The Jōmon Period: Japan’s Mysterious Origin Story

The very first people to arrive in Japan came to the islands many thousands of years ago and began what is known today as the Jōmon Period.

Mar 17, 2024By Greg Beyer, Assistant Editor; African History
jomon period early history japan

 

Long before the age of shoguns and samurai, before the Japanese people even arrived in what is now considered their homeland, the islands were already inhabited by people who left a legacy known as Japan’s Jōmon period.

 

Much of the Jōmon Period remains a mystery to archeologists. The people of this time did not have a written language, and much of what is known is due to speculation. Nevertheless, there is also a substantial amount of things we do know. The Jōmon period is a fascinating part of Japan’s history.

 

The First People to Arrive in Japan

miso soup japanese clam
Miso soup with Japanese littleneck clams. Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

Around 39,000 years ago, before human beings had settled down and started the first cities, hunter-gatherers lived following the herds of animals upon which they relied.  As a result of the Last Ice Age, lower sea levels meant that Japan’s islands were connected to each other and, importantly, to the mainland of Asia.

 

Japan is located on the Pacific Ring of Fire. It is a land filled with volcanoes and would have represented an easy resource for early hunter-gatherers who used stone tools in everyday life. Evidence suggests that these early inhabitants were mining obsidian as far back as 35,000 years ago.

 

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As herds migrated into Japan, so did the nomadic people who followed them. When the ice age ended, the glaciers retreated to the north, melted, and the sea levels began to rise. By the end of the Last Ice Age, roughly 10,000 years ago, Japan was a series of islands, and those on them were cut off from the Asian mainland. The herds were similarly cut off and separated from their migration routes. They suffered and began to die off. The people on the islands had to change their lifestyle and began hunting smaller game, becoming more intricately knowledgeable and involved in the Japanese flora and fauna.

 

The glacial retreat also turned Japan into a lush wilderness where trees and plants flourished. Among this flora were nut-bearing trees such as beeches, buckeyes, oaks, and chestnuts, which provided an invaluable source of food for the people of these Incipient and Initial Jōmon periods.

 

jomon era settlement
Hira-ide Historic Site Park is a reconstruction of a Middle Jōmon period settlement. Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

The area around the southern part of Kyushu is of prime importance in archeological research. Theories suggest that people in East Asia had turned to a lifestyle that relied more heavily on a plant-based diet, and discoveries near Kagoshima support this theory. The ruins of Tanegashima, now situated on an island once connected to the mainland, are one of Japan’s oldest sites. The archeological discoveries here exhibit the extensive practice of preparation and cooking of nuts, most notably chestnuts, which may have formed the basis of these people’s diet.

 

As an archipelago, the warmer climate also brought an abundance of sea life to the coastal waters, and much human activity began to center around the harvesting and consumption of this sea life. Large mounds of shells are a testament to this in the archeological record.

 

Prehistoric life at this time was informed by Japan’s climate which has marked seasonal variation. In late autumn and winter, the Jōmon hunted boar and deer. In the spring, they gathered wild greens and shellfish. In the summer, the calmer waters allowed them to venture out into the sea and fish, and in the autumn, attention turned to collecting the plentiful nuts and wild fruit that was available.

 

The Initial Jōmon period lasted until around 5000 BCE, when the population multiplied as a result of an abundance of food and resources made available by a period of warmer, more humid weather.

 

The Early Jōmon Period

uenohara site kagoshima
The Early Jōmon period Uenohara site near Kagoshima. Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

An invaluable resource for archeologists to date and separate cultures according to chronological pragmatics, pottery began to be created in abundance. While the emergence of pottery likely began during the Incipient Jōmon period over 10,000 years ago, 5000 BCE was when the culture began to change. Pottery slowly became more intricate as a culture formed around the creation of earthenware. This marked the beginning of the Early Jōmon period and the end of the Initial Jōmon period.

 

Pottery at this time was simple and decorated with corded designs. As the centuries wore on, the intricacy of pottery design and decoration would develop further.

 

In other areas, the culture also advanced significantly. Limited agriculture was practiced as the culture transitioned from a hunter-gatherer society into a pastoralist one. Lacquer groves were tended, and crops were farmed on a small scale. These crops included bottle-gourd, adzuki beans, soybeans, hemp, and Perilla. There is also evidence to suggest that peaches were also cultivated.

 

The Middle Jōmon Period

middle jomon pottery
A flame-rimmed bowl from the Middle Jōmon period from around 3500 BCE to 2500 BCE. Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

 

The period from 3520 BCE to 2470 BCE is considered the Middle Jōmon period. It is marked by an end to the hunter-gatherer lifestyle as being predominant and an increase in a sedentary way of life. This may have been affected by a spike in climate temperature. The people at this time also seemed to have expanded into the mountains, where it was cooler. Populations also remained in the fertile plains, near the rivers, and in the coastal areas where food was plentiful.

 

Communities became larger, and various parts of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle remained despite the need to support themselves via agriculture. Deer, bear, rabbit, and duck were all hunted, and fishing continued. The shell mounds that began in earlier periods became significantly larger, and burials took place in these by-products of Jōmon society. Clay beads that served an ornamental function in the early Jōmon period became grave goods in the Middle Jōmon period.

 

Archeologists have also discovered increased evidence of ritualistic practices, as attested to by the large numbers of female figurines carved from stone, as well as a significant amount of phallic imagery.

