Japanese Prehistoric Migration

How and when was Japan settled by speakers of Japanese?
Exploring the clues to Japanese prehistory preserved in old dialect divisions

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Horizon 2020

Japanese was not always the language spoken in Japan. Archaeologists and linguists link the arrival of the language in Japan with the migration of wet-rice farmers around 400 BC to the south-western Japanese island of Kyushu.

Archaeological finds show that they spread from there north-eastwards. As a linguistic remnant of this history, the almost extinct Ainu language – the last remnant of the many languages that must have been spoken in Japan before the arrival of the Japanese language – was preserved longest in the north-east.

But this may not be the only remnant. The different tonal systems in Japanese dialects show a remarkable distribution: tonal systems that resemble each other and share innovations, are found in a number of remote corners of the archipelago. Between some of these areas there are also other striking similarities in phonology.

This is the opposite of what one might expect: people who are a long way away from one another do not normally pass on to one another innovations in the language. In particular given the way the Japanese language came to Japan, migration could explain the unusual dialect geography.

Reconstructing a reliable family tree for the dialects is a major aim of the project. The complex tonal systems in particular, are ideal material for research. Linguistic fieldwork, dialect description and linguistic techniques such as the comparative method and internal reconstruction will be employed to provide an answer the core question: Do these dialects share a close genetic bond, and is their distribution related to old migration routes, or are their resemblances the result of independent parallel developments?

To date researchers have tried to reconstruct the prehistoric migration movements in Japan purely on the basis of archaeological data. The ERC project hopes to chart in detail – based on the study of the dialects – how the ancestors of the present-day Japanese people came to Japan and spread over the islands.

ERC Project Team

Prof. Dr. Elisabeth de Boer
(Project Leader)
2.22 0234 - 32 - 21858
Leonardo Boiko, M.A.
(Research Associate)
2.04 0234 - 32 - 29838
Christopher Griesenhofer, M.A.
(Research Associate)
2.04 0234 - 32 - 29838
Petros Loukareas, M.A.
(Research Associate)
2.04 0234 - 32 - 29838


Cristina Maurillo
2.13 0234 - 32 - 21855