Mount Fuji

Archaeology and racism 

March 10, 2000 — Part 1

This March 4th, anyone who subscribes to the morning edition of the Mainichi Shimbun awoke to screaming headlines announcing, "Indus Civilization City Uncovered." Extensive even by Japanese standards, the article covered almost half the first page and part of the second. But this wasn't precisely King Tut's tomb. It was a mud-walled city called Doorapila, which was discovered in the sun-baked salt flats of the western Indian state of Gujurat.

If you care about this type of thing, Doorapila is one of the most important finds in Hindic archaeology in the last 20 years. Doorapila dates from roughly 3000 BC and has well laid-out streets and a complete sewage and water system, as well as a castle built into the city wall that surrounds it. Even more importantly, it is in a much better state of preservation than the two other major sites near it, Harapa and Mohenjaro.

The point is, the Mainichi Shinbun assumed Japanese readers know enough about Harapa and Mohenjaro to make this major news. Not that Americans are dummies, but they probably never heard of either place. The curse of the mummy, yes, but Harapa and Mohenjaro, no.

Americans don't give a hoot about archaeology because the connection doesn't exist in the American mind between archaeology and nationalism, particularly in its most extreme and virulent form. To the average American, archaeology is Indy Jones. It isn't about cryptic notions of exclusivity and racial superiority that cloud the interpretation of every rock and every ruin discovered.

In some countries, man has been on the scene for a long time, and every time a bridge or a highway is built, artifacts will turn up. Toro Isseki, one of Japan's major stone age archeological sites, was discovered as a result of a airplane crash during WWII. Japan's Yayoi culture is named after the Yayoi district around the Nakano station, one stop away from your reporter's office. It was also discovered in the 1940s, while workers were digging a factory foundation.

Japan has been occupied for a long time. Or at least, that's what the Japanese would like everyone to believe, including themselves. Japan likes to picture itself, particularly to foreigners, as a culture that was old, wise and mature when foreigners — this means Europeans — were painting themselves blue with woad and screaming in the forests. This is an image that foreigners have of Japan, of an ancient and profound culture, of incredible depth and subtlety. As several people wrote on the message board when your reporter noted there were both no handguns and no handgun murders in Japan, "It is impossible to compare American and Japanese culture." This is the image Americans have of Japan: an almost endless number of veils of complexity that conceal a heart both enigmatic and ultimately unknowable.

How wonderfully romantic. How wonderfully wrong. It's true that it's almost impossible to turn over a spade full of dirt here without blundering onto something, and that Japan has had human beings living here for perhaps as long as Italy has. But, unlike Italy, its civilization is relatively new and the historical record is relatively shallow.

Three questions for all you history buffs:

  1. What was the principal center of Japan in 200 BC?
  2. Who was the most famous Japanese author around the time of the birth of Christ?
  3. Who was the king of Japan in 600 AD?

If you answered "nobody knows," you got it right.

The reason that nobody knows the answers to any of these questions is because the Japanese were totally illiterate until around 650 AD —  Mohammed had already been born —  and they didn't figure out how to write their own language until almost 1000 AD. The first 400 or so years of Japanese literacy were in Chinese, a language completely unrelated to Japanese, no closer to it than English is to Arabic. It is as though Americans were condemned to learn to speak Arabic before they could ever write a single word down, because there was no writing system in English.

Here are a few more facts to chew over: When Rome fell in 411 AD the Japanese were still in the Stone Age. They did not work metal, were illiterate and probably lived in tribes like the Pacific Northwest Coast Indians before the coming of the white man. Some Chinese explorers blundered into them around 200 AD and called them "Nu," meaning "slaves," but then, the Chinese have never been ones to miss a chance to hang a nasty name on any of the hordes of unwashed natives lurking around their borders.

The oldest writing we have from Japan has been dated at 652 AD, a recently (last April) recovered bamboo slip with the reign name and year written on it. It is written in Chinese. Indeed, the oldest book from Japan, the Nihongi, is also written in Chinese. It dates from around 700 AD.

Although the Japanese continued to write in Chinese until around 800 to 900 AD, the katakana and hiragana alphabets began to develop in Japan. It is widely believed that they were developed by court women, seeking a more practical way to communicate. Mixed with Chinese characters, this gave the Japanese a means of writing their own language in the way it was spoken for the first time. However, this did not become really universal until around 1100 AD when Chinese was finally supplanted.

Among all the countries of Asia, Japan knows the least about its own history, in an area where claims of "5,000 years of civilization" abound. Dead silence reigns in Japan until almost the beginning of the Middle Ages in Europe. There is nothing but darkness up until the year 700, and only after that does the gloom begin to disperse. What the Japanese don't have, their national pride has made them invent. Archaeology has become a metaphor and tool in Japan, as it has in other countries in Asia, that far surpasses its function as merely a search for the truth.

