Prehistory and Antiquity at the Rising Sun

From the first peasants to the age of chiefs, from hunting to rice cultivation, from lithic tools to the development of iron, Japan has a complex history that must be re-read with archaeological discoveries.

In France, sinceHistory of Japan (1990) by F. Hrail, prehistory is well established. The authors decipher, on the sole basis of the excavations, what say the societies of the past, the traces they left in the ground (p. 7). The reader will therefore not find everything but a lot.

The first farmers

In the Upper Palolithic, from approximately -36,000 -14,000, there was a lobsidian circuit. The archipelago is an active center of trade rather than a terminal zone. Around 16,000 followed the pottery which gave its name to the Jmon period. The long period of Jmon (from the end of the Late Glacial, 16,000 years ago, the first half of the Ier millennium before our era) breaks with the Neolithic equation sedentary lifestyle, agriculture, pottery. It produces strong rope pottery in more than 80 styles without going through agriculture or completely ignoring it, and settles down little.

What was there before the peasants? The study of art and systems of thought in Japanese prehistoric societies (36000-Ier millennium before our era) allows us to replace the catch-all category of hunter-gatherer-fishermen by that of wealth management. The question of whether storage, during the long continuum of Jmon, was aimed at sharing or gifting begins the debate on the forms of power.

Pottery, which produces mutually coherent expressions, questions beliefs. The role of terracotta figurines (dgu), with its inspiring feminine curves, is sometimes linked to motherhood, to pregnancies, to concerns about survival, but nothing is certain in this regard. The book by J. Guilaine, Women of Yesterday (2022), is unfortunately ignored.

The first peasants (Xe century before our re-Ier century AD) find their place in the Yayoi period, also characterized by pottery, which opens the nolithization, with agriculture and social stratification. Rice cultivation spread over some 800 km in 250 years. Lithic tools give way to iron. Habitat group and population are growing. The funeral urn displays a more ostentatious hierarchy. The bones bear traces of warlike violence. But Jmon doesn’t end suddenly.

From the middle of the Ier century in the middle of the IIIe century, is the Iron Age a age of leaders? This is an opportunity to return to social stratification. The traffic in metal from the continent creates a social hierarchy between metal-producing regions and demand regions. very distinct tombs emerge. Bronze ritual bells became symbols of the chief class.

Relations between Japan and China

Lage of princes (middle of IIIe shekel-VIe century) addresses the complex chiefdoms which give rise to debate over the real seat of power. Funeral furniture is becoming standardized. The Chinese mirror, which replaces the bell, attests to Yamato’s links with China, which symbolizes Queen Himiko. The funerary megaliths follow the tombs of chiefs. Their successive funeral trips blur the lines too much for us to be able to speak of a single seat of power, otherwise it would be better to speak of archaic Japan rather than ancient Japan. Archeology illustrates the direct influx of the peninsula from the IIIe century. Japan enters into tributary relations with China and an expanding world-system.

Archaic Japan (VIeVIIe centuries) saw the birth of the state. Each country evolves on the model of the state of Sui and Tang China. Japan forms the unique kingdom of Nihon. Scripture documents the presence of kings known as kimi; archeology, that of centers of power with the birth of a palace system.

Political power existed without urbanization, but the large fortresses, erected against invasions, attest to the presence of a strong power. Between the time of the burial mounds and the founding of the first capital (694), it is impossible to specify the exact nature of political power nor to date the division of the country into provinces which, as established by archeology against ancient texts, did not exist before the first palaces. . In short, no monolithic Antiquity.

Capital time

Japan acquired its first capitals between the end of the VIIe century and the VIIIe century, the origin of the state. A territorial whole is forged which gives substance to the state of the Codes, which disseminates a legal-administrative model in force until 1870-1880. The Heij-ky (710) Nara excavations reveal that the archipelago organized the production and circulation of everything the country produced. Enthronement of Buddhism completes the system. Japan becomes a connected country of 6,300 km.

In the second half of VIIe century, and not without difficulty in the North, power was established, for example with the great fortress of Taga-j. The chronicles postulate the long-standing existence of Japan and the impetus for the Taika reforms, but archeology replies that the entry into force of the Code regime took time (F. Herail had documented this point).

Heian-ky Japan, from the end of the VIIe century at the beginning of XIe century, explores the era of Heian-ky (Kyoto), capital of Japan from 794 to 1869, modeled on the Chinese capital of Changan. Despite a more modest road network than Nara, the Court of Kyoto remained powerful, acting in the North-East and creating large monuments such as the Buddha of Tdai-ji.

Toe century, public order is unstable. Piracy ravages the coasts. The roads are not safe. The state hires professional soldiers, the samurais, who operate in private arms and crumble the state. The authors do not address the shen or private domains, but rather scrutinize the attacks of the state on its margins.

It’s a another story of Japan that archeology reveals, that of the North-East. The area between the 39e and 40e parallels becomes the center of traffic between the North and the South. In the second half of thee century, fortified villages arose whose castle archeology shows that their lords were the prototype of the future Japanese class of warriors. The Court, brought to confront them, discovered their warrior culture and adopted it.

What about the archipelago in its ends? The authors make room, in a sort of excursion, for Hokkaido and the Ryky, little-known areas, often neglected in textbooks in Japan. At VIIIe and at IXe centuries, Jmon generated new cultures, those of Satsumon and the Sea of ​​Okhotsk, then Satsumon absorbed Okhotsk during the first half of the XIIe century, before evolving over the XIVe century to generate the Anoue culture, which enriched and diversified from the XIVe century. Archeology also has its say on the culture of Okinawa, whose origin oscillates between Southern China and that of Kysh: this shows whether the Ryky constitute an intercultural crossroads.

An archeology made in Japan

This is an opportunity to say, before coming to the qualities of the book, that its finish leaves something to be desired. The language, the style, the composition are not without slag. The methodology spills over into the body of the text. An index of themes is missing; the meager glossary does not replace it. A map with all the names of ancient Japan (Kinai, etc.) is missing, as well as the table of boxes, so valuable for the historical context. Technical terms are not always unified. Consistent with the archaeological project, the bibliography includes mainly Japanese items, making it difficult for non-Japanese speakers to go further. Many works in other languages, Western and not only, find no place there, for example those of G. Barnes, S. Kaner, K. Friday and L. Gilaizeau.

From start to finish, the authors adhere to strict archology made in Japan, to the detriment of other approaches. According to a logic that must be clarified. Rest assured, the book is readable, but it avoids the names of the periods, sidesteps the transitions, discusses theory at length, delays the entry into the subject, blurs the connections, avoids a history of Japan which, too linear, favors the Great National Narrative . Hence a resolutely plural Japan. A downside: the strict non-archaeological, connective historical tissue is often reduced to the boxes. It is better to start reading the book with the chronology classic at the end of the volume.

Singular textual economy: where the history of Japan is most often told based on ancient texts that are confirmed or refuted after the fact In archeology, the opposite order prevails. This is the logic of the volume, which explains its discontinuous structure.

The contribution of this beautiful book lies in the iconoclastic archaeological reflection which challenges ancient writings, as well as the hypotyposis of sites. It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t meet the specifications that one might expect from a history of Japan. It will suffice to read the edition of the New history of Japan by P.-F. Souyri, who appeared just after, to fill the seats.