 

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Pottery from the end of the Middle Jōmon period. Source: jomon.co

 

While the Early Jōmon period focused on creating objects more in line with function rather than form, the Middle Jōmon period is notable in that there is a significant increase in artistically inclined decoration – even to the point of it being detrimental to the object’s function. This is most evident in the pottery that was created, and it is likely that many objects were made to be ornamental.

 

Pottery decorations also included animal forms, and it is suggested that there was a culture of totemic reverence, which would certainly not have been an unusual development. Clay figurines were also created with holes in their necks, presumably so they could be hung in the house where they would serve a spiritual function. While the quality of the pottery ornamentation increased significantly, what is noticeable is that the quality of the clay did not.

 

jomon period longhouse
A reconstruction of a building built around 2600 BCE at Sannai-Murayama. Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

During the Middle Jōmon period, houses also became more complex, and the usual pit-floor dwellings started to include floors paved with stone. Walls and roofs were now separated as different parts of the building, and construction became more complex. Thatch and other reeds constituted the construction material of choice.

 

Late Jōmon Period

dogu figurine late jomon
A dogū figurine from the Late Jōmon period. Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

A striking feature of the Late Jōmon period is the array of complex dogū figurines that became common. They were highly stylized figures of humans and animals decorated with patterns. Although originating in the Middle Jōmon period, their usage continued throughout the Late Jōmon period.

 

Dogū figurines are theorized to have been representative of gods and used for the purpose of sympathetic magic. This theory suggests that they were used to absorb ailments and negative things affecting humans. Thereupon, the figurines were destroyed or discarded, as many dogū figurines were found in ancient trash heaps. Many figurines have also been found, with parts of their bodies purposely removed.

 

The Yayoi period, which began around 300 BCE, coincided with the mass migration of peoples from the Asian mainland, and marked an end to the manufacture and usage of Dogū figurines, indicating a change in belief systems.

 

Populations across Japan were, of course, not uniform. The pottery of the Tohoku region of northern Honshu, as well as the region of southern Hokkaido, were notable for their culture of creating even more elaborate pottery. In contrast to this culture, pottery in many parts of western Japan during the Late Jōmon period showed a more austere aesthetic.

 

The Late Jōmon period is also notable for the prevalent style of beadwork. Curved, comma-shaped beads called Magatama were popular during this time.

 

jomon skull tooth ablation
A Jōmon skull and facial reconstruction of a woman who had teeth ritually removed. Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

Housing structures also evolved during the Late Jōmon period, and by the end of this era, they had evolved from rounded dwellings to square or rectangular houses. Packed mud floors had also evolved through stone paving and, in the Late Jōmon period, also included rugs. Like the houses in the previous periods, they included indoor fire pits.

 

One particularly common trait of the Jōmon period, which continued through the Late Jōmon period and well into the Yayoi period (300 BCE), was the practice of ritual tooth ablation. Around 80% to 90% of all skulls found from this time exhibit the absence of teeth that have been intentionally removed. This seems to have been ritualistic and part of a rite of passage.

 

From around 1500 BCE, the climate began to cool, and the population of Japan started to decrease. It is suggested that a decrease in resources led to the overall population decline. By 300 BCE, the Late Jōmon period is considered to have ended, while some historians and archeologists push this date further back as far as 1000 BCE.

 

The end of the Late Jōmon period was marked by an influx of people from the Korean Peninsula who began mixing with the local Jōmon people. This event marks the beginning of the Yayoi period of Japanese history.

 

Legacy

japanese pedestrians in tokyo
Modern Japan. Source: pxhere.com

 

While many thousands of artifacts have been discovered relating to the Jōmon period, it still remains the most mysterious part of Japanese history. What language the Jōmon people spoke is completely unknown, as are their cultural mores and specifics of religion. Most of what is known is subject to vast speculation.

 

Elements of their legacy, however, live on in modern Japan, perhaps even more so than since the Jōmon period ended!

 

From a genetic perspective, the Jōmon people live on in the Yamato people, who constitute 98% of Japan’s current population. Research has shown that modern Yamato people carry 30% paternal Jōmon DNA, 15% maternal DNA, and 10% autosomal (non-sex-specific) DNA.

 

Further research, however, is needed in this field. It is highly likely that the Ainu people also carry significant amounts of DNA from the Jōmon people.

 

Modern interest in the Jōmon culture has also gained much traction over the past few decades. Jōmon patterns and designs have become frequent in Japanese fashion, as well as in other parts of Japanese culture, such as stationery and packaged food. Efforts have also been made to recreate Jōmon pottery using ancient techniques.

 

jomon inspired fashion
Fashion designer Ryunosuke Okazaki uses Jōmon pottery as an influence on his couture. Source: Kenji Agata via spoon-tamago.com

 

With the designs on Jōmon figurines being popular, the speculation that these represented tattoos has also become popular, even in Japan, where tattoos have a huge stigma attached to them.

 

Educational interest in the Jōmon period has also increased, and Jōmon exhibitions in museums draw large numbers of crowds.

 

The Jōmon people and their culture spanned many thousands of years and left mysterious clues about who they were and what they did. Modern efforts to preserve and disseminate this knowledge have proven massively successful, and the Jōmon culture is certainly in no danger of being forgotten.

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By Greg BeyerAssistant Editor; African HistoryGreg is an editor specializing in African History and prolific author of over 100 articles, with a BA in History & Linguistics and a Journalism Diploma from the University of Cape Town. A former English teacher, he now excels in academic writing and pursues his passion for art through drawing and painting in his free time.