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March 17, 2000 — Part 2

Worldwide news programs recently announced the discovery of “the world’s oldest dwelling" near Tokyo. Even without very long memories, many also recall Japanese announcements within the last few years of the discovery of the world’s oldest pottery in Japan as well as the world’s oldest piece of wood worked by human hands. If it seems like there’s a pattern here, there is: a triumph of wishful thinking.

"The Japanese are the descendents of peaceful rice cultivators who valued culture," writes a Mrs. Kono to a local newspaper, "while Europeans are the descendents of rude hunters." A Japanese archaeologist writes in the same paper, "It is more difficult to base a culture on wood, as the Japanese did, than on stone, as the Egyptians did. Anybody can work in stone."

The Japanese have a belief in their "uniqueness" hammered into their heads from the time they draw their first breath. “Uniqueness" in the Japanese definition implies unquestioned superiority to all other races and cultures; indeed, the question appears to be in some Japanese minds whether anyone who is not Japanese is even human.

In fairness to the Japanese, it must be admitted that a considerable minority of Japanese think this is complete nonsense. However, in all fairness to the truth, it must also be admitted that this is what the majority of Japanese sincerely believe.

Since Japan opened to the West, the Japanese have wrestled with who they are. Common sense tells them that they are not a bit superior to anyone else, but the entire weight of their national ethos insists on the myth of unquestioned supremacy. There is a never-ending emotional demand that the Japanese be proven to be "superior," and the burden of proof falls on archaeology.

This is because Japan has no ancient history. The Japanese were still in the Stone Age when Rome fell in about 410 AD; they were an illiterate, tribal people who did not even learn to work metal until around 600 AD, when they also learned to write in Chinese, a language entirely unrelated to Japanese.

Despite this, the Japanese ego demands proof that Japan be somehow shown to be “superior" and the Japanese as “advanced." It helps that there are virtually no foreign experts on Japanese prehistory. Unlike ancient Egypt or Greece, there is no universal body of knowledge about ancient Japan, so the Japanese can get away with murder in the mists of prehistory.

The result is a Japanese archaeology marked by crank theories, fascist overtones, sloppy dating, questionable methods and probably outright fraud. At its worst it degenerates into crude nationalist and racist propaganda.

Take “the world’s oldest artificial structure," as the BBC dubbed it, for example. The BBC uncritically accepted Japanese reporting. According to Japanese reports, this “ancient structure" was “dated to 500,000 BC. In other words, it had to have been built by Homo erectus, who predates the Neanderthal man and the Cro Magnon man before we come to ourselves, the Homo sapiens. The oldest previous dating we have of a structure is between 200,000 to 400,000 BC at Terra Amata in France.

It is curious to note that French pre-historians left themselves more than 200,000 years of leeway in their dating, but that the Japanese dated exactly to 500,000 BC.

The claim that the “structure" was 500,000 years old rested on stone tools found scattered around the site, what appear to be 10 post holes forming two irregular pentagons, and volcanic ash at the site dated to 500,000 BC.

This site was stumbled upon during construction work for a park. One point that was pointedly ignored was that human beings have been living in this location, Chichibu, for hundreds of years, perhaps longer. They have also been building dwellings and digging post holes for at least that long. Evidence of “the world’s oldest structure" rests on 10 well defined holes that went neatly through the volcanic ash. There were no remains of wood or organic matter found in the holes. Japan is a country, because of the low acidity of its soil, that preserves wood very well, sometimes for hundreds of thousands of years.

No traces of wood, not even molecules of possible organic matter, leaves the dating of the holes wide open. Who dug the holes? And when? Although the volcanic ash can be dated, there is no way to date the holes. Are they intrusive? Were they dug and covered up in another era?

There are 10 holes going through the layer of volcanic ash, but it does not automatically follow that they were dug by Homo erectus and it certainly does not automatically follow that they were dug 500,000 years ago. There is no real evidence when these holes were dug. All we know is that sometime between yesterday and 500,000 BC somebody dug some holes. And there is no evidence of any sort to show that they were “post holes," as was so glibly assumed and so incessantly repeated that it took the coloring of the truth.

Initially, TV programs showed maps of the stone tools found on the site scattered all over on the layer of volcanic ash. One or two tools were inside the perimeters of the holes. By the second showing of this site on TV, many more of the tools had “migrated" until they were inside the perimeters of the “structure’s post holes," as they were now beginning to be called. By the time pictures reached foreign media, all the tools were being shown within the perimeters of the post holes.

