relations of the Jomon people and a number of Jomon people may have reached Alaska and Northeastern U.S. in their migration.


2.     Jomon culture and spirituality: reverence for nature, learning from other cultures, and 10,000 years of Peace

Jomon communities were among the first worldwide to develop earthenware and lacquer ware, 12,000 years ago and 8,000 years ago, respectively. These communities created finely crafted stone tools, jade jewelry, lacquer ware, as well as refined earthenware, which were produced for trade with communities hundreds of miles away in regions that now occupy Korea, the Russian Far East, and probably Shanghai and South Pacific.

Around 5,000 years ago, the Jomon people often lived in communities of around 500 individuals, sometimes grouping into larger federations. In a period of over 10,000 years, they harmoniously blended much of their diverse ethnic identities and cultures in the archipelago of modern day Japan. Several separate Jomon groups, however, asserted their distinction in recorded history: these include the Okinawan, South Okinawan, Ainu, Ezo (who may overlap with the Ainu), Kumaso and Hayato peoples based in Kyushu. The Jomon communities practiced agriculture, shelf-fish farming, and food processing, in addition to food gathering.  Despite knowledge of rice cultivation as far back as 5,000 years ago, they chose not to adopt it as an agricultural means.

Their way of life was characterized by a reverence of nature (worshiping such entities as mountains, forests of big trees, rivers, and the sea and of course the Sun) and consumption of animals (including deer, boar, wolf, fox, bears, and a rich store of marine life including salmon, sea shells and whales) with the exception of dogs, which were revered and buried in the same fashion as humans. Their animal consumption was often accompanied with prayer rituals.

In their communities, the Jomon people fashioned large wooden structures, demonstrating sophisticated measuring techniques and superior architectural prowess. They erected 60 foot high buildings, built with logs of more than 3 feet in diameter. These towering structures appeared to have served as important community structures such as shrines, watchtowers, and/or lighthouses. In their community planning efforts, they practiced recycling by formulating a system of harvesting, waste disposal, and waste reuse. 

The Jomon people believed in "anoyo" (the next world or after life) and designed community graveyards and houses in such a way that individuals who died—especially children—could return.  They worshipped sexuality and the reproductive power of sexual organs, as we can infer from the many giant stone phallic symbols and female figures that are still on display in historic Shinto shines. Many of these symbols have been passed onto tens, if not hundreds of generations over, and still worshipped by many Japanese today as they were thousands of years ago.

There was a clear division of labor marked by gender and age, with special importance given to women and their power of fertility. There were leaders whose role we can infer from the erection of large buildings and 60 foot-high wooden structures. But surprisingly, there is no indication of consolidated social classes or wars (as evidenced by the absence of weapons, skeletons with war injuries, etc.). Of course, there was evidence of what appear to many of us as negative aspects in their culture, including customs such as pulling out teeth for ceremonial purposes, superstitious beliefs, and magic, in addition to having a short life span and demonstrating low productivity in life.


3. New migrations evolve into the Yayoi period

Beginning around 2,500 to 3,000 years ago, new migrations of peoples from what are now Korea and China (not necessarily the same ethnic groups that inhabit these places today) introduced a new system of rice paddy cultivation, a hierarchical class system, the practice of warfare and the custom of eating dogs. This last tradition survived for only a short period, however, demonstrating the Jomon people’s unwavering devotion for dogs. The integration of the new migrants and Jomon people became known as the Yayoi people. In contrast to the Jomon people, the Yayoi tended to have flatter facial features, taller stature, lighter complexions, and tended to grow less facial and body hair than their predecessors.

Due to the Yayoi people, large-scale rice cultivation and accumulation of property brought on a series of wars from around 2,300 years ago, evidenced by artifacts of large fortified villages, bronze and iron weapons, and hundreds of skeletons with wound marks.

Between the 9th and 19th century, mass immigration halted in Japan, marking an epoch which only represents around 1,000 years out of the 12,000-year history of inhabitants with a shared culture in the Japanese archipelago.

During these 1,000 years, the ethnic composition in this region stabilized into three main groups: the mainland Japanese on Honshu (also called the Yamato people); the Ainu people; and the Okinawan people. Of interest, the Okinawan and Ainu languages are not dialects of the mainland Japanese language any more than English is a dialect of German or French. These two languages branched off from what may be termed as the common (rudimentary, pigeon) ancient Japanese and developed as distinct languages considerably more than 2,000 years ago.


