Wontack Hong on Early Korea-Japan Relations

Over the past couple decades, Wontack Hong, a professor of economics at Seoul National University, has been slowly building, revising, and strengthening a case for heavy migration from the Korean Peninsula into the Japanese Archipelago during what is now known as the Yayoi period. Hong further contends that the earliest rulers of Yamato came from the Peninsula. (I’m trying carefully to avoid using the misleading modern terms ‘Korean’ and ‘Japanese’ for peoples of that era.)

When I first became aware of his work, about a decade ago, I wondered whether it would achieve academic respectability among archeologists and historians. Of course, Hong’s thesis remains very controversial, but his efforts seem now to be taken seriously by reputable specialists in the early prehistory of the Peninsula and the Archipelago. Such specialists include University of Denver archaeologist Sarah M. Nelson, Wesleyan University art historian Jonathan Best, and University of Hawai‘i linguist Leon Serafim, who have reviewed Hong’s earlier books, Relationship between Korea and Japan in Early Period: Paekche and Yamato Wa (1988) and Paekche of Korea and the Origin of Yamato Japan (1994). However, Hong does quote with evident pride an assessment by Gari Ledyard, King Sejong Professor of Korean Studies Emeritus at Columbia University: “Wontack Hong writes outside the community of Korean historians of Korea.”

Now, Prof. Hong has a new book in the works. A Korean version (古代韓日關係史: 百濟倭) appeared in 2003, and an English version appears to be close to ready for publication. The latter is entitled “Korea and Japan in East Asian History: Paekche of the Korean Peninsula and the Origin of the Yamato Kingdom in the Japanese Islands.” Here are few snippets from its foreword and introduction.

From the Foreword:

About 400 BC, mountain glaciers started to re-advance, with cooler conditions persisting until 300 AD. The beginning of a Little Ice Age coincides with the great Celtic migrations in the west end of the Eurasian continent and the Warring States period in the east end. In 390 BC, the fierce Celtic warriors known as Gauls had besieged Rome itself. The Little Ice Age produced the heyday of the Roman Empire located in the warm Mediterranean zone and the Han Empire in mainland China. There followed a drought period of maximum intensity in the Mediterranean, North Africa and far to the east into Asia around 300-400 AD. The period of 300-400 AD coincides with the great Germanic folk migrations in the west end and the Five Barbarians and Sixteen States period in the east end.

The migration of rice farmers from the southern Korean peninsula into the Japanese islands and the commencement of the Yayoi period (ca. 300 BC-300 AD) had coincided with the beginning of a Little Ice Age. I contend that the conquest of the Japanese islands and establishment of the Yamato kingdom by the Paekche people from the Korean peninsula occurred some time between 300-400 AD. That is, the commencement of the Tomb Period (ca. 300-700 AD) on the Japanese islands by the people from the Korean peninsula coincides with a global drought period of maximum intensity.

From the Introduction:

The Paleolithic Ainu in the Japanese archipelago were bound to encounter the Malayo-Polynesians arriving through the sea route of Philippines-Taiwan-Ryukyu islands, giving rise together to the Neolithic Jōmon culture of hunting-fishing-gathering (ca. 10,000-300 BC). They were joined eventually by the people coming from the Korean peninsula, all of them together commencing the Bronze-Iron Yayoi era of rice cultivation (ca. 300 BC-300 AD).

The early history of the Japanese islands reveals some conspicuous parallels with that of the British Isles at the other end of the Eurasian continent. During the 600-year Yayoi period, Korean influences penetrated to the Japanese islands as visibly as the influences of the Anglo-Saxon on Celtic Britain and, during the next 400-year Tomb period of 300-700 AD, changes came as swiftly and strongly as the Norman Conquest of England. Then the parallel with the British Isles fades away. The Korean influences on the Japanese islands petered out thereafter, resulting in a brief period of active importation of Tang Chinese culture by the Yamato court followed by a prolonged period of isolation, producing a fairly unique indigenous culture through internal evolution. As a cultural periphery in an anthropological context, old outmoded habits and institutions have been tenaciously preserved in the Japanese islands, a spectacular example of which is, as Reischauer (1973: 325) states, “the survival of the imperial family as the theoretical source of all political authority for a millennium after it had lost all real political power.”

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