The Prehistoric Archaeology of Japan


       The modern-day country of Japan consists of four main islands: Hokkaido, Honshu, Kyushu, and Shikoku.  Minor island chains include Okinawa (also called the Ryuku Islands) in the south; the Kuriles north of Hokkaido; and the Izu Islands extending outwards into the Pacific Ocean. 

   Extending from latitude 45° N to latitude 24° N, the archipelago has a variety of climates and environmental zones.  Hokkaido has a cool, northernly climate with extensive coniferous and deciduous forests.  A temperate climate and deciduous forests characterize the eastern half of Honshu.  Western Honshu and Shikoku are characterized also by a temperate climate, but the forests are characterized by broadleaf evergreens (i.e. palms) and deciduous trees.  Kyushu and Okinawa have a sub-tropical climate and the forests are characterized by broadleaf evergreens and Oceanic vegetation.

   Rainfall is abundant in Japan, particularly in the summer months.  Depending on the location, anywhere from 1000 millimeters (mm) to 3000 mm of rain falls in Japan.


Cultural Sequences and Time Periods in Japanese Archaeology  

   Like archaeologists elsewhere, Japanese archaeologists have divided the prehistory of the archipelago into a variety of different periods.  These periods are comparable to the Neolithic, Bronze Age and Iron Age seen in the rest of the Old World, but the Japanese have given each period its own name to reflect its unique Japanese character.  The table below lists the broad chronological time periods for Japanese archaeology:  

Time Period Dates Characteristics

50,000 BP? - 13,000 BC

Use of blade and micro-blade stone tools.
Jomon 13,000 - 500 BC Pottery production; hunting and gathering lifestyle.
Yayoi 500 BC - AD 250 Rice cultivation; new types of pottery.
Kofun AD 250 - 650 The construction of large burial mounds for elites.

All the above dates should be considered as approximate.  Different scholars have different criteria for when a particular age or phase began.  After the Kofun Period, for all the islands but Hokkaido, writing becomes widespread.  Archaeology is still done on remains post-dating the Kofun Period, but it falls into the realm of "historic" archaeology.

    Some unique features to the prehistoric archaeology of Japan are: 1) the fairly late adoption of domesticated plants and animals; 2) the absence of a formal Bronze and Iron Age. While there is evidence that the Jomon people may have cultivated some plants, heavy dependence on cultivated plants did not begin until the Yayoi period.  The Yayoi period also sees the use of both bronze and iron.

    The cultural sequences for Hokkaido and Okinawa are slightly different than for the rest of Japan.  The use of pottery begins later for Hokkaido, and agriculture doesn't begin until the Satsumon period. The cultural sequence for Hokkaido is as follows:

Time Period Dates Characteristics
Jomon  12,000 - 400 BC

Use of cord-marked pottery; hunting-gathering lifestyle.

Epi-Jomon 400 BC - 3rd/7th century AD

Continuation of hunting-gathering lifestyle and pottery tradition akin to the Final Jomon pottery styles.

Satsumon/Okhotsk 3rd/7th century AD - 13th century AD Use of iron and bronze; some plant cultivation.
Ainu 13th century AD - Present Mixed economy based on hunting and gathering, sea-mammal hunting, and plant cultivation.

Once again, all the above dates should be considered as approximate.  Furthermore, it also needs to be noted that the Ainu are known via historical encounters and ethnographic research--they are still resident in Hokkaido.  The cultural groups preceding them are known only from the archaeological record.