Origins of the Japanese Language

A multidisciplinary approach

Patrick Elmer, BA

Research Question

This thesis aims at providing a systematic compilation of evidence from different fields on the origins of the Japanese languages. This includes the following questions:

  • Who were the first speakers of Japanese?
  • Where are their geographical origins?
  • When did those people reach the Japanese islands?
  • Which route did they take?
  • How was their language influenced by other languages they interacted with during their journey?

Historical Sources

Before Japan's name was changed to Nippon 日本 in 670 CE, old Chinese sources used the character Wa 倭 to refer to the inhabitants of the Japanese archipelago. The Wa were the first speakers of Japanese, and old Chinese sources provide information about where they came from.

The first mention of the Wa people is dated to the period of King Cheng of Zhou 周成王 (1042-1021 BCE) in the Lùnhéng 論衡 (vol. 58, written by 84 CE).

An approximate location of the Wa lands is first given in the Shānhǎijīng 山海經 (vol. 12, written by the 1st century BCE) when the Yan state 燕 was powerful (possibly 3rd/4th century BCE):


"Gai chiefdom is south of Great-Yan and north of Wa. Wa is subject to Yan."

The location of the Gai chiefdom is unknown, but it may refer to the Kaema Plateau 蓋馬高原 in present-day North Korea.

A golden seal found in 1784 near Fukuoka connects the Wa people to the Japanese archipelago. According to the Hòu Hànshū 後漢書 (vol. 85, written by 445 CE), the Chinese emperor Guangwu 光武帝 gave it to the king of Na 奴國 in Wa 倭in 57 CE. The location of the Na chiefdom around Fukuoka is also confirmed in the Sānguózhì 三國志 (vol. 30, written by 297 CE).

Previous Research

The main theories about the origins of the Japanese languages are the Altaic theory that adds Japonic (mainland Japanese and the Ryūkyū languages) and Koreanic to the Altaic language family with Mongolic, Turkic and Tungusic. Some scholars only focus on a relationship between Japonic and Koreanic.

Japanese scholars tend to favor the Austronesian theory that considers Japanese to be a mixed language consisting of elements of Austronesian languages and another stratum from the Korean peninsula.

The Ainu language is thought to be unrelated to Japanese and present in the Japanese islands since the Jōmon period.


Genetically, modern Japanese DNA consists of two main elements: DNA of the Jōmon people and DNA of the immigrants who came during the Yayoi period (started around 950 BCE). Below I simplified Y-DNA data for the Japanese archipelago.

Map showing the possible terrain of East Asia during the Last Glacial Maximum (without ice cover) ca. 21,000 years ago (sea levels ~125 meters below present) in light brown.


Tracing mythology recorded in the Kojiki 古事記 and Nihon Shoki in the 8th century CE can give some additional information on the origins of the speakers of Japanese.

The Japanese founding myth parallels that of the Korean kingdom of old Chosŏn 朝鮮. In both myths the mythical founders are said to have descended from heaven to a mountain with three heavenly treasures (sword, mirror and magatama 勾玉). Other myths are from the south. The Japanese story of the fish hook resembles that of Māui in Polynesian cultures. In the Kojiki it is attributed to Hoderi 火照, the ancestor of the Hayato of southern Kyūshū.


I will apply a multidisciplinary approach that makes use of philological methods to analyze data from other fields such as historical linguistics, genealogy, archaeology, geography and cultural anthropology, especially in regards to ancient mythology and religion. Information from all fields should be reconciled to create a coherent picture of the prehistory and origins of the Japanese language.


Archaeology dates the immigration of Yayoi people and the appearance of wet-rice agriculture to about 950 BCE. These immigrants are thought to have brought the Japanese language and stayed in northern Kyūshū for some time until they spread east to the Nara Basin and south to the Ryūkyū islands and intermixed with the native Jōmon population.

Wet-rice agriculture that came with the Yayoi immigrants is thought to originate in the lower Yangtze river delta near present-day Shanghai and came to Japan via the Korean peninsula. The spread of wet-rice agriculture from Kyūshū to the main island of Honshū is dated to around 600 BCE.


Researchers generally agree that place names recorded in the Samguk Sagi 三國史記 (vol. 35) for the central Korean peninsula are similar to the Japanese language. Before the area was conquered by Silla forces in the 7th century CE, it belonged to Koguryŏ 高句麗, originally the area belonged to Mahan 馬韓 (later part of Paekche 百濟) and Ye 濊. Some of those kingdoms may have spoken a language related to Japanese.

However, it is not clear which kingdom's language these place names refer to and when they came into being.

Important information can also be obtained from the Ryūkyūan languages of southern Japan. Together with mainland Japanese they are classified as the Japonic language family.