Does the Emperor wear Korean genes?
Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, September 19, 2007
A DISPUTE OVER THE LOCATION of the burial mound of the Emperor Keitai, thought to have ruled from 507 to 531, serves as a backdrop to a much more interesting question: were the first members of Japan’s imperial family Korean and not Japanese?
Takatsuki in Osaka Prefecture claims it has found artifacts at a local site suggesting that Keitai is buried there, though it has been assumed the emperor was buried nearby in the city of Ibaraki. It is no easy matter to confirm the identity of a person interred in a mound of dirt 1,500 years ago, of course, but other factors add to the difficulty. One is that the practice of placing epitaphs in the mound identifying the person buried did not begin until the 8th century, and then was conducted only intermittently. Therefore, it is just about impossible to identify the occupants of burial mounds older than that.
Further, it is by no means certain that the Emperor Keitai actually existed. According to The Modern Reader’s Japanese-English Character Dictionary by Andrew Nelson (the standard Kanji-English dictionary for many years):
“Much of the early chronology before the introduction of writing is legendary rather than historical. Japanese textbooks now usually begin such a list with Emperor Kimmei (reigned 539-571). But legends often play an equal role with history in a nation’s literature, and it has been thought well to give the full traditional list.”
The Emperor Kimmei was number 29 according to this list, with Emperor Keitai 26th. The latter’s reign is given as (507)-531, and interestingly, numbers 27, 28, and Emperor Kimmei are considered the sons of Keitai.
Yet another factor is that the Imperial Household Agency, which is responsible for the management of the burial sites and perhaps the most conservative of any government agency in Japan, refuses to allow excavation of the sites except in special circumstances. They cite privacy concerns as one reason for their refusal, saying that the “peace and calm” of the late emperor must be maintained. They claim that excavations of the burial sites are “tantamount to destruction” of the tombs.
Some historians assert that the real reason for the refusal is that a full-scale, open excavation would show that the earliest Japanese emperors were Korean–either horse-riding invaders who conquered the native population early in the fourth century, or priest-kings. Foreigners in Japan like to circulate a rumor that the excavation of one important imperial tomb was trumpeted in the press some years ago, only to be hushed up when too many Korean artifacts were discovered.
The substantial contact between the Korean Peninsula and Japan in those days is not in question. The current Emperor Akihito admitted some Korean heritage during a press conference in 2001. He said he felt a close “kinship” with Korea because the Shoku Nihongi (Chronicles of Japan) records that the mother of Emperor Kammu (#50, 781-806) was from the line of King Muryong of Baekche. This article appearing in the Guardian at the time provides details about the press conference, as well as the lack of general coverage in the Japanese press, though the Guardian’s headlines and their unwarranted tone (“the silent fury of many Japanese nationalists”) exaggerate both the relationship and the story. (Just what is it with the childish–and churlish–attitude of left-of-center newspapers toward Japan, anyway?)
For its part, however, the Guardian fails to report that the reason the emperors are related to King Muryong is that Muryong is thought by many to have been born in Japan in June 461—specifically Kakara Island, part of Chinzei-cho in Saga Prefecture. The people on the island have been holding festivals for the past few years honoring his birth as a way to promote exchange between Japan and South Korea. The Baekche royalty wound up in Kyushu—some say Miyazaki Prefecture—because they had to flee the Korean Peninsula after winding up on the short end of battles with the other two major kingdoms in the region.
An article in the Japan Times provides an in-depth look at the issue, but unfortunately the newspaper has not put it on line. (Here is a companion piece on the same page.) It’s a shame, because they quote two of the few foreign archaeologists expert in this field casting doubts on the theory of Korean origin for the imperial line. Gina Barnes of the University of Durham in Great Britain admits the possibility while citing the lack of evidence:
“There is no direct historical evidence of a (Japanese) emperor born on the Korean Peninsula. There is considerable evidence of contact with peninsular kings and elites. But given other monarchical systems in which ‘stranger kings’ may be incorporated, such as the British Hanover line, which has produced the current queen, it’s not an impossible thought that the Yamato rulership incorporated foreign allies.”
“Would we expect to find that the occupants of the earliest large tombs, the third-century figures who originally carved out the Yamato polity, to have been Korean aristocrats who came over and wrested power from indigenous leaders, helping raise a backward nation up to the level of early statehood? That is what is all too often implied by whisperings of ‘Korean bones’. That view I reject. The emergence of the ancient Yamato polity was an indigenous phenomenon.”
The debate about the Korean origin of the Japanese state extends to the field of linguistics. Though linguists place Japanese and Korean in separate language groups, there are clear parallels in the grammar of both languages. Both languages also extensively borrowed vocabulary from China. And there are some intriguing examples in Japanese of words or phrases that may have originated in Korea. (For a previous post on this subject, try this.)
John Douglas has a very good overview of the issue in this article on the website of the Association for Asian Research. Written in 2004, it is excellent for the most part, though there are a few flaws. He discusses the Emperors Sujin (#10) and Ojin (#15) as if they were real people, without bringing up the possibility that they might be legendary figures. Douglas also quotes Gina Barnes without mentioning her assertion quoted above that there is no direct evidence for a Korean-born emperor. Most regrettably, he can’t resist a snide and hopelessly outdated cliche about Japanese attitudes all too common among some scholars and observers:
“Even now, the slightest suggestion that Japan’s revered and unbroken dynasty of emperors might have Korean ancestors comes as an unspeakable heresy.”
Allow me to finish the sentence for him:”…to a handful of diehards.” One wonders how much contact some of these people have had with real flesh-and-blood Japanese alive today.
One thing is certain—archaeologists will not be able to make a determination one way or another until the Imperial Household Agency allows the tombs to be excavated and the findings publicized, but that is unlikely to happen anytime soon.