When did horses arrive in Japan? When were they domesticated?

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.

Native equus fossil reconstruction, Negishi Equine Museum

Native equus fossils (reconstruction), Negishi Equine Museum

According to the Negishi Equine Museum, the early fossil record for horses goes like this:

15 m years ago: Anchyterium appears

15 m years ago: Anchitherium appears

15 million years ago (Miocene epoch), the Anchitherium, a true equine or true horse appeared.

5 million years ago: Hyparion appears

5 million years ago: Hipparion appears

5 million years ago (Pliocene epoch), the Hipparion appeared.

500 thousand years ago: Equus appears

500 thousand years ago: Equus appears

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.

Source references:

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

Phylogenetic Relationships among Japanese Native and Alien Horses  Estimated by Protein Polymorphisms

The various breeds of native Japanese horses (International Horse Museum)

Japanese horse breeds by Philip Seyfi (Japanese Language & Culture Blog)

Ancient DNA provides new insights into the origin of the Chinese domestic horse

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.”

23 responses to “When did horses arrive in Japan? When were they domesticated?

  1. catherine clinchard horiuchi

    it is an impressive research that makes so much sense it is enlighting. Thank you. for establishing such a powerfull lineage as the kiso is a natural really, a gift to humans, versatile strong generous beautifull, a very special horse indeed.

  2. can you just show the functions of horses or the reasons for domestication

    • Pre-Kofun era horses, if they were domesticated (and this has not been established), it is speculated that they would have been merely used as beasts of burden. Kofun era onwards, it is clear from the trappings and from ancient texts, they were a part of the military arsenal, but it is the predominant view in Japan that the first horses introduced from the Korean peninsula were first used for hunting activity for royalty in the beginning, and it was not till the later part of the Kofun era that they were used for military purposes. There were too few horses for a long while and ancient texts showed there was a scarcity of people who knew how to take care of a horse when the horse was presented as a gift… which would be strange if the society was supposed to be made up of horseback warriors.

    • They started off as draft animals and meat for indigenous populations and were used mostly for warfare or hunting by the elite during the Kofun Period.

  3. paul a. skillman

    Found your information most useful. Thank you. Would like to read fiction or other accounts about history of eary horses in Japan.

  4. Hi, could you tell me which breeds were used in warfare ?

    did specific roles used particular breeds ? say, were sword armed cavalry using different breeds from the yabusame for example ?

    • Only Mongolian breeds were found for the Kofun Age, they were small but about the small size/height as the ones the Romans used, and so were adequate for warfare. I don’t know about your second question really, but portrayals of warriors in the Kofun tombs show chieftains and warriors armed with both swords and quivers mounted on horseback. Only a very few horses have been uncovered from tomb burials, usually all that remains is polished teeth and horse trappings, but genetics show only the Mongolian types were around in prehistoric times.

  5. thanks a lot ! really appreciate your insight !

  6. Thanks for the very interesting write-up as well as the link to my blog… However, I think that you accidentally pointed it to http://nihongoup.com/blog/about/ instead of http://nihongoup.com/blog/japanese-horse-breeds/ 🙂

  7. Is there any link to the Asian horses established in Japan long ago to the Wild Mustangs that roam in U.S. Today? We will be showing in a Wild Mustang show and would love to use our Japanese attire for our costume class at the horse show(the horse and rider in traditional Japanese dress), but we must show a link of how the Mustang fits into it.