What had started out as a site with Homo erectus tools and some puzzling holes had evolved into “the world’s oldest structure." Foreign news media lapped it up: another first for Japan. And once again, we are left wondering if the Japanese national ego is really as terribly fragile as it appears to be.

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March 24, 2000 — Part 3

China has always sounded the cultural drumbeat of East Asia, and the debt that Japan owes China is immeasurable. Perhaps this is also where we can find the roots of the belief in the "uniqueness" —  and by extension, "superiority" —  of whomever it happens to be: Japanese, Chinese or Korean.

Make no mistake about it. A combination of xenophobia and racism is the common cultural underpinning of all three of these countries.

Take Korea for example. The L.A. riots were set off by a Korean shop owner murdering a young black girl caught shoplifting. The aftermath of the riots brought table-pounding demands for reparations from Koreans in L.A., who gave little thought to their own conduct in the USA and none at all to how foreigners are treated in Korea.

American troops in Korea, where the U.S. lost 55,000 American soldiers dead during the Korean war, are routinely subjected to harassment, and even walking down the street can be an unpleasant experience. Korean business and trade unions are highly xenophobic, and Korean markets are effectively closed to foreign companies.

China and Japan are not quite this extreme, but China, too, is abusing science to find justification for racist theories of "uniqueness." This can be seen in the search for the "Chinese Eve." The Chinese Academy of Science recently appropriated 8 million dollars to further the search for the ancestors of man in China. Scholarship in China rejects the "out of Africa" theory and argues that the Chinese evolved separately from other races.

The "out of Africa" theory holds that all human beings on the face of the earth are the descendants of one single woman —  the "African Eve" —  who lived about 200,000 years ago somewhere in Africa. By looking at pieces of DNA known as "micro-satellites" (short, repeating pieces of DNA which are, in effect, virtual fingerprints of genetic origins), scientists have traced all of mankind, including the Chinese, back to this one single ancestor.

Homo sapiens, which is what you and I are, is supposed to have migrated out of Africa about 100,000 years ago and populated the entire earth. Earlier humans, the Neanderthal, the Peking man (a Neanderthal variant) and the Cro Magnon quickly disappeared.

China is not buying this, despite the fact that there is not a shred of proof to show the origins of man in China. The official dogma is, and remains, that there is a "Chinese Eve" that the Chinese trace their origins back to, and that the Chinese are "unique." Despite very impressive fossil finds, both of ancient proto-birds and new types of dinosaurs, the Chinese fossil record has yet to yield a single remain that contradicts the "out of Africa" theory.

DNA studies have also been recently carried out on China's population by teams from the University of Texas along with Chinese scientists. They have shown that the Chinese all come from our common African ancestor.

These findings echo the theories of Helmut Wilhelm, a German Sinologist who some people think was the inspiration for Indiana Jones. Fighting off bandits with one hand while excavating with the other, Wilhlem discovered the remains of China's Chou and Shang dynasties during the chaotic warlord era of the 1920s and 1930s in China.

Wilhelm believed, based on his findings, that the Chinese had their origins in the fusing of eight distinct and different cultures, a message that the Chinese have never particularly welcomed. The old orthodoxy held the Chinese were the descendents of the Yellow Emperor.

The Chinese always thought that everyone who was not Chinese was a barbarian. The boats carrying the English ambassadorial mission to Peking in the 1770s were emblazoned with large banners reading "barbarian envoys carrying tribute to the emperor."

This belief has been central to the Chinese ego perhaps since the beginning of Chinese civilization. The Chinese viewed themselves as a lighthouse — indeed, the sole lighthouse — of civilization in a sea of barbarians. This attitude came, by extension and with little justification, to permeate Japan and Korea also.

Modern pseudo-science in both China and Japan is now being called upon to shore up old myths of racial supremacy. Americans publicly whip themselves because of the difficult racial situation in the USA. According to that Rush Limbaugh, Political Correctness teaches us that only whites can be racists. Americans in particular would do well to understand the depth of racism and feelings of cultural superiority that are also found in East Asia.

Editor's note: Bill Stonehill hails from Chicago, Illinois. Trained as an engineer and China specialist, he has now been living in Tokyo for well over 20 years. He imports Swiss watches, is expert at taking them apart, and if anyone knows what makes Japan tick too then he does. From 1999 until 2001 he wrote a regular Japan column for the Morrock News Service (sadly discontinued), which was enjoyed by Web-surfers around the world. We greatly appreciate the author's allowing us to republish some of his very best articles here in Japan Perspectives.