3. The Yayoi Years

Around 300 B.C., important cultural changes began sweeping through the Japanese islands. Waves of immigrants arrived in larger numbers than ever before from the mainland Asian continent.

With them, they brought new technology, bronze and iron-making skills, as well as rice-growing agricultural skills. These important innovations made their permanent mark on society in the archipelago…and the Iron Age had arrived in Japan.

Rice-growing changed life for people profoundly
The Yayoi culture

The Yayoi people and culture, are named after the Yayoi district, a northern section of the University of Tokyo campus where the first pot, a distinctive type of pottery belonging to the Yayoi people, was found.

Yayoi hajiware

Yayoi hajiware


We do not know what the Yayoi people called themselves because they did not have writing, but we do know that the Chinese of the Former and Later Han dynasties of China called them “the people of Wa”.

 

The Yayoi people were taller, lighter built and had slenderer faces than the Jomon inhabitants who had occupied the Japanese islands before them.

The Yayoi culture established itself, first in the south — in northern Kyushu, spreading quickly northeastwards along the Sannin coast and as far as the Kanto plain.  

Archaeologists have uncovered many artefacts, remains and other evidence of the Yayoi culture. We can learn a great deal about life during the Yayoi period by examining and exploring some of these trails leading back to Yayoi times including: Yayoi pottery; remains of Yayoi architecture and settlements; iron and bronze weapons; bronze bells, bronze mirrors and coins; iron-tipped and other farming tools; carbonized rice and pollen remains and the remains of the rice fields; graves with new prestigious goods.

Chinese written documents are another important source historians look to — the Han Shu (History of Han) and the Wei Chih (History of Wei) depict the world and customs of the tribal society of the Yayoi people. They tell of the Yamatai kingdom and a shamanness queen called Himiko(A.D. 187 to 248) who ruled over one hundred tribal chiefdoms

Wet-rice farming brought important changes.

  • The thousands of years of hunting and gathering lifestyle had turned into one of farming and cultivation which would continue through till modern times.
  • And the introduction of metal tools produced more lasting and superior tools than the stone tools of the Jomon culture.
  • Food production (rice) became stable and could feed larger populations, so that settlements became fixed. 
  • Extra food supplies or food surpluses were an economic resource that was controlled by an elite group of people.  The control of rice and metal resources led to a clearly stratified society. The Chinese chronicles reveal that Yayoi society was highly stratified society: there were different classes of people with differing status. Slaves were ranked the lowest.

The Yayoi culture did not, however, wipe out the Jomon people or their old ways. In many places, the Yayoi people lived side by side with Jomon inhabitants and the Jomon culture remained strong in the south and in northern Japan the “Continuing Jomon phase” continued till around the 8th century or so.  Tooth extraction custom did not disappear until the end of the Yayoi period.  

The Yayoi period lasted seven centuries until the mid 3rd century A.D.

6 responses to “3. The Yayoi Years

  1. Dear Sir,
    You write:
    …We do not know what the Yayoi people called themselves because they did not have writing, but we do know that the Chinese of the Former and Later Han dynasties of China called them “the people of Wa”. …..
    If the Yayoi called with another name from China people, from where did they come.
    An upopo (unwriten story) of Ainu says that they were living in Japan (the Ainu or Jomon people) thousands of years before the sons of Sun came there.
    Is there any possibility Yayoi come from the east (Pasific ocean) and not from the West (China or Korea)???

    • Again, please read the Yayoi pages, particularly the origins section. Immigrant arrivals during Yayoi period were of varying origins … even through the strait crossing in the south into northern Kyushu, the arrivals that came and settled in northern Kyushu over time came from different places, you can tell by the diversity of burial types. Dolmen burials similar to those in Korea (very few and they lasted only for a very short period), pot burials, wooden coffin, burials, double coffin-sarcophagus … and so forth, a great diversity thus showing a great diversity of continental origins. Places like Karako contain clear evidence of Korean origins. Others in Doigahama, Yoshinogari show Chinese DNA and other evidence. In the north, various exchanges with Sakhalin were always ongoing in early times. The theory of southern or eastern or Pacific Austronesian elements has been suggested and is a popular theory, but at present is not a dominant theory. Very likely, there had to be trading exchanges from the south or east from oceanic communities but the impact may be too small to be noticeable. It is often suggested that the storehouse structure with ratguard very likely was an architectural technique that came from the southeast Asia islands…taro was probably introduced from the same region as well.

    • Hello welcome!
      From Y-chromosome DNA research, major Yayoi DNA is said to be of O2b and its subclade O2b1 and both of them are absent among Ainu and concentrated to rather western part of archipelago. And these are absent as well in
      Taiwan, though we find some near Shanghai.

  2. This is really interesting. I had no idea rice farming went that far back. They had very well crafted pottery!

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