Monday, December 22, 2008

Sacred Texts & Buried Treasures:

Issues in the Historical Archaeology of Ancient Japan

William Wayne Farris

University of Hawaii Press

ISBN: 0824820304

333 pp

Farris's book is a much needed addition to English-language scholarship on early Japanese history, and not only that, it is that rarest of books, a highly readable book on archeology that manages to bring to life and make real aspects of life in Japan in the period of 100 AD to 800 AD.
The books contention is that the explosion of archeological research in Japan during the past few decades has challenged many of the assumptions held on early Japanese history that until now had been dependent on just a few written sources. He has chosen four topics and explores in depth what Japanese archeology has discovered that throws new light on them.

The first topic is the great "Yamatai Debate".
The first written records of Japan come from China in the 3rd Century when Chinese historian Chen Shou wrote of the "Wa" people who lived in a country called Yamatai, ruled over by a shamaness named Himiko. Just exactly where Yamatai was is the subject of the ongoing Yamatai debate. Until the late 19th Century it was believed that Yamatai was the country known as Yamato, present-day Nara Prefecture, in the Kinai, but for the last century Japanese historians have been split between believing Yamatai was in the Kinai, or in Northern Kyushu. This section of the book reads like a mystery novel, as each new piece of archeological evidence is used as proof for one side of the debate or the other, and sometimes even both interpret the discovery to their own advantage. If there will be a solution to the debate, it must be somewhere in the future, as to date the evidence remains split.

The second section of the book concerns Japan's relationship with Korea during the 4th and 5th centuries, a subject that has consequences and repercussions that continue today: it was Japan's claim that parts of Korea were colonized by Japan at this time that was partly behind their "re" colonization of Korea in the 20th century. In the 1950's, Egami put forward his controversial "Horse rider" theory - that Japan had been colonized by a northern people through the Korean peninsular. Since then the controversy has been was Japan a colony of Korea, or vice versa? On this topic Farris does offer a conclusion. During the period in question, the Korean Peninsular consisted of 4 separate kingdoms, with changing borders and alliances. Japan was dependent on Korea for technologies and natural resources, most notable metals, and in return for these Japan supplied military force to various sides of the inter-kingdom disputes. The conclusion reached by Farris is that all the Korean kingdoms and Japan were roughly equal to each other with no one being dominant enough to colonize another, though the Korean kingdoms were generally more advanced technologically.

The third section looks at the building of Japan's first permanent capitals, Nara, Kyoto, and the less well known Fujiwara, and Naniwa (Osaka). These capitals are commonly referred to as Chinese-style capitals, but there was plenty of Korean influence as well as indigenous Japanese influence on their designs rather than the wholesale adoption of Chinese styles. Farris's own specialty of the impact of disease and famine on populations comes in here as he examines the economic and population pressures that cause some of the capital building to remain incomplete, and the recycling of materials from some of the capitals to build the newer ones

The final section deals with a new form of archeological resource first discovered in 1961, wooden tablets with writing on them dating from the 8th century. To date almost 200,000 of these tablets have been discovered and they have greatly added to our knowledge of such things as the daily life of the aristocracy, the operations of the bureaucracy, the tax system, and how the Taika Reforms were implemented.

For anyone interested in early Japanese history this book is a treasure trove of material much of which has not been available in English before. Highly recommended.


  1. Thanks for this ! Will. Have. A. Read.


  2. Unfortunately a lot of historical research in Japan never makes into the school books as it goes against the myths that are so popular :)

  3. Finally pulled this one off the shelf. Great stuff, especially the Yamatai and capitals sections, as you stated.

    About a decade ago I read a book about the horseman culture, especially how it related to Kinai. I don't remember the title or author, but it was on loan at Kunibiki Messe in Matsue. If you're over there, you ought to check it out.