Japan's Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama is promoting the idea of an East Asian Community. Recent research by the Human Genome Organisation's (HUGO) Pan-Asian SNP Consortium shows that peoples of East and South Asia indeed started as one community, despite the region's current substantial cultural and linguistic diversity.
Human beings began in Africa. We are "out of Africa". From there, human beings began to populate the world. This HUGO study shows that Asia was populated via a single primary wave of entry of humans into the continent from the south. The migrants would have followed a southern coastal route from Africa to South East Asia. And from there, much later they would have populated North East Asia. It was previously conjectured that Asia was populated in two waves, one to South East Asia, and a later one to central and north-east Asia.
Since the populations of South East Asia are 'older', they have developed much greater ethnic diversity. North East Asia has much less ethnic variation, as it was settled much more recently.
Those who doubt the voracity of this research can be reassured by the fact that scientists from all of Asia's 'unique' cultures participated in this research project. Indeed, the consortium involved 90 scientists from the China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand and the US.
But how did these humans make their way to Japan, the country least willing to accept having common origins with its neighbours?
One version comes from Japanese mythology according to which the sun goddess Amaterasu was born from the left eye of the creator god Izanagi, and sent her grandson Ninigo to Earth on the Japanese island of Kyushu to wed an earthly deity. Ninigi's great-grandson Jimmu, aided by a dazzling sacred bird that rendered his enemies helpless, bacame the first emperor of Japan in 660 B.C. The chronicles then invented 13 other equally fictitious emperors to fill the gap between 660 B.C. and the earliest historically documented Japanese emperors. Japanese schools taight this myth until 1946, and many Japanese still believe this in their bones.
According to archeologists, the story might be more simple. Japan would have been populated by the north-moving migrants referred to above. During the Ice Ages, land bridges connected Japan's islands to each other and also to the Asian mainland. Indeed, stone tools indicate human arrival as early as half a million years ago.
But modern Japan seems to have been formed by at least two main migrations. First, there is the Jomon culture, prosperous hunter/gatherers, who arrived more than 30,000 years ago, before sea levels began to rise 12,000 years ago which cut off and isoloated Japan from continental Asia. The Jomon culture is probably responsible for the invention of poverty. The world's oldest known pottery was made in Japan 12,700 years ago.
The descendants of this Jomon culture are Japan's racial underclass, the Ainu. Today they have a very small population, somewhere between 25,000 and 200,000 (depending on whether you believe the official or unofficial estimates). They are mainly concentrated in the northern island of Hokkaido, which was only annexed under the Meiji rule in the second half of the 19th century. Until then, the Ainu were not even considered to be Japanese.
Second, there was a migration around 2,300 years ago from Korea of people with a wet rice, weaving and metalworking culture (wet rice culture started around the current Myanmar and China border, and spread into southern China around 400BC). And as most everywhere in the world, an agricultural people (the Yayoi culture) was able to dominate a hunter-gatherer culture (the Jomon). While there was no doubt some mixing of these two peoples, some Jomon stayed separate and moved north.
So, in short, the Japanese today are mainly descendants of settlers from Korea. At the same time, today, Japanese residents of Korean origin are not entitled to Japanese nationality (although most are descendents of workers who came to Japan as forced labour during World War II), and the historical enmity between the two nations is immense.
Japanese nationality is based on jus sanguinis, even though all Asians probably come from the same original juice!
To paraphrase Jared Diamond, the prospects for forming a real East Asian Community depend in large part on Asian nations rediscovering these ancient bonds between them.
Mapping Human Genetic Diversity in Asia, The HUGO Pan-Asian SNP Consortium, Science, 11 December 2009. www.sciencemag.org
Japanese Roots by Jared Diamond. Discover Magazine Vol. 19 No.6 (June 1998)
Dual Origins of the Japanese: common ground for hunter-gatherer and farmer Y chromosones, Michael F. Hammer, Tatiana M. Karafet, Hwayong Park, Keiichi Omoto, Shinji Harihara, Mark Stoneking and Satoshi Horai. Journal of Human Genetics, Volume 51, Number 1/January 2006
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