Yamato people (大和民族 Yamato minzoku?, also in older literature Yamato race) and Wajin (和人 Wajin, literally "Wa people"?) is a name for the dominant native ethnic group of Japan. It is a term that came to be used around the late 19th century to distinguish the residents of mainland Japan from other minority ethnic groups who have resided in the peripheral areas of Japan, such as the Ainu, Ryukyuans, Nivkh, Oroks, as well as Koreans. The name was applied to the Imperial House of Japan or "Yamato Court" that existed in Japan in the 4th century, and was originally the name of the region where the Yamato people first settled in Yamato Province (modern-day Nara Prefecture). Generations of Japanese historians, linguists, and archeologists have debated whether the word is related to the earlier Yamatai (邪馬台?).
Wa (Yamato) was a name early China used to refer to an ethnic group living in Japan around the time of the Three Kingdoms Period. Chinese, Korean, and Japanese scribes regularly wrote Wa or Yamato with the Chinese character 倭 until the 8th century, when the Japanese found fault with it, replacing it with 和 "harmony, peace, balance". Retroactively, this character was adopted in Japan to refer to the country itself, often combined with the character 大, literally meaning "Great", similar to Great Britain, so as to write the preexisting name Yamato (大和) (e.g., such as 大清帝國 Great Qing Empire, 大英帝國 Greater British Empire). The pronunciation Yamato cannot be formed from the sounds of its constituent characters; it is speculated to originally refer to a place in Japan meaning "Mountain Gate" (山戸). The historical province of Yamato (now Nara Prefecture in central Honshu) borders Yamashiro Province (now the southern part of Kyōto Prefecture), whose name is likewise etymologically obscure; however, the names of both provinces appear to contain the Japonic etymon yama, usually meaning "mountain(s)" (but sometimes having a meaning closer to "forest," especially in some Ryukyuan languages). Some other pairs of historical provinces of Japan exhibit similar sharing of one etymological element, such as Kazusa (<*Kami-tu-Fusa, "Upper Fusa") and Shimōsa (<*Simo-Fusa, "Lower Fusa") or Kōzuke (<*Kami-tu-Ke, "Upper Ke") and Shimotsuke (<*Simo-tu-Ke, "Lower Ke"). In these latter cases, the pairs of provinces with similar names are thought to have been created through the subdivision of an earlier single province in prehistoric or protohistoric times.
Although the etymological origins of Wa remain uncertain, Chinese historical texts recorded an ancient people residing in the Japanese archipelago, named something like *ʼWâ or *ʼWər 倭. Carr (1992:9–10) surveys prevalent proposals for Wa's etymology ranging from feasible (transcribing Japanese first-person pronouns waga 我が "my; our" and ware 我 "I; we; oneself") to shameful (writing Japanese Wa as 倭 implying "dwarf"), and summarizes interpretations for *ʼWâ "Japanese" into variations on two etymologies: "behaviorally 'submissive' or physically 'short'." The first "submissive; obedient" explanation began with the (121 CE) Shuowen Jiezi dictionary. It defines 倭 as shùnmào 順皃 "obedient/submissive/docile appearance", graphically explains the "person; human' radical with a wěi 委 "bent" phonetic, and quotes the above Shi Jing poem. "Conceivably, when Chinese first met Japanese," Carr (1992:9) suggests "they transcribed Wa as *ʼWâ 'bent back' signifying 'compliant' bowing/obeisance. Bowing is noted in early historical references to Japan." Examples include "Respect is shown by squatting" (Hou Han Shu, tr. Tsunoda 1951:2), and "they either squat or kneel, with both hands on the ground. This is the way they show respect." (Wei Zhi, tr. Tsunoda 1951:13). Koji Nakayama interprets wēi 逶 "winding" as "very far away" and euphemistically translates Wō 倭 as "separated from the continent." The second etymology of wō 倭 meaning "dwarf (variety of an animal or plant species), midget, little people" has possible cognates in ǎi 矮 "low, short (of stature)", wō 踒 "strain; sprain; bent legs", and wò 臥 "lie down; crouch; sit (animals and birds)". Early Chinese dynastic histories refer to a Zhūrúguó 侏儒國 "pygmy/dwarf country" located south of Japan, associated with possibly Okinawa Island or the Ryukyu Islands. Carr cites the historical precedence of construing Wa as "submissive people" and the "Country of Dwarfs" legend as evidence that the "little people" etymology was a secondary development.
History of usage
In the 6th century, the Yamato dynasty — one of many tribes, of various origins, who had colonized Japan in prehistory—founded a state modeled on the Chinese states of Sui and Tang, the center of East Asian political influence at the time. As the Yamato influence expanded, their Old Japanese language became the common spoken language.
The concept of “pure blood” as a criterion for the uniqueness of the Yamato minzoku began circulating around 1880 in Japan, around the time some Japanese scientists began investigations into eugenics. (Robertson 2002)
In present-day Japan, the term Yamato minzoku may be seen as antiquated for connoting racial notions that have been discarded in many circles since Japan’s defeat in World War II. (Weiner 2009, p. xiv–xv) “Japanese people” or even “Japanese-Japanese” are often used instead, although these terms also have complications owing to their ambiguous blending of notions of ethnicity and nationality. (Levin 2008, p. 6) Professor Mark Levin (2008, p. 7) suggests adopting into general use the term wajin (和人), already used in discourse to distinguish non-Ainu Japanese from Ainu, as a suitable global term for ethnic Japanese in Japan today. If regarded as a single ethnic group, the Yamato people are among the world's largest. They have ruled Japan for almost its entire history.
The Ryukyuan languages split from Old Japanese somewhere between the 3rd and 5th centuries.
There is, however, disagreement on whether to include the Ryukyuans in the Yamato, or identify them as an independent ethnic group, or as a sub-group that constitutes Japanese ethnicity together with the Yamato because of close similarities suggested by genetics and linguistics. Shinobu Orikuchi argues Ryukyuans are the “proto-Japanese” (原日本人 gen nippon jin?), whereas Kunio Yanagita suggests they were a sub-group who settled in the Ryukyu Islands while the main migratory wave moved north to settle the Japanese archipelago and became the Yamato people.
- Levin, Mark (February 1, 2008). "The Wajin’s Whiteness: Law and Race Privilege in Japan". Hōritsu Jihō (法律時報) 80 (2): 80–91.
- Robertson, J. (2002). "Blood talks: Eugenic modernity and the creation of new Japanese". History and Anthropology 13 (3): 191–216. doi:10.1080/0275720022000025547. PMID 19499628.
- Weiner, Michael, ed. (2009). Japan’s Minorities: The Illusion of Homogeneity (2nd ed.). Routledge.