    • Briefly, tracing the history of both lines. Horses vanished from both north and south America in a wave of extinction that occurred at the end of the Pleistocene epoch, about 15,000 years ago. Only two horse lineages are thought to have lived in North America during the Late Pleistocene, the stilt-legged horses and the caballines. And while it has been noted that American stilt-legged horses resemble certain Eurasian caballines (a group that includes both the domestic horse and the nearly extinct Przewalskii horse of Mongolia) which suggests that the stilt-legged horses once trekked across the Bering Strait, the new PLoS Biology study shows that the American and Eurasian horses’ genomes are too distinct for this theory to be accepted. Quarter horses were developed in America from crosses between thoroughbreds and descendents of Spanish horses while mustangs. Current studies suggest that all the North American caballines–traditionally classified as multiple species based on their diverse size–belong to the same species.
      Europeans reintroduced the horse to the Americas beginning in the late 15th century, some horses escaped and formed feral herds, the best-known being the Mustang. The first mustangs are descended from Iberian horses that were brought to Florida and Mexico. Andalusian, Arabian, and Barb ancestry were brought as well. Some horses escaped or were stolen by Native Americans. These quickly spread through western North America, creating the “wild” horse that now exists today Mustangs should not be confused with the two truly “wild” horse subspecies [the Tarpan and the Przewalkski’s Horse]. The Mustang in the United States, are untamed members of the domestic horse subspecies (Equus ferus caballus).
      Horses nearly became extinct in the rest of the world as well, by about 7000 years ago the worlds only horses were confined to a small area in the still open grasslands steppes of Ukraine and central Asia.
      The wild horse (Equus ferus) is a species of the genus Equus, which includes as subspecies the domesticated horse as well as the undomesticated Tarpan and Przewalski’s Horse. The Tarpan became extinct in the 19th century, and Przewalski’s Horse was saved from the brink of extinction and reintroduced successfully to the wild. The possible ancestor of the domestic horse was the Tarpan, which roamed the steppes of Eurasia at the time of domestication but recent mtDNA studies show the modern horse came from at least 77 different species at least on the maternal side. (Osteological evidence from across the Eurasian wild horse range, based on cranial and metacarpal differences, indicates the presence of only two subspecies in post-glacial times, the Tarpan and Przewalski’s Horse.) Regarding Japanese horses’ origins: Studies show Mongolian horses possess all the alleles found in Japanese horses – which is taken to mean that Mongolian horses are related to, and descended from the ancestral populations of Japanese horses. Which tends to support the historical fact that native horses on the Asian continent were frequently transported to Japan through the Korean peninsula. The genetic relationship and the geographical distribution supports the hypothesis that Japanese horses are descended from Mongolian horses through the Korean peninsula and have spread all over Japan. (It may be that Japanese “indigenous” prehistoric horses may have survived in very small numbers and interbred with the ones introduced from Mongolian and their genetic signals undetectable or lost in the present ones though). Horses have been assigned to two different species, E. caballus (including
      ferus and gmelini) and E. przewalskii, but recent authors include przewalskii in caballus. This dendrogram shows you the relationships between the various horse groups from Mongolian-to Korean-to Japanese-to European horses. http://jhered.oxfordjournals.org/content/94/5/374/F2.large.jpg Latest news is that horses were domesticated in the Pontic-Caspian Steppe (Ukrainian) area of Eurasia, so they probably went East from there to Siberia and Mongolia, as well as West to Europe.

  8. May I please the numbers for the current horse populaion in Japan? The laest figs I have, Ministry of Ag are for 2008 (obsolete.) Also how many race tracks ( not yabusame) are currently operating? Thanks.

  9. Nice article. Thanks for sharing

  10. Japan bought a lot of horses from Australia in the early twentieth century, I’m working on a blog about it if you are interested. I’, a member of the Waler Horse Owners and Breeders Association of Australia, we have a website too.
    this is the blog…
    This is an excellent article, thank you!

    • Oh, thank you for letting me know about the Australian imports. I have been on a horse farm in Hokkaido, and there is a stable near me here in Kanagawa. Now it makes me wonder if the horses were Australian-bred.

  11. Thanks for an interesting article. I am interested in why the horses came from and how they affected the history of Japan. I wonder how much affect they had on battle and whether the people who rode them were Japanese or Korean invaders. Given that you say the Japanese had little knowledge of how to take care of them I have a feeling that it was the second. The Empress Jingu was given a horse, it is recorded, but this may in fact have been not just one but several. Just how much fighting there was in the Kofun period here in Japan is unrecorded but I would guess it wasn’t a little a the kofuns have relics of horses so there would have been a lot of respect and also fear of them.

    • There is considerable ongoing research on all of these issues raised, progress is reported in various archaeological journals. Scholars have also identified the zones of intense fighting during defined periods, and mapped these, according to the number of weapons recovered in excavation digs. There are only a very few books on the topic, but I hope to post soon on the area, so look out for an upcoming post.

  12. I haven’t found much either but feel that the visits of each the emperors, empresses in the earlier days coincided with something such as local rulers being forced to pay their respects and commit themselves to pacts.

    The Inland Sea seems to have been a major route for immigrants to the Kyoto area. It would be great if they were to pull up something from the depths. Near where I am fishermen have pulled up some stuff but it would be even better if there were some deep sea diving. They might find some significant things, just as the have in the Mediterranean.

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