Priming questions:
Every week we will have “priming questions” for you to research and answer in groups.
This week’s questions are

1. What are the 14 eras or periods of Japanese history? Can you name them in order?
2. When did people first live in Kumamoto?
3. Can you name anyone from Kumamoto who was/is important in the world?

1. PART 1: PRE-EDO Beginnings: Katoda and Gishiwajinden

We “know” things that happened in the pre-historic past from the clues left to us, such as ancient artifacts and archeological ruins. From geological clues, we know that the volcano in the center of Kyushu, the symbol of Kumamoto, erupted four times, forming the mountain peaks and caldera of Aso about 300,000 to 90,000 years ago, and that the pyroclastic flow from this event reached all the way to the sea between Korea and Japan.

Jomon (16,000-300bc) The first era of Japan is called Jomon. No one really knows where the Jomon people came from, but they are considered the Aborigines of Japan. Jomon people were hunters and gatherers, and they rarely left traces except for what archeologists call “middens” or dump areas, and hunting materials such as stone arrows. They are especially known for their pottery with cord-like patterns. In the North of Japan these patterns are very common, but in Southern Kyushu, different, shell-made patterns were more common.
Some of the earliest remains of Jomon human settlements in Kyushu have been found in south Kumamoto, dated to over 33,000 years ago! We also see Jomon period remains in Kikuchi, Uto, Ozu, Hitoyoshi and Kumamoto city.

Yayoi (300bc-250) Afterwards, people who came from the “continent”, i.e. China and Korea, brought farming methods, leading to development of villages or “shuraku (集落)”. In Kyushu, a famous shuraku is in Yoshinogari in Saga Prefecture. It is a wonderful introduction to Yayoi life, and is well worth a visit. However, there is also a not-so-famous Yayoi shuraku in Kumamoto too! It is called Katoda 方保田, near present-day Yamaga. Archeological remains from the Yayoi period found at Katoda include tomoegata-doki, axes, mirrors, pottery, rice gleaners, and fish hooks. A very small magatama was also found at Katoda.

Much of early Japanese history comes from Chinese records. Especially important is the gishiwajinden (魏志倭人伝), written in 285 by the Chinese Historian, Chinju ( ), which tells of the Yamataikoku (邪馬台国) . In it is this phrase:




This tells us about the “kuni” (国) that travelers from the continent passed to get to the “capital” of Yamataikoku, a sort of ancient map. BUT….although it gives very approximate distances between the kuni, it does not give the directions very well. Therefore, two theories have sprung up about where the capital of Yamataikoku was located. One theory is the kinaisetsu (畿内説), locating the capital in or around Nara, which actually was the capital in the later Yamato (710-794). The other is the Kyushu-setsu九州説, which asserts that the capital was somewhere in Kyushu.
Let us look more closely at the two routes: we have Taiho-koku near Seoul, Kuyakan-koku, near Pusan, then Tsushima-koku (obviously Tsushima), Iki-koku (Iki), Matsuro-koku, which has been located in Karatsu, and Ito-koku located in Itoshima, Fukuoka. From here, the fun begins. Na-koku seems to be somewhere east of Itoshima, but if we put it more south than east, it could very well be Yoshino-higari. Then there is Funa-koku, Toma-koku, and finally Yamatai-koku.
Following the directions to the letter puts us in the middle of the ocean—so, which way to go? No one has figured it out for sure, but at least one scholar has written a book putting Yamatai-koku in Kumamoto!

Wherever it was, from around 180 or 190 to 240 or so, Yamatai-koku had a strong spiritual queen called Himiko (卑弥呼) who was a friend of the Chinese empire. It has been estimated that she became queen in 184 at the age of 15 and received a gold seal and ribbon from China in 240, when she would have been around 70 years old.

Some people believe Himiko was Amaterasu, the sun-goddess who is deeply connected with Takachiho in Kumamoto; others equate her with the Empress Jingu, who, as the legend goes, was pregnant for three years while invading Korea. At any rate, the many 国 (kuni) of 倭 (wa) and the yamataikoku discussed in the gishinwajinden represent a slice of Japan’s prehistory that is rooted in folklore and archeology, in which we can only half know and half believe.

Even now, in Nagomi-machi, there is a “Kofun festival” where Queen Himiko actually appears at the end. The festival planners obviously believe in the Kyushu-setsu, although the Kofun period dates to a period after Himiko was alive.

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