Japan's Korean Roots

by Gary Rector

A Lyrical Riddle

People who study the history of the English language are lucky. They have tons of resource material available to make their work easier. Of course, there are some gaps, and historical linguists always want more, more, more, but the fact is that English, from Anglo-Saxon times down to the present, is so well-documented that its development has probably been studied more than the history of any other language ever.

Korean scholars are not so fortunate. It's only from the mid-15th century, when Hangul was invented, that texts that could be studied in a fairly straightforward fashion became available, and even then most writing was still done in classical Chinese. For periods predating Hangul, we have to depend primarily on piecemeal information gleaned from place-names, personal names and titles (from the days before Koreans switched to using Chinese for these), and comments in Chinese texts such as the Jilin Leishi (Kyerim Yusa in Korean), an encyclopedic work compiled during the Song Dynasty, which gives a vocabulary of some 353 words as used by Koreans in the late 11th to early 12th centuries.

For running text in ancient Korean (that is, connected prose and not just detached words and phrases), all we really have are 25 lyrical poems that were passed down and recorded in the Kyunyojon (an 11th-century biography of a Buddhist monk) and the Samguk Yusa (a history of the Three Kingdoms, compiled in the 13th century). These lyrics, called hyangga, are difficult to decipher because they were written in idu, a rebuslike writing system that borrows Chinese characters to record pure Korean, sometimes using the characters for their sound and sometimes for their meaning. Scholars disagree on the correct interpretation, and some passages have them so stumped that they can do little but make some intelligent guesses.

In 1993 two brothers, Kim In-bae and Kim Mun-bae (both award-winning novelists), came out with a book in which they claimed to have "cracked the code" of the hyangga (Chonhyo tarun hyangga mit manyopka). The astounding part of their thesis, however, is that they believe that the Manyoshu, a Japanese collection of ancient poetry, can also be understood using their system. In other words, they're saying that those famous old Japanese lyrics were written in Korean!

They are not the first to make such a suggestion. Tamura Enjo, a professor emeritus of Kyushu University, proposed in an article in the Asahi Shimbun that in Japan the Buddhist sutras were read in Korean through the Nara period. And Lee Yong-hui wrote a couple of books presenting the notion that the Manyoshu cannot be properly understood without regarding them as being in Korean. The difference is that while she applies a combination of Japanese and Korean readings to the characters in a somewhat arbitrary fashion, the brothers Kim interpret the poems from Korean readings alone. They also assume that the poets who produced them were intelligent writers who would choose their characters with careful deliberation rather than in the haphazard way the traditional interpretations imply they must have used.

To give you an idea of how different the various interpretations can be, here's my translation of Canto 107 from Vol. 2 of the Manyoshu as it is conventionally read by Japanese scholars. (The poem was written by a man and addressed to a woman.)

In the water droplets of Ashihiki mountain,
I got wet while standing and waiting for my sister.
In the water droplets of the mountain.

"Water droplets" are presumably dew, and Ashihiki is supposed to be a sort of meaningless "epithet." (Conventional scholarship cops out using the "meaningless epithet" excuse in more than 1,700 of the over 4,500 poems in this collection.)

Here's a translation of Lee Yong-hui's version of the same canto.

The noblewoman intends to kill Yamabe.
Stand before her and take action quickly.
She intends to kill Yamabe.

"Yamabe" is a proper name. Lee's interpretations of the poems contain a great deal of political intrigue and sexual activity.

The Kims insist that if these are truly lyrics, they must employ lyric form and techniques, such as fixed syllable counts and repeated sounds. In my translation of their version, I tried to reflect that using techniques common to English verse.

I'll leave you at the mountain's foot
in a grave I've made for you.
I will want to come again
to where, bereft of life, you lie
and so will build my grave nearby.

Canto 108 of Vol. 2 contains the woman's reply:

Without me you will wait, and I've
already counted every tear
you'll shed. But what more need I ask
if at that mountain foot where you
left me, your grave is also near?

It will be interesting to see whether other scholars take the Kim brothers' seriously and follow up on what they have begun. If many or all of the poems in the Manyoshu prove to yield to the type of analysis they have developed, it would make a vastly greater amount of material available to help unravel the mysteries of ancient Korean.

