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.

Publications and presentations related to the project

De Boer, Elisabeth M.
  • 2017. Review of Handbook of the Ryukyuan languages: History, structure and use, Studies in Language 41:1, 781-790
  • 2017. “Universals of tone rules and diachronic change in Japanese”, Journal of Asian and African Studies; 94, 217-242
  • (Forthcoming) “The classification of Japonic”, Oxford Guide to the Transeurasian languages, Oxford University Press


Elisabeth de Boer
  • 02-07-2016 “Universals of tone rules and diachronic change in Japanese” Symposium Japanese and Korean accent: diachrony, reconstruction, and typology, (July 2-3) Tokyo University of Foreign Studies
  • 14-06-2017 “Riddles in Japanese Dialect Geography (in an East Asian Context)”, AREA Ruhr Lecture Series, University of Duisburg-Essen
  • 09-01-2018 “Classification of the Japonic languages”, Workshop on the historical comparison of the Transeurasian languages, Max-Planck-Institut für Menschheitsgeschichte (Department of Linguistic and Cultural Evolution), Leipzig
  • 29-08-2018 “Warum gibt es zwei Sätze von Tonregeln für Nominalkomposita in den japanischen Dialekten,und was bedeutet dies für die Geschichte der japanischen Sprache?” Deutschsprachiger Japanologentag, Freie Universität Berlin
  • 26-10-2018 “Accent loss in verbs forms in phrase final position: A common origin in Tokyo and some Kyoto type dialects?”, Poster presentation, 5th International Conference on Phonetics and Phonology (NINJAL ICPP 2018), October 26–28 , National Institute for Japanese Language and Linguistics, Tokyo
  • 10-01-2019 “The spread of agriculture through the Japanese Islands” Joint presentation with Gina Lee Barnes (archeology) and Melinda Yang (genetics), Interdisciplinary Conference "Transeurasian millets and beans, languages and genes", 8-11 January 2019, Max-Planck-Institut für Menschheitsgeschichte (Department of Linguistic and Cultural Evolution)
Melissa Boiko
  • 26-10-2018 “What can the Tōkyō Gairin dialects tell us about the history of Japanese pitch accent?” Poster presentation, 5th International Conference on Phonetics and Phonology (NINJAL ICPP 2018), National Institute for Japanese Language and Linguistics, Tokyo, October 26–28
  • 06-12-2017 “Human-machine interface in the analysis of fieldwork data: An example from Japanese dialectology”, Digitale Japanologie Frankfurt (December 06-07), Goethe-Universität
  • 07-12-2017 Leading the workshop: “Text encoding of Chinese character variants in the Unicode standard” Digital Approaches: Episode III, Digitale Japanologie Frankfurt (December 06-07), Goethe-Universität
Petros Loukareas
  • 04-12-2018 “Measuring dialect distances using the Levenshtein algorithm”, Forum für computergestützte Methoden in den Ostasienwissenschaften, Fakultät für Ostasienwissenschaften, Ruhr Universität Bochum

Prof. Dr. Elisabeth de Boer (Project Leader) 2.22 0234 - 32 - 21858
Melissa Boiko, 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

This project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement No 677317).


Fakultät OAW