Preserving the foundations of Japanese culture

An Australian archaeologist is advising on the preservation of sites of the unique prehistoric Jomon culture of Japan.

Remnants of the Jomon’s unique culture are found in diverse archaeological sites in northern Honshu and Hokkaido, credit: Ian Lilley.
Remnants of the Jomon’s unique culture are found in diverse archaeological sites in northern Honshu and Hokkaido, credit: Ian Lilley.

Hunter-gatherers are typically thought to be wanderers who moved to harvest the animals and plants on which they fed. Not so the Jomon, one of the important founding peoples of Japan.

By careful management of the resources they found in many varied environments in the north of Japan—fruit, nuts, fish, seafood, birds—the Jomon lived in permanent settlements for about ten thousand years until three thousand years ago. They were not farmers, but nonetheless lived in open, undefended villages. They developed sophisticated pottery, basketry and lacquered wooden crafts, and constructed storage pits and stone monuments.

Now, with the backing of their government, Japanese archaeologists are working to preserve and protect this legacy by means of a serial nomination to UNESCO’s List of World Heritage Sites. And advising them on how best to make their bid is Ian Lilley of the University of Queensland.

“Not only are the Jomon people unique, interesting and seminal to the development of Japanese culture, but the successful nomination of their sites would help to balance UNESCO’s World Heritage list. At present, Asia is under-represented and archaeological sites generally are under-represented, particularly of the era when Jomon culture was at its height.”

Ian is a noted archaeologist who works with the indigenous peoples of northern Australiaand the islands of the western Pacific. He is also one of the few members of both the two statutory UNESCO advisory bodies on cultural and natural heritage, the International Council on Monuments and Sites and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

So Ian was a natural choice to provide advice on how to frame the technical aspects of their bid to have the Jomon sites listed as World Heritage Sites. In an extensive series of meetings and field trips, he worked with academics and regional and national government officials.

Remnants of the Jomon’s unique culture are found in 18 diverse archaeological sites in northern Honshu and Hokkaido. They range from a stone arrangement only tens of metres across, overlooking a freeway, to large historic tourist parks.

Other humanities collaborations

The 2013 Fukuoka Academic Prize was awarded to Tessa Morris-Suzuki, a Professor of Japanese History at the Australian National University. She gave a talk for the Prize entitled ‘A journey across invisible bridges to Asia: Reimagining East Asia from regional Japan.’

The University of Queensland’s Professor Nanette Gottlieb is collaborating on research into immigration, technology and language policy in Japan.

An RMIT and Keio University team are exploring the impact on life of phones that always know where we are.