Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Nan'yo and the Search for the Japanese Homeland

Yanagita Kunio, known as the "founder of Japanese folklore studies" and the "father of Japanese ethnography," popularized the idea that the ancestors of the Japanese migrated from the South Seas to Okinawa and then to Japan using the Kuroshio Current.

Reportedly he was inspired when he found a palm nut washed ashore by the Kuroshio while walking on Iragomisaki beach in Aichi Prefecture.

Studying the movement of cowrie shells from the South northward, he linked the shell trade with rice cultivation in his books Takaragai no Koto (The Cowrie) and Kaijo no michi (Ocean Road).

The South Seas were divided into two parts, Uchi Nan'yo (Inner South Seas) consisting mainly of Micronesia, and Soto Nan'yo (Outer South Seas) referring to Southeast Asia and especially the Philippines and Indonesia. Interestingly, the Southeast Asian countries were seen as an expansion of the Pacific island ones, rather than vice a versa.

Cultural anthropologist Shinji Yamashita wrote concerning Japanese conquests in the 20th century that "colonization of the Nan'yo differed from European colonization in that it entailed the return of the ancestors to their homeland" in Japanese minds of that period.

Earlier in this blog, I have written of how the Japanese prized aged earthenware jars from Southeast Asia, and particularly Luzon, since about Sung Dynasty times. This near obsession with old, earthenware jars may stem from ancient beliefs in ancestral homelands like Takamagahara and Tokoyonokuni overseas to the South in Japanese legendary history. It was from the earth of Takamagahara that earthenware, handmade (ta-kujiri) "Heavenly Jars" were fashioned and sacrificed by the first Emperor Jimmu.

The hidden Christians of Japan came to regard Luzon (Roson) in the Philippines as a sacred land apparently conflating Christian and Shinto beliefs after the government crackdown on foreign missionaries. The fabled Southeast Asian Namban jar trade dissipated probably due to the response of Christian colonial governments in Southeast Asia.

When Japan took over Taiwan in the latter part of the 1800s, interest in Nan'yo began to blossom anew. Writers like Suzuki Tsunenori and Shiga Shigetaka ventured into the Pacific islands and their journals captured the public imagination. The new interest in the Pacific and Southeast Asia went against the grain of the Meiji Era idea of datsua nyuo or disassociation with Asia in favor of Westernization.

One researcher rebelling against these new ideas was Kimura Takatora who fiercely rejected any association with South Sea Islanders, Koreans, Chinese, etc., but instead argued that the Japanese were a "Graeco-Latin" race whose homeland Takamagahara was in Armenia.

However, these ideas did not catch on much not only because of the difficulty in distance and culture, but in the near complete lack of evidence mustered by proponents of a Japanese Caucasian race theory.

In comparison, the Nan'yo theory was logical and quite a bit of convincing evidence could be mustered up to support the idea. Nan'yo was more harmonious with the descriptions given in Japanese traditional origin texts. And the cultural milieu, especially with reference to rice culture was quite similar in a number of ways.

Rice was a key element in beliefs found in Japan and Okinawa concerning the 'divine visitor' as seen in the folklore of the Marebito and "Miroku's boat" (Maitreya's boat).

Especially in coastal regions of eastern Japan, special dances and songs were performed to drive away evil and welcome the cult-like cargo of Miroku's boat that was prophesied to bring enough rice to initiate the millenarian Miroku no yo "Age of Miroku." These beliefs appear linked with celebrations of the divine ancestors who first brought rice agriculture to Japanese shores from the South.

Just before and during the outbreak of World War II, the Japanese government began a huge campaign aimed at promoting Southeast Asia as the Japanese ancestral homeland. Attention was also focused on Micronesia, and the sentiments of Takano Rokuro, a Ministry of Welfare bureau chief, 'We are Nan'yojin (South Sea Islanders)," carried much weight among nationalists.

More than 7,000 books and articles were published on the subject of a Southeast Asian homeland in 1942 alone, and between 1942 and 1943 a series of government sponsored lectures brought the new ideas directly to the Japanese public.

Japanese capitalists were enthusiastic about promoting such ideology. Nan'yo Boeki (South Seas Trading Company) which dated back to early trade with the Spanish colony in the Philippines, and Nan'yo Kohatsu (South Seas Development Company) founded in 1921 were deeply involved in Japanese imperialistic ventures.

In 1943, under the guidance of Masao Oka, the Institute of Ethnology was opened dedicated to studying the cultures of Southeast Asia. Important researchers were sent into the field, for example, Tadao Kano became head of museums in the Philippines were he played an important role in saving historical artifacts from destruction during the war.

Reading the works of Yanagita Kunio and some of his followers, it is not difficult to believe that at least some Japanese did in fact believe that the expansion and development of the "Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere," was nothing less than the liberation of the original Japanese homeland.

Interestingly, the formation of the first Kamikaze Group was at East Mabalacat Airfield, between Mt. Arayat and Mt. Pinatubo. "Kamikaze" or "shin-pu" both represented by the same characters refer to the "Divine Wind," the typhoons that saved Japan from Mongol invasions. The Kamikaze storms helped develop the idea of Japan as Shinkoku "Divine Land," and it might be taken that the Kamikaze pilots of World War II believed they were also defending another divine land in addition to Japan -- the Nan'yo homeland of the South.

Paul Kekai Manansala


Clarke, Peter Bernard. Japanese New Religions, Routledge, 2000, p. 134.

Nakasone, Ronald Y. Okinawan Diaspora, University of Hawaii Press, 2002, 48-50, 57-60.

Oguma, Eji and David Askew. A genealogy of 'Japanese' self-images, Trans Pacific Press, 2002.

Yamashita, Shinji, Joseph Bosco and Jeremy Seymour Eades. The Making of Anthropology in East and Southeast Asia , Berghahn Books, 2004. See especially "Southeast Asia as Japan's Homeland" by Yamashita starting on pg. 104.


Mog said...

This is truly an education thank you.

My father in law's house in Mabalacat (West) is supposedly in an area where many Japanese were buried after the retaking of Clark Field. And my father in law was 7 or 8 years old and was caught at either the edge of clark field or East Mabalacat Airfield when the Americans strafed the field. He climbed up a tree and hid there and unfortunately witnessed Japanese casualties from strafing.

From my standpoint we are all human and the historical movements (though often muddied by reactionary perspective) are necessary to see the complex dependent arising of this war (and the karma of colonialism) and arise from the unconsciousness of the agonies and prejudices which arose from the war.

Thank you.

For the most part the locals, including my father in law did witness some brutalities of the Japanese, but I've heard that in fact the Japanese had studied the American Philippine War and strategies, which included American run concentration camps and what were termed "kill zones" around them. Most of my father in laws contemporaries, did not take the Japanese occupation lightly, but it was interesting to meet one of my father in law's friends who actually prefered it when the Japanese were there.

We must be thankful we live in a time with greater freedom and openness to discuss such things, and acknowledge the common pain of coming out of the rapacious colonial era, and confusion of place and identity within the former Eurocentric industrial dominating views.


Paul Kekai Manansala said...

Thanks for your comments, Bill.