The Jomon diet

What the Jomon people ate depended on where they lived on the archipelago and on the seasonal foods that were available. According to a study, the diet of the Jomon people included a substantial amount of marine protein (foods culled from the sea): in western Japan, this formed generally less than about 50% of the diet, while in Central Japan and Hokkaido it was between about 40% and 80%.

Plant and animal remains from Jomon sites show that Jomon people were skilled at using different kinds of resources during the different seasons of the year. Some historians believe the Jomon people’s diet corresponded to the seasons and have drawn up a seasonal food calendar where certain foods are available during a certain season or part of the year. Click here to see the food calendar.    

Perhaps, more importantly, since the Jomon people were hunter-gatherers, not farmers, what they ate depended on the animals and plants that lived or grew naturally in the ecosystems in which the people lived.  Using the big words of archaeologists and historians, you might say that the Jomon people were skillful at exploiting their ecosystems and managing their natural food resources in a sustainable way.  

According to studies, there were three main different Jomon ecosystems:

  • a forest and freshwater lake or river environment (in western and eastern inland areas of Japan);

  • a forest and river estuary environment (eastern and central Japan areas);

  • a forest and seaside environment (Pacific coast and Pacific Shelf areas)

Food from the Forest

As you can see, the forest is the common factor in all three of the above ecosystems. The land of the Jomon people was covered in broadleaf evergreen forest provided rich foods for all groups of Jomon people, wherever they lived. There are about 435 native plants in Japan that can be eaten by humans. Archaeologists have recovered at least 58 species of plant remains from Jomon archaeological digs.

Imagine yourself one of the Jomon folk living among the woods, what would you be looking out for?

If you were a girl, into the forest you would go, for it was the job of the females to gather nuts and berries. You might depending on the season, gather acorns (Quercus mongolica, Quercus serrata, Quercus AcutissimaCastanopsis and Cyclobalanopsis), walnuts (Juglans sieboldiana), chestnuts (Castanea crenata), horsechestnuts or buckeyes (Aesculus turbinata), hazelnuts, or beechnuts as part of your main diet. Less important foods you might be gathering: wild edible mushrooms, wild grapes, butterburr (Petasites japonicus), young fronds of the fern (Pteridium aquilinum) and buckwheat and Japanese Knotweed (Polygonum cuspidatum) shoots and dogtooth violet. You might also be looking out for green gram beans (phaseolus sp. or Vigna radiata), kudzu vine (Pueraria lobata), Ubayuri lily bulbs (Cardiocrinum cordatum), cereal grasses (rice, barley), arrowroot, roots and rhizomes such as burdock (Arctium Lappa L.), taro and yam (Dioscorea japonica) tuber roots, and vegetables such as rape (Brassica). They also enjoyed fruits and berries such as raspberry (Rubus), elderberry (Sambucus), mulberry (Morus) and wild grape (Vitis). For special ceremonial foods being prepared, you might have been sent out to gather some shiso and egoma herbs (Perilla frutescens).      

From the forest, the Jomon also hunted large and small animals for meat to eat. Except for Hokkaido where wild boar were not present, the forest was a place to go when the hunter wanted some deer, boar or bear meat to tide him by during the lean winter times when food was scarce. Smaller mammals and fowl were also sources of food: racoon dog, hare, pheasant and duck.

inoshishiKawasakiCityMuseum2022.jpg wild boar picture by Heritageofjapandeerintheforest.jpg Deer in the forest picture by Heritageofjapan

Forest animals were hunted for food

Food from a forest-freshwater lake or river ecosystem The mountainous inland areas would have allowed you to catch many fish that were abundant in the fast-flowing streams and rivers or lakes. As a Jomon hunter, you would caught fish using hunting spears or nets or by setting up a weir trap or basket trap.   

Food from a forest-river estuary ecosystem Here a list of foods that you might have eaten had you lived among the Jomon folk in a wooded area near a river estuary tidal flat: freshwater shijimi clams(Corbicula japonica), mud snails (Batillaria attramentaria) both of which may be collected from brackish waters.   

Archaeologists have looked at thousands of excavated shell middens (which were once the kitchen dumping ground for the Jomon society) and have gathered that the Jomon coastal dwellers collected over 350 species of shellfish. Molluscs, like the hard clams (Meretrix lusoria) and gastropod Umbonium monoliferum were important protein food in the Jomon diet. Shell-gathering was the work of the women, young and the elderly. They carried out their shell collecting activities most intensively during spring, but then the activities slow down gradually over the summer and become slack during late autumn and winter. 

shellfossils2.jpg Shells of the Jomon era picture by HeritageofjapanShell species available at a shell midden (Kawasaki City Museum) 

Living close to a river estuary, you would have scoured the tidal flats at river mouths for shells and molluscs. Clams are easily collected in the spring when tidal flats are exposed for a longer time at ebb tide during the spring equinox tide. 

