The Ancient and Modern culture of Japan


I just finished reading Alan MacFarlanes Japan through the Looking Glass. He argues that Japan is unique in that it is an industrialized but not modern society. In this post I first collect my thoughts on what I believe to be the origins of the Japanese. Then I react to what I see as the message of his book – industrialized but not modern.

Origins of Japanese
Pre historical Japan was unusual in that it was home to sedentary hunter-gatherers(-fishers). Heavy rainfall led to a temperate rainforest and rich seafood meant that hunter-gatherers did not have to move to other places to get enough food. It is likely that these permanent villages diverged drastically from each other, 1st due to the great variation in climate and 2nd because they did not move, there was a lot less need to find and stick to common language and culture. So pre-historical Japan was probably a lot like New Guinea-thousands of languages not neccesarily having much in common. Thus the Ainu, who are the only one of these groups that survived into historical times, should not be expected to have much in common with these pre-Japanese, not in language nor in culture. Genetically they are probably not too different from the pre-japanese (the Jomon).
Then, a group of Korean farmers came to Japan. This was probably not a large group. It was probably a medium sized group or a trickle of Korean farmers over a period of time. These koreans spoke an archiac form of korean and not just an archaic form, but a dialect that went extinct and not the dialect that evolved into modern korean. Their language could be seen as the uncle of modern Korean.
These Korean farmers introduced rice agriculture and started a revolution of affairs in Japan. Genetic tests show modern Japanese are mostly descendants of these farmers, perhaps 80% ancesral korean and 20% pre-Japanese. This is not too surprising, as these farmers would have had agricultural adaptations and the natives would not have. They would have had a genetic predisposition to tolerate long repetitive work, plan far ahead, resist the diseases that came with increased population densities of agriculture, and to resist the malnutrition that comes with the switch from a varied hunter-gatherer diet to a monotonous agricultural diet. This is the typical result when farmers move into an area occupied by hunter-gatherers. Neither Koreans nor Japanese will be thrilled with this kinship but the genetic evidence is pretty clear. What is unusual about this case though is that the culture of the hunter-gatherers prevailed over the farmers. Linguistic analysis shows a very small contribution of the ancient Korean language to the Japanese language. A little less than 15% maybe. Other cultural markers also show a little but not much affinity to proto-Korean culture. Perhaps the Korean farmers were brought back to Japan as slaves. Perhaps after settling they were quickly vassalized. Or maybe the pre-Japanese culture was simply more dynamic. In any case it seems important that the pre-Japanese had a high population density. Normally in these cases the farmers overwhelm the hunter-gatherers through sheer numbers + disease, despite that man for man the HGs are much better warriors. In this case maybe the comparative density was not great enough to overcome the farmers limitations and they lost militarily and had to accept inferior status.
This finally takes us the the message of MacFarlanes book. The unusual culture of Japan that is not seperated into parts like modern cultures except on a superficial level. What he calls the axial age pre-suppositions that nature is seperate from the superanatural, that the economy is seperate from the religion, that art is seperate from the family and so forth. The Japanese culture, at heart descended from a hunter-gatherers, has a view that does not see the world as a collection of different things but rather sees the world as an interconnected web. That is they see relations, not things. As MacFarlane says their world is still one of enchantment, not modern disenchantment. But despite having a hunter-gatherer culture they have a farmer spectrum of personalities – able to tolerate the daily grind, and to submit to authority and conform. THis means they are very succesful at modern economies which requires massive specialisation (daily grind for most) and massive cooperation/scale (submissive and conformist). In fact the extremely labour intensive form that farming took in Japan in later centures means that they are probably more farmer adapted than any other people in the world. Litte wonder then their economy is so productive. Further reading if interested:

As a mormon I find the takeaway of the book very interesting. MacFarlance concludes the book by saying that the lesson of the unique Japanese way is that (post)modernism with its alienation, disenchantment and competitiveness is not the only way to enjoy the material abundance and scientific know-how of modernity. There are alternate ways. He does not hold the Japanese way as a model because it also has a number of negatives, but it does show other ways are possible. This is interesting because one of the features of mormonism is to look towards a society where there is no competition, neither economic or for status. The early attempts of mormonism to create this society generally failed, through a combination of lack of productivity and an inability of the people in these experiments to completely leave behind their competitive orientation of their societies of origin. These attempts, despite failing at their immediate goal, have fruitfully influenced mormonism since then. Reading this book, I think the key is going to be an attempt to see things instead of seperate entities as together i.e. “truth is one eternal round”. Also in raising children to get them to grow in a way that they see society as an extension of family instead of a focus of getting them ready to stand on their own two feet. One might interject that such children would not be sheltered in an accomodating society like Japanese kids are, but I am encouraged by an article I read recently that BYU graphic arts graduated were in high demand, not just because they were thoroughly trained in that field but because they were team players and did not expect that everything should give way to their artistic vision. The Mormon idea of “Zion” will always haunt my vision of what good society is. As follow up I think reading some of his source materials expecially in regards to Japanese child rearing practices. Clearly a lot of Japanese culture is incompatible with the gospel, such as their casual attititude towards marriage. We are definitely of the view that husband and wife need to be one and this relationship has priority over all others except our relationship with God. I’m also curious as to how Japanese Mormons view and do things. Perhaps i can find a japanese mormon blog somewhere? But first- nihongo wakaritai des.

As a final thought. One thing that is unusual about Japanese genetics is that they seem to have an unusual number of anti-alcoholism adaptations such as higher levels of alchol allergies, higher rate of alcohol metabolism etc. (collectively speaking, individuals of course are all over the map like everyone else). As pure speculation, maybe alcohol didn’t come to Japan with agriculture like everywhere else. Maybe being sedentary they could ferment large quantities of fruit? tubers? unlike hunter-gatheres/pastorilists who are limited by how many bags they’d be willing to carry around. So perhaps they started adapting to alcohol before farming, and some of these genes are among the 10% that survived from the pre-Japansese

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