Until recently, horses were believed to have arrived from the Asian continent as an import from the 5th century during the Kofun era and that horses were not found locally before then in Japan – because the absence of horses was noted in various Chinese records.
Nihonshoki chronicle records that the king of Silla, upon being defeated by Empress Jingu, presented the horse to her as a gift. The introduction of mounted cavalry and advanced military strategies has been attributed to this act. Also, according to both the Kojiki and Nihon Shoki, during Emperor Suijin’s reign, Geunchogo of Paekche presented stallions and broodmares with horse trainers to the Japanese emperor.
However, the idea that horses did not exist before the Kofun era has now been debunked by new archaeological evidence. Bone fossils of early prehistoric as well as Neolithic age horses have been excavated in Japan although such fossils are rare because island life in those times was not conducive to horses.
According to the Negishi Equine Museum, the early fossil record for horses goes like this:
15 million years ago (Miocene epoch), the Anchitherium, a true equine or true horse appeared.
5 million years ago (Pliocene epoch), the Hipparion appeared.
500,000 years ago, the Equus (modern horse) emerged.
From the Middle Pleistocene (between 0.781-o.127 million years ago) of the Neolithic age, some small sized horses lived in Japan, contemporaneous with Sus nipponicus.
In the Middle Pleistocene, some Manchurian or North Chinese Steppe horses are thought to have migrated into Japan — evidenced by the fossil remains aof a tooth found in the Tuki-noki asphalt bed of Akita prefecture. Another tooth was found lying on the sa-ndy shore near Hitati-mati, Ibaraki prefecture. Horse fossils of a similar age have also been found in Keisei, Tyosen, and Kuroi village in Hyogo prefecture as well as from Tsukinoki, from Kotari and from Shioda, all on Honshu island. The oldest find was an isolated tooth from Tsukinoki, said to be mid-Pleistocene in age; the Shioda find has been dated to around 28,400 years ago. In addition, Pleistocene fossils were also found in Kyushu. They were either naturally small-sized or may have been small due to living on an island.
Since horses are poor swimmers over water, experts believe they probably either arrived across water over land from the Asiatic continent during a period of low sea level during the late Pleistocene (between 35,000 (or earlier) and 18,000 years before present day) when the sea level is believed to have dropped 130 m. It is thought they may have come via Korea from northeastern China or via Sakhalin from southeastern Russia because moderately sized true horses lived in both areas.
More than 532 Jomon shellmound sites have been noted to have contained horse bones, starting about the time of Late Jomon (Oikawa, 62:7)
Experts say that the Jomon era horses were small to medium-sized horses, judging from the skeletons and teeth unearthed from archaeological sites such as Shell Mounds. The small horse had a shoulder height of about 110-120 cm and is thought to be the same as the Tokara uma which inhabited the Ryukyu Islands until recently. The medium sized horse was about 130-150 cm high and is thought to be the same as the misaki uma and Kiso uma that has been raised continuously and extensively until the Meiji period (1868-1912) Both are thought to be descended from the Mongolian horse on the continent.
Since wild horses are now found to have survived in Japan in the Neolithic period and Yayoi horses were a little larger, indicating the possibility of domestication, experts now consider it possible that domestication happened locally in Japan. The Japanese domestic horse still shows dental similitarities with the Mongolian domestic horse and until recently, the extant wild Przewalski’s horse.
However, there remains a puzzling account — according to Chinese records, the Chinese delegations observed that the Wa people had no horses. It is thus speculated that either horses had died out until being reintroduced during the Kofun era, or that they had existed but were few in number and were not widely used in the communities of Yamatai – and so were not visible to the visiting Chinese delegates. More likely, prior to the introduction of continental horses, horses were only hunted and eaten, but not used as pack animals, i.e. not domesticated.
From the Kofun era onwards, evidence of domesticated horse culture is found in the horse trappings used as grave goods that have been round in 5th century kofun mounded tombs.
Evidence of horses being raised in the mid-fifth century was discovered from the Shitomiya Kita remains in Shijonawate, Osaka Prefecture (around the time Sueki pottery was introduced into Japan). The methods for manufacturing harnesses and weapons were also introduced to Japan around the same period. These were introduced from Korean peninsula although later in the Nara period, Chinese style saddles (and perhaps horses as well) were introduced. Archaeologists have also discovered that horse-riding and iron-weapon-wielding migrants from the Korean Peninsula had lived in Uji in the late fourth century … leading to the view that horse-riding-and-raising technologies had been introduced by the people from the Korean mainland.
Scientists divide horse populations or breeds were roughly classified into four clusters, that is, Asian native horses, European race-horse breeds, European draft-horse breeds and European pony breeds.