What's the connection?

Anyone who speaks Korean and tries to learn Japanese or who speaks Japanese and tries to learn Korean is immediately struck by how the word order and other grammatical features of the two languages are almost identical. In fact, they're as close to each other grammatically as, say, Spanish and Italian. Even sister languages like English and German, both members of the Germanic branch of the Indo-European language family, do not have nearly as much in common when it comes to the way sentences are put together.

Then why are mainstream historical linguists so reluctant to just come right out and say that Korean and Japanese are derived from the same parent language, which we might dub Proto-Koreo-Japanese? The problem is that the two languages seem to share so little basic vocabulary. Oh sure, they have thousands of words in common that are written with Chinese characters, but these are not part of the basic native vocabulary. They were borrowed from Chinese or in some cases constructed by the Japanese or Koreans out of Chinese characters. When linguists try to prove that two languages are related, they look for cognate words (that is, words derived from a common ancestor) and attempt to reconstruct a consistent system of rules that would explain how the sounds of the ancestral language were transformed into the sounds of the two derived languages. For well-documented tongues, such as the Romance languages, the "genetic" relationship between them can be proved without a shadow of a doubt. (After all, we even have written records in their "proto-language," Latin.)

The reason most linguists are not ready to say for sure that Korean and Japanese are closely related is that there just aren't enough cognate words (excluding, of course, those borrowed Chinese ones already mentioned). Some scholars explain away the cognate words Korean and Japanese share by saying that they could very well have been borrowed from Korean into Japanese during the fourth through seventh centuries, when Koreans (especially the people of Paekche) played such a predominant role in transmitting culture to Japan and in organizing the Yamato state. Others object to the "borrowing" theory, pointing out that it seems highly unlikely that the island-dwelling Japanese would have needed to borrow the word for "island" ? "shima" in Japanese, "som" (sounds almost like the English word "some") in Korean. The same goes for such words as hata ('field' ? "pat" in Korean) and "mura" ('village' ? "maul" in Korean). The answer to their objection is that languages do borrow such fundamental words. English has even borrowed pronouns! ("They, them, their" come from Scandinavian.)

Whether they're related or not, there is little doubt that Korean played an important role in ancient Japan. The Japanese historical records, for instance, tell us that the Buddhist scriptures were generally read in the language of Paekche. We can even find evidence of Korean influence hidden deeply in Japanese mythology. In his introductory book on the Japanese language, entitled "Iyagi Ilbono" (Japanese through Stories), Prof. Kim Yong-un of Hanyang University recounts the myth of the origin of Japanese agriculture as it is given in the "Kojiki," one of Japan's oldest history books.

If you read this story in Japanese only, it doesn't seem to imply any Korean influence on Japan's early agriculture at all, but as Prof. Kim points out, if you read it with a knowledge of Korean, the story almost appears to have been "encoded" with the secret that it was Koreans who brought agriculture there. The story is set in the Age of the Gods and is about Susanoo, the brother of the Sun Goddess. It is said that, after descending from heaven and spending some time in Silla, he crossed over to live in an area of Japan called Izumo. He asked a goddess for food, and she gave him unpleasant things she pulled from her ears, nose, and rear end. This angered Susanoo, and he slayed her. Out of the various parts of her corpse came things needed for agriculture.

Now here's the amazing part where the "encoded" Korean influence shows up. Using "J." and "K." as abbreviations for "Japanese" and "Korean," after each keyword I've placed the corresponding words in Japanese and Korean in parentheses. [Note the first syllable in each word.] Out of the head (J. atama, K. mori) came the horse (J. uma, K. mal). Out of the eyes (J. me, K. nun) came silkworms (J. kaiko, K. nue). Out of the belly (J. hara, K. pae) came the rice plant (J. ine, K. pyo). Out of the ears (J. mimi, K. kwi) came millet (J. awa, K. cho ? but note that the Korean word for 'oats' is "kwiri"). Out of the nose (J. hana, K. ko) came soybeans (J. edamame, K. kong). And out of the pudendum came barley (J. mugi, K. pori). I refrained from putting in the vulgar terms for pudendum, but trust me, the Japanese word has no sounds in common with "mugi" while the Korean has only one sound that is different from "pori."

