Personal Perspective


The following is not intended to be as concerned with historical accuracy as the rest of this website.  It is purely testimonial based on what I have heard and experienced.  However, it does show one thing that goes beyond opinion and is a shared experience among those growing up in the Sendai area, and more or less in Japan generally, and reveals that the Japanese are far from being cohesive or "harmonious"; but rather points to deeply held prejudices that betray a narrative of difference among regions.  This is often an uncomfortable narrative that the Japanese like to keep to themselves. 

My late grandmother, whose family came from Sendai used to say that the Tohoku people were different from other Japanese, and this difference had mainly to do with character: Tohoku people were more patient and less hurried and irascible, especially compared to those from the Kansai (western and central Japan). This is somewhat prejudicial towards them and may hold little merit in terms of observation, but points to a perception of difference that my grandmother and others in the area felt were real.  Far from being past history of long forgotten foes it points to the still existing perception of difference.  Even more glaring is the narrative of my second cousin who visited me in Seattle once.  She said Tokyo businessmen who went there on business would not talk to locals who lived in Morioka seeing them as inaka mono or "country bumpkins." If this was an isolated incident it would be one thing but this cuts across much of the Tohoku experience when dealing with others from Tokyo.  These are quite commonplace experiences that show how regional differences and prejudices still affect people in the Tohoku after more than a thousand years after the conquest.

Thankfully, not all the interaction has been negative.  The Great earthquake of 2011 spawned a Japan wide network of ordinary people who lent a helping hand to the people of the Tohoku affected by the cataclysm.  When lives were lost and at risk many people did come together to help those in need in the region. This shows that modern Japan is much more unified than it used to be despite the existence of centuries old regional differences.

There are a couple other more trivial observations shared by my grandmother and other relatives that is widespread in the Tohoku, and reflects some truth: one is that Tohoku men are able to grow beards in contrast to other Japanese men from other parts of Japan, and this is no doubt related to their more recent Emishi/Jomon heritage, though this is obviously not always the case as there has been much internal migration in the modern period.  Another widespread opinion is that Akita girls are especially attractive (known as Akita bijin), and that the people from there look different from other Japanese.  I don't know what this is based on so it would be easy to dismiss except for its persistence and its widespread nature: I've heard this from virtually all my relatives and others too.  It could reflect that the Akita area has seen much less migration from the south than Sendai, and may reflect a larger proportion of their population being indigenous.  Or it could mean something else entirely different.  It could point to the opposite: an ethnic group that immigrated from the ancient state of Bokkai that was once a powerful state on the coast of Siberia in what is now Russia.  It is a historical fact that the Akita area had extensive trade relations with states in the northeastern quadrant of Asia, and that it was a gateway to immigration from that quarter.  And when the state of Bokkai was destroyed by the Khitans we know that an unknown number had immigrated to the area, and many from Koguryo had also immigrated after their state was defeated and taken over by the T'ang empire. 

Related to the Akita bijin, with the influence of the West came the "Jomon look" as the "in" thing in the Japanese film industry, and has been ever since Toshiro Mifune, originally from the Tohoku, became famous in the 1950's.  This is a rather embarrassing truth that most Japanese would like to keep hidden, but it is rather obvious that "western" looking actors and actresses are coveted by the Japanese film industry.  There is an irony to this as Japanese aesthetics has taken a complete turn in the modern period, so that what used to be seen before the Meiji period as "ugly" and "barbarian-like" (western features like a larger nose, bigger eyes, etc.) which were always portrayed in early emaki as demon-like, are today seen in a favorable light.  So that those who possess such features, such as Japanese with Jomon (including Emishi and Ainu) traits are seen as desirable.  It goes way beyond this discussion, but there is a sense that western colonialism and expansion in the 19th century is to blame for this internal racism practiced by native peoples within their countries, Japan being no exception despite its successful resistance to becoming a colonized state.  The same kind of dynamic is seen even in the United States in the form of minority prejudice among their own such as Japanese American (Nissei) prejudice against their own women held to standards that are white American.        

Observations from my own experience seemed to contradict the racial generalizations of white Americans I grew up with including the myth that all Japanese have straight black hair.  I have wavy hair.  My mother's hair is naturally curly.  Among the Ainu curly hair is seen as a mark of beauty and attraction.  From time to time I would meet Japanese students in college who could not accept that I was completely Japanese, or that both my parents were Japanese. These small contradictions have been my experience, and has lead me to this very large contradiction, the history of the conquest of other ethnic groups on the islands of Japan.

When I look at my family and its origins more objectively, one side of my family does not originate from the Tohoku region. So to say that we are completely indigenous to the Tohoku, or to say that we are direct descendants of the Emishi is not true. However, my family is like most who live in the region--a mixture of both indigenous Tohoku and other Japanese.  I could not even say that the Tohoku side is directly descended from the Emishi, but can point to features that seem to have strong Emishi and Jomon attributes among family members. 

My maternal grandmother's family, the Hazama, is from Sendai, and was originally a samurai clan who served the Date as hawk trainers for hunting.  It is not known whether this clan was indigenous to the area, but having served the Date they go back several centuries.  The Date clan was a powerful regional daimyo who emerged during the Sengoku (Warring states) time period of the fifteenth through the sixteenth centuries, and ruled over a large section of what used to be the southern Mutsu region corresponding today to Miyagi prefecture.  My maternal great grandfather's family, the Imagawa, originates also from Miyagi prefecture and were most likely locals who were warrior-farmers.  They would raise crops as farmers, but fight as warriors as well--an uncommon occurrence.  This clan is most likely descendants of local Emishi.  My non-Tohoku side paternal great grandfather was from a little known Sengoku daimyo clan called Tagaya based in what is now the town of Shimotsuma in the northern Kanto prefecture of Ibaragi . Some of the family fled to the Tohoku after their overlord the Toyotomi clan was defeated by the Tokugawa in 1600.  My paternal great grandfather came from the Tagaya to succeed the Hakomori family based in Ibaragi by marrying into the clan and taking on the woman's surname. 

The point of the above is to use my own family as an example of how complicated it is to trace the various sides of my own family back to the Emishi (or at least likely Emishi), though one line is most likely directly connected.  There might even be two lines of connection both on the maternal side.  For the Kanto clan they were most likely local Kanto Japanese who may have had some connections to Jomon long ago, but now impossible to trace. To complicate this even more, the clans that lived in the Tohoku for centuries inter-married with members of other locally based clans.

Even more complicated are the feelings of family members toward the Emishi which is divided as I learned in my part research/recreation trip in March 2014. One uncle on my dad's side, Kyojiro, whom I am indebted to for driving me around to these ancient Emishi sites, said to me,

"When you say 'Emishi' they are looked upon negatively by most Japanese, you know."

While my other uncle Yutaka on my mom's side who took me by train to Tagajou City and showed me how to get back said the most memorable statement of all my relatives on the subject. He said,

"My family was on the Jomon side. Like with America after the war we are friends now, and a family like yours is possible (referring to my wife). It was the same with the Jomon (Emishi) who intermarried with the Japanese. Japanese people today are a mixure of both."



Kenjiro Hakomori 2008.1.13 (revision 2015.12.11)