Reconstruction of Jomon Period roundhouses at the Yayoi-Kan Museum in Fukuoka, Japan
Image credit and © Winifred Bird
Back in the late 1970s, the city planners of Karatsu, a fishing community on the northern coast of Kyushu, decided to build a new road. This provided a rare opportunity for local archaeologists. One day, they mixed a scoop of soil with water to separate out the pollen, and something unexpected floated to the top: a handful of tiny black discs. It turned out to be carbonized millennia-old rice that would soon lead them to the oldest paddy fields ever discovered in Japan. [See our earlier feature here].
Wild rice does not grow in Japan; the tall wetland plant that eventually became the squatter Japonica variety farmers grow today was first domesticated in China 8,000 or more years ago. Over the course of several millennia, the techniques evolved and spread — eventually to the Japanese islands, although the route and timing of their arrival remains controversial.
Kazuo Miyamoto, a professor of archaeology who studies that complex question at Kyushu University in Fukuoka, says immigrant farmers from the Korean Peninsula most likely arrived by boat around the eighth century B.C., making landfall somewhere around present-day Karatsu, and then on the broad plain where Fukuoka is now. They established rice paddies and probably shared their techniques with local hunter-gatherer communities, who already grew some vegetables, grains and beans in dry fields. Population grew, leaders emerged, conflict arose — and Japan was on its way toward “modernity.”