All of the six main breeds of Japanese native horses found in the different geographic regions of Japan have been determined by recent DNA studies to belong to the subcluster of Mongolian native horses which in turn belongs to the cluster of Asian native horses since Mongolian horses possessed all the DNA chromosome alleles found in Japanese horses. Scientists making their phylogenetic analysis, and reconstructing the genetic relationship between the different breeds of native horses and their geographical distribution, have concluded that Japanese horses are descended from Mongolian horses migrating from the Korean peninsula.
It has been further surmised from the reconstructed phylogenetic relationship or family tree picture as well as from the low genetic variety seen in the native breeds of horses, that all the populations in Japan came from just one original horse population that was transported about 2,000 years ago through the Korean peninsula. Multiplying from that one original horse population, this original population of horses is thought to have then spread all over Japan, localizing to the particular areas in Japan from which today’s different breeds of Japanese native horses hail.
This conclusion is thus in line with ancient records testifying that there were no horses in Japan about 2,000 years ago as well as archaeological and historical evidence that native horses on the Asian continent were frequently transported to Japan via the Korean peninsula. Eurasian nomadic horse pastoralism, however, is now thought to have developed considerably later than the Botai or Ukrainian horse domestication event (2,000-3,000BC). The horse emerged on in small numbers (an increase in hunting) in the archaeological record in Begash, Kazakhstan before the end of the first millenium BC.
Japan: An Illustrated Encyclopedia, Kodansha
“Clues lead to a shared past / Newly discovered 4th-century ceramics show Korean influence”, Daily Yomiuri Apr 3 2006
Negishi Equine Museum, Negishi, Yokohama
On Some Japanese Fossil Equids by SHIKAMA Tokio Journal of the Geological Society of Japan 45(536) pp.430-436 19380520
A note on the Jinomori horse, Equus nipponicus Shikama and Onuki (Mammalia, Equidae), and some other equine remains from Japan by Ann Forsten, 2 Nov 1997 Finnish Museum of Natural History, P.B. 17, FIN-00014 Helsinki, Finland
The late Pleistocene-Holocene horses, not asses, from Japan (Mammalia, Perissodactyla, Equus) by Ann Forsten
Finnish Museum of Natural History, P.B. 17, 00014 Helsinki, FINLANDE
Microsatellite Variation in Japanese and Asian Horses and Their Phylogenetic Relationship Using a European Horse Outgroup
Journal of Heredity 2003:94(5):374-380 DOI: 10.1093/jhered/esg079
The various breeds of native Japanese horses (International Horse Museum)
Japanese horse breeds by Philip Seyfi (Japanese Language & Culture Blog)
From the Abstract: Domestic horses played a pivotal role in ancient China, being
used mainly in agriculture and transport, especially in military
purposes (Chen, 1994). However, the geographic origin of Chinese
domestic horses remains controversial. Zooarchaeological data
show that abundant domestic horse remains appeared suddenly in
China at the sites of the Shang Dynasty (ca. 3000 BP). Prior to the
Shang Dynasty, there are few records of domestic horses. Excavation of thousands of Neolithic and early Bronze sites in China
yielded only a few sporadic fragments of horse tooth and bone at
a limited number of sites, and it is difﬁcult to determine whether
the remains are those of wild or domestic horses (Chen, 1999). The
absence of evidence for the early stages of domestication, coupled
with the sudden appearance of horses around 3000 BP, have led
scholars to suggest two hypotheses. First, that domestic horses
were imported into China from the Eurasian steppe via that Gansu
and Qinhai provinces (Yuan and An, 1997), or, second, that horses
underwent autochthonous domestication in China during the Later
Neolithic (ca. 4000 BP) or perhaps even earlier, and Przewalski
horses were proposed as the ancestors of Chinese domestic horses
(Wang and Song, 2001; Zhang, 2004). [Note: Provenance of Japanese and Korean horses are different from that of Chinese horses.]
From sheep to (some) horses: 4500 years of herd structure at the pastoralist settlement of Begash (south-eastern Kazakhstan) by Michael Frachetti and Norbert Benecke, Antiquity Volume: 83 Number: 322 Page: 1023–1037. See also discussion in Dienekes’ Anthropology Blog “Horse not important for emergence of steppe pastoralism“:
“The early “cowboys of the steppe” paradigm is slowly collapsing. Certainly the horse was known, milked, eaten, and occasionally ridden on the steppes, but its central role in the emergence of Eurasian pastoralism has been ovestated on rather flimsy evidence.
“It is only in the 1st millennium BC when it is picked up by Iranic/Turkic warrior confederations that the horse starts to affect Eurasia in a big way, and that is precisely the time when the Scythians appear in West Eurasia from their eastern homeland, followed centuries later by nomadic groups, from the west and north making their presence felt in China.”