Japan, Jomon and Scarlett Johansson

The Japanese like to queue. Very much.
Photo: Pía Spry-Marqués

I have just returned from a two-week trip in Japan. I’m completely enamoured with the country, its people and all things Nipponese: from the drink vending machines and toilets on every corner, to the line drawings on the floors of train stations to help passengers queue in an orderly manner, which, of course, the Japanese do with gusto.  Everything in Japan is bizarre yet familiar, crazy yet calming. I can’t wait to go back. 

During our fortnight in Japan, my friends Eva, María and Jaime, and I visited many cities and towns, including Tokyo, Kyoto, Miyajima, Nara, Kamakura… Each was special and fascinating in its own way, but a common ‘theme’ seemed to prevail during our trip: visiting shrines and temples. Japan has thousands and thousands of them. Whereas shrines are Shinto, Japan’s oldest faith, temples are places for Buddhist worship, Buddhism having been introduced to Japan from India in the 6th century BC. Each of the thousands of temples and shrines, and their associated architectural structures (e.g. pagoda, torii), represent a mixture of various dynastic histories, spiritual beliefs and architectural styles, too complex and interwoven to even attempt summarising here, but worth exploring and learning about if you are thinking about visiting Japan.

Pagoda at Miyajima Photo: Pía Spry-Marqués
Pagoda at Miyajima
Photo: Pía Spry-Marqués

Not all, however, was religion and architecture during our trip. For example, whilst in Tokyo we visited the National Museum of Nature and Science. If you’re ever in Tokyo make sure to visit this great museum – not only is its natural science collection jaw-dropping, but the way it is displayed is extremely impressive. The museum’s permanent exhibitions are housed in two buildings: the Global and Japan Pavilions. The Global Pavilion has exhibitions on a wide range of ‘general’ topics, including ‘The Changing Global Environment and Evolution of Life’, ‘Space, Matter and the Laws of Nature’ and ‘Life and Its Diversity’. The Japan Pavilion, on the other hand, does exactly what it says on the tin: it’s all about Japan, its nature, organisms, environment and peoples.

A whole section within the Japan Pavilion was devoted to early Japanese prehistory and these are a few of the things I learnt from the exhibition and from some research I’ve undertaken since then:

  • The Japanese Archipelago was first settled by humans between 35,000 and 50,000 years ago. Until the 5th of November 2000 it was thought that some Palaeolithic sites in Japan could be as old as 600,000 years. On that day, however, the great ‘Japanese Palaeolithic hoax’ was uncovered by the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper, which published photographic evidence proving that the well-respected amateur archaeologist Shinichi Fujimura had been burying his ‘Palaeolithic discoveries’ prior to excavating them; all of his Early and Middle Palaeolithic finds were thus fakes and the Palaeolithic chronology of Japan had to be completely reconsidered as a result.
Palaeolithic Hoax Japan
1, 2, 3: Palaeolithic archaeology in the making
Photo source: BBC News Asia-Pacific
  • The Japanese Palaeolithic ended between 13,000 and 9500 years ago. It was followed by the Jōmon period, dated between 13,000/9500 and 2500 years ago. The Jōmon is sub-divided into six periods: Incipient (11,000–7500 BC), Earliest (7500–4000 BC), Early (4000–3000 BC), Middle (3000–2000 BC), Late (2000–1000 BC) and Latest (1000–500 BC). These general dates, however, vary according to region.
  • Jōmon means ‘cord pattern’ in Japanese, which is the characteristic design found on the pots first produced during this period, and which resemble baskets.  This pottery is amongst the oldest in the world and was first produced by hunter-gatherer-fishers, and not farmers, as was traditionally assumed.
Jōmon pot with cord patterning
Photo: © Trustees of the British Museum
Reproduced in accordance with the standard terms of use from the British Museum
  • The diets of the Jōmon were generally very varied –as opposed to specialised– and included, amongst many others, wild boar (Sus scrofa) and sika deer (Cervus nippon) –both regularly hunted using traps–, sea bass or perch (Lateolabrax japonicus) and many plant and root species.
Jomon deer trap representation
National Museum of Science and Nature, Tokyo
Photo: Pía Spry-Marqués

As you can see both the Japanese Palaeolithic and Jōmon periods are extremely fascinating and I look forward to reading more about them as new research is published in English. Although I’ve only just returned from my trip to Japan I’m already looking forward to returning and visiting not only the many temples and shrines I have yet to see, but also the many archaeological sites I have recently read about and which represent, to a certain degree, the origins of the Japanese culture and society today that have so fascinated me during this trip. Sayōnara! 

Sources and Further Reading/Listening

1. Bleed, P. and Matsui, A. 2010. Why didn’t agriculture develop in Japan? A consideration of Jomon ecological style, niche construction and the origins of domestication. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 17(4): 356–370 (£).

2. Habu, J. 2004.  Ancient Jomon of Japan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (£).

3.  Jomon Pot: A History of the World in 100 Objects (BBC) (Audio only here)

4.  A great online resource on Japanese archaeology is Professor C. T. Keally’s page on the subject, which was most helpful when putting together this post. It has everything you will ever need to know about this fascinating nation’s archaeology, prehistory and history. Professor Keally has also compiled comprehensive bibliographies for different topics, including one on Jomon subsistence and diets.

5. Heritage of Japan: The Jomon Diet

(£) Denotes non-open access publication.

The post is entitled ‘Japan, Jomon and Scarlett Johansson’. You were probably wondering where Scarlett was. Well, here she is in a promotional picture for ‘Lost in Translation’, set in Tokyo. Thanks for reading this post!

4 thoughts on “Japan, Jomon and Scarlett Johansson

  1. Virgil T. Morant says:

    I’ll count this post as among the many that make me look back with a bit of melancholy. My Bachelor’s Degree in History was, as a B.S. will be, varied, but I had more coursework in Japanese History than any other region. Reading about it again many years later, it’s familiar. Of course, if anyone asked me in polite conversation, I’d have to struggle to remember what I studied back before I decided to be an ordinary man rather than a historian.

    Dancer dressed in layers of fine silk
    How hateful the weaver who made them
    The piece they play is exceeding long, how cruel the musicians unwilling to stop

    A poem by Sugawara no Michizane. I don’t know who translated it. One of the few things that stuck with me, in any case.

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