It seems clear to me that with such a long list of correspondences we could not possibly be dealing with a coincidence here. Although this myth doesn't contribute anything to proving that the Korean and Japanese languages are related, it does lend a great deal of credence to the claim made by some scholars that many parts of the "Kojiki" and "Nihon Shoki" were actually written in some early form of Korean.

Missionary of Literacy

In Osaka there's a sleepy bedroom town called Hirakata that anyone with an interest in Korean history and in relations between Korea and Japan in ancient times should visit. Here you'll find a grave that is believed to be that of a man known to the Japanese as Dr. Wani and to the Koreans as Wangin. According to the two oldest histories of early Japan, the Nihongi and the Kojiki, Wangin was a Korean from the kingdom of Paekche who went to Japan to teach Chinese characters and the Confucian classics. In other words, he played the extremely important role of introducing literacy and scholarship to Japan.

The Nihongi says that in 404 the king of Paekche sent a man called Achikki, along with two horses, to the Japanese court. Achikki really impressed the royal family with his learning because he could read the Chinese classics, so the crown prince asked Achikki to teach him. At some point the prince asked Achikki if back in Paekche there were other men who were even more learned than he, and Achikki told him of Dr. Wangin. The court sent two officials to Paekche to bring Wangin back to tutor the crown prince in the classics. There was supposedly no book around that Wangin couldn't read and understand fully. Wangin's arrival in Japan is dated as having occurred in the 16th year of the reign of Ojin (A.D. 405, while Kunkusu was on the throne in Korea), and the Nihongi goes on to say that he became the progenitor of the "chiefs of writing."

The Kojiki tells the story a bit differently and implies a somewhat earlier date for Wangin's arrival. It says that King Seuko of Kudara presented the Japanese court with one stallion and one mare, which were sent accompanied by Achi-kisi. Achi-kisi appears to be the same man as the Achikki mentioned in the Nihongi, and King Seuko is the king that Koreans call Kunchogo, who reigned from 349 to 375. The Japanese write the same characters as the Koreans do for "Paekche," but they read them as "Kudara." Among other gifts the Paekche king sent, including a sword and a mirror, were a ten volume set of the Analects of Confucius and a one-volume edition of the Thousand-Character Classic. Wangin was sent along to teach from these books. The Kojiki says Wangin was the progenitor of the "chiefs of literature."

Wangin was actually only the beginning of a long line of teachers from Paekche who taught in Japan. They were part of a continuing influx of immigrants from "Kudara." This immigration was encouraged by the Yamato royal clan and was to influence the development of Japanese institutions, lifestyle, and technology in the most fundamental ways.

Southwest of the city of Kwangju, South Cholla Province, there is a little town called Kurim, in Yongam-gun. Mr. Wolchul National Park lies just to the east, and it is said that there is a magical rock on this mountain that from ancient times has caused many great men to be born in this region. Dr. Wangin is without a doubt one of the most noteworthy of all, a truly international figure. Every year at cherry blossom time, the people of Yongam celebrate the memory of Dr. Wangin in a cultural festival, scheduled this year for four days, from 9 to 12 April. The events are held at the site of Dr. Wangin's relics or nearby.

The street events include a memorial ceremony honoring Wangin, a procession that tries to show what Wangin and his entourage leaving for Japan might have looked like, a contest for descendants of Dr. Wangin, and various performances.

A singing contest will also be staged, and those adept at composition in classical Chinese can try their hand in the poetry contest.

Taking place at the same time as the Wangin Cultural Festival and not too far away are the Special Exhibition of Yongam Earthenware and an international conference at which the development of new techniques in Korean ceramics will be discussed.

Traditional performing arts and folk games will also be featured. You'll be able to see the Ponghwa Nori, the old-style Korean tug-of-war game (which appears to be virtually identical to that of the Asuka region, east of Osaka, where Wangin lived in Japan), some shamanic functions, drum playing, Korean classical instrumental music, and much more.

This is definitely worth the trip, not only to enjoy the beautiful Korean countryside in the spring and immerse yourself for a while in traditional culture but also to commemorate one of the most significant personages of ancient times in this part of the world.