midden.jpg Shell midden picture by Heritageofjapan

Shell midden or kitchen heap (Kawasaki City Museum)

Had you been a child living near the seaside, chances are you would likely be a pretty good diver, often diving to sandy bottoms of about 5 meters in depth looking for hamaguri shells (Meretrix lamarckii) which were quite the Jomon people’s favorite, also for oysters (Crassostrea gigas). Thin-shelled surf clams (Mactra venerifornis) could be picked right off the muddy beaches.  If you lived in the coastal area near an inlet or bay, you might have caught fish such as Cluperioidei sp., horsemackerel (Trachurus sp.), halfbeak (Hemiranphus sp.), and black sea bream or porgy (Acanthopagrus sp). When you decided to venture further out onto muddy sea floors of the interior of the bays, you would have collected mainly oyster (Crassostrea gigas) and ribbed cockles (Tegillarea granosa). On the sandy floor in the middle of bays, you could have picked up clams (Meretrix Lusoria), short-necked clams(Tapes japonica). Other likely catches include rockshells (Rapona thomasiana), razor clams (Solen strictus), and abalone (Haliotis). You might likely catch some crabs for dinner as well. 

Foods from a forest-Pacific coastal ecosystem On islands facing the Pacific ocean, you might be heading out to open sea with the men in a dugout canoe to fish for Pacific salmon (Oncorhynchus sp.), bluefin tuna (Thunnus Thynnus), sea bass or perch (Lateolabrax japonicus), brutal moray scad (Gymnothorax kidako), horsemackerel(Trachurus sp.) and  sea turtle. Or you might go on a special expedition to hunt sea mammals such as whale, seals, sea lion, and dolphin. The hunting of big fish and sea mammals were especially important to the Pacific coastal dwellers. The Jomon people had already developed bone hooks, barbed spear bone points, harpoon tips, fishing net floats and sinkers for their opensea fishing expeditions. Other common catches for you might have been rock bream (Oplegnathus fasciatus), opaleye (Girella nigricans), parrotfish (Leptoscarus japonicus), bonito (katsuwono pelamis), bartailed flathead (Platycephus indicus), mullet (Mugil cephalus).

Finally, some experts have observed that scholars have noted a striking pattern and relationship between the pursuit of game food in the diet and the total Jomon population in the Kanto region: they two are inversely proportional. Jomon population rose from the Incipient to the Middle Jomon when it reached its peak, before decreasing. On the other hand, spearheads and arrowheads, the two main weapons used by hunters throughout the Jomon period (excepting the Incipient Jomon period where tanged points were associated with the spearheads), as well as the number of hunting pit-traps, were at their lowest during the Middle Jomon. It was also observed that during a short period of the Early Jomon when population dipped sharply in the Kanto region, there was an increase in hunting tools did, in fact, occur. It is thus inferred that the prosperity of the Jomon people could be linked with plant foods subsistence strategy, and that they only fell back on game as a major component of their diet when plant and seafood resources became scarce or difficult to come by.   

To explore further and imagine what life as a Jomon hunter-gatherer might have been like, click here.  

***

Source readings and references:

Habu, Junko. 2004. “Ancient Jomon of Japan“. Cambridge University Press

Kobayashi, Tatsuo. (2004). “Jomon Reflections: Forager Life and Culture in the
Prehistoric Japanese Archipelago
“. Ed. Simon Kaner with Oki Nakamura.
Oxford, England: Oxbow Books.

Aikens, C. Melvin, and Takayasu Higuchi. (1982). “Prehistory of Japan. Studies in Archaeology“. New York: Academic Press.

Prehistoric Japan: New perspectives on insular East Asia” by Keiji Imamura

A History of Japan” (The Blackwell History of the World series) by Conrad Totman

The Cambridge History of Japan,  Cambridge University Press, Jul 30, 1993

The Prehistoric Archaeology of Japan” The Niigata Prefectural Museum of
History website. See its pages on shell middensplant exploitation; and especially the page on “Jomon subsistence“.

History of the Traditional Diet: Japanese and the Whale” from “Whale and Traditions of Diet”, 1987)

 eBulletin no. 8 of the International Jomon Cultural Conference

University of the Ryukyus on hamaguri shellfish

の資料室 on マアジ (Maaji) Trachurus japonicus 

Asian History – Jomon Period: Subsistence strategies during Jomon

2 responses to “The Jomon diet

  1. In nearby Fujimi, there is a Jomon period shell heap. Impressive, considering that Saitama is land-locked!
    As for the acorns, I imagine that the chinkapins were eaten in season (they can be eaten raw), while the more toxic evergreen acorns were stored for use later.

  2. There are Jomon shell heaps far inland in Yokohama and Kawasaki city as well, because the sea boundaries were very much further inland than what it is today.

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