4. Present day Japan: a changing multi-ethnic, multi-cultural society

Most of the present-day mainland Japanese are various blends of Jomon and Yayoi peoples.  Jomon blood is stronger in eastern and northern Honshu, Hokkaido, and southernmost Kyushu. Yayoi characteristics are dominant in most of Western and Central Japan as well as in northern Kyushu. In addition, Okinawan and Ainu peoples are more Jomon than Yayoi by a number of physical anthropological, genetic, and cultural (spiritual) criteria.

  Japan is now becoming even more multi-ethnic and multi-cultural due to a combination of immigration from other Asian countries, more than 200,000 Nikkei people especially from Latin America, Western expatriates, and millions of children of Japanese businesspersons working overseas, who become indelibly "un-Japanese" in many ways.

Additionally, there are ethnic mainland Japanese Burakumin people, several million strong, who suffered from discrimination as an untouchable caste for centuries, with hundreds of thousands of children born out of intermarriage ("doubles" or "halves"), wartime returnees from China and most recently, abductees , refugee and their relations from North Korea, most of whom are struggling to find and affirm their identity and an equal treatment in society.


5. Some implications

a) So what do we make of all this? The wisdom of how to respond to the encounter of new peoples and cultures has always existed for our ancestors. Our ancestors have been creoles mixing and learning from other groups, integrating the new with what was good in their own tradition, and creating a more effective amalgamated society each time. And Nikkei people have been practicing this all along. It will be some decades from today, or later, before AAPI, as a new creole group, becomes a main ethnic group. Even then, Nikkei heritage will be a salient element of identity for many children of mixed marriages. Lest we forget: President Roosevelt defined a person with just 1/8 Japanese blood as Nikkei for internment in camps.   

Even when Nikkei and our communities blend into the larger AAPI and other communities and disappear as a major distinct group, it will still not negate our existence or heritage. Nikkei heritage will continue to be a vital presence and must be remembered by future generations, just as the legacy of 300,000 Jomon people been actively preserved in present-day Japan. Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism and dialecticians teach us that nothing is ever permanent, which makes temporary and transitory beings/moments all the more precious now.

b) After 150 years of largely self-deprecating Westernization, Japan now seeks to identify more with other Asian countries. The knowledge that we (now, I am speaking as a Nikkei member of Japanese society) are a creole people whose ancestors journeyed from nearly all parts of Asia and Siberia will be enormously encouraging as we broaden our understanding of our Asian neighbors. If we make this awareness a part of our everyday knowledge internationally, it will help change the reputation that some mistaken Japanese and others have branded of us as a "homogeneous race" with claims of superiority.  It will enable Japan to contribute that much more in building the (greater) East Asian Community, which was heartily declared as the long-term goal by the ASEAN plus 3 (Korea, China, and Japan) summit just last year.

c) Japan can build upon basic values we’ve inherited from the Jomon and other aboriginal peoples as part of the foundation of the Great Change of Heisei Era, which began after the collapse of the economic bubble.

d) As Sartre once said: A human being is a product of her/his own product, but she/he is endowed with some freedom and responsibility. Gramsci (an Italian Marxist) once wrote in prison: Personality means all the social [and spiritual] relationships of which one is the nexus, and changing one's personality means changing those relationships.

Ethnicity is just one of the important social and spiritual relationships we have, and it is up to each of us to ponder and select the aspects of our ethnic heritages that we want to affirm, along with other important relationships. Its importance may wax and wane at different stages of one's lifetime.


On a personal note: I now see myself as a member of a family that is rebuilding itself; as a follower of Shinran’s Buddhism; and as a Nikkei democrat who seeks to contribute to world peace and the great change transforming Japan and the world.  Lastly, I am now a challenged person with Parkinson’s disease and bipolar disorder, an “en”(karmic relationship) which, as my close friends have reminded me, can either stifle or enrich my “project” (Sartre), a process of self-change that’s an integral part of the social change which I began in 1958.  The outcome will depend upon faith (shin) and “reliance on the other,” that is, Buddha/gods/Merciful Power manifested concretely in support and care extended to me.

Peace and health to all my relations!