A plausible scenario

A couple of readers have written me expressing concern about the implications of two "Hungbo's Gourd" columns on ancient connections between Korea and Japan ("A lyrical riddle," Dec.14 1998, and "What's the connection?" April 26, 1999). They seem to be worried that such speculations about history might be used for purposes of nationalistic one-upmanship. You may recall that those pieces told of the possibility that at least parts of the Manyoshu, a Japanese collection of lyric poetry dating from more than a millennium ago and some of the stories in the Kojiki and Nihongi, the two oldest Japanese history books, were written in some early form of Korean.

I certainly had nothing like one-upmanship in mind when I wrote those pieces. For me, as a dabbler in historical linguistics, the chance that these Japanese sources might provide important clues about the relationship between Korean and Japanese and might also contain many written examples of old Korean, of which very few are extant here in Korea, was the thing that sparked my interest. In no way did I intend to imply that one or the other of these two peoples was in some way intrinsically superior to the other.

While Koreans are generally happy to point out the important role Korean people played in early Japan, the Japanese themselves are, with few exceptions, loathe to admit it. Let's look at an oversimplified scenario that might plausibly explain this. This is not a scholarly treatise, so I will not footnote any of this, but keep in mind as you read it that much of it is supported by archaeological and documentary evidence. Still, a lot of it is speculative. None of the ideas presented here are my own. They are pieced together from my memory of various books, articles, TV documentaries, and so on.

From prehistoric times various related tribal peoples, known to the Chinese as Dong-Yi (Tong-I in Korean), migrated from northern and central Asia into northeastern China, Manchuria, the Korean Peninsula, and even over to the Japanese archipelago. These Tong-Yi peoples included the Han tribes (Koreans) and the Wae (Japanese tribes, called Wa in Japanese). Earlier inhabitants, such as the Ainu, were either absorbed or pushed farther east and north.

At first the Tong-I did not form nations in our sense of the word but lived in tiny tribal kingdoms, joining with others in confederations for mutual protection, trade, and so on. Gradually three centralized states developed in Manchuria and the Korean Peninsula: Koguryo in the north, the closely related Paekche in the southwest, and Silla in the southeast. Kaya, wedged between Paekche and Silla on the south coast, remained an uncentralized confederation. The people of Kaya had close relations with people on Kyushu, and both may have regarded each other as essentially one people. This could explain why the Japanese insist that they once owned the Kaya part of Korea, which they call Mimana.

People from Koguryo settled along parts of Honshu's western coast. Settlers from Silla inhabited Izumo farther to the south. But it appears that Paekche was the most active and the most organized in its colonization of the Japanese "frontier." Paekche set up little semi-independent "outpost" kingdoms in various places, called Tamno, but it was especially active in settling the Asuka plain, which is located in the eastern part of the Kinki region of Honshu, south of Nara. This kingdom, called Yamato, came to dominate the entire region, gradually bringing other tribal kingdoms into its "empire," absorbing the native populations and Korean settlers from Koguryo and Silla and eventually becoming the "progenitor" of a united Japan.

On the Korean Peninsula, the Three Kingdoms fought with each other frequently, trying to expand into each other's territory. Paekche and Silla had a particularly inimical relationship. In the seventh century, Silla joined forces with Tang China and together destroyed Paekche and Koguryo. The remnants of Koguryo went on to form the kingdom of Parhae in Manchuria and the northern part of the Korean Peninsula. Paekche was wiped out. Many courtesans committed suicide. The common people had little choice but to succumb to rule by Silla. An estimated 200,000 noblemen, royalty, artisans fled by sea to join their kinfolk in Yamato Japan. Paekche history ceases at this point on the Korean Peninsula and becomes one with the history of Japan.

Their homeland gone, the remnants of Paekche adopted Yamato as their new home and naturally regarded Silla as their archenemy. Modern Korea is descended from Unified Silla (for Parhae was later destroyed by the Jurchen, leaving Silla as the only "Korean" nation on earth). In view of this history, it's little wonder that relations between Korea and Japan were never very good after the destruction of Paekche.

The fact that early Japan was settled at least in part by various peoples from Korea and that people from Paekche gained hegemony and laid the foundations for the Japanese empire does not make Japan any less Japanese than England is English even though that country was at various times settled and ruled by people from northern Germany, Denmark, and northern France.