Japan's first history books were written in the early eighth century in the form of the short Kojiki and the much larger Nihon Shoki. The contents in the books regarding the earliest ages are disputable. They become more or less reliable after the late seventh century ADJapanese territory today is composed of four main islands; however, seventh century Japan lacked the whole of Hokkaido and the northern half of the Tohoku (northeast) region of Honshu: the Emishi lived in the Tohoku and Hokkaido areas; the Ashihase lived in Hokkaido. By the seventeenth century, the Japanese inhabited all of Honshu and the southern edge of Hokkaido. By that time the Emishi of Hokkaido, known as Ezo, lived there as well as Chishima (Kuril islands), and Karafuto (Sakhalin): they are known today as Ainu. Little is known as to what happened to the Ashihase by the early modern period. Most likely they were displaced by the Ainu who moved further north.
The question regarding 'who were the Emishi?' breaks down into: were they the direct ancestors of the Ainu? Or were they the ancestors of modern Japanese? I will attempt to give a summary answer to this question of who they were according to what we know from studies done in physical anthropology, archeology and history.
There were three races in ancient Japan: Japanese, Emishi (later Ainu) and Ashihase (possibly Okhotsk). Historical literature supports the theory that the Emishi were considered rebels by the Japanese, and therefore potentially subjects by way of conquest. Consistently, the Japanese divided them into those who had submitted themselves to Yamato rule as allies and subjects, and those who were outside their authority. Those outside imperial authority were seen as "barbarians" beyond the frontier. Michinoku, the name the Yamato Japanese had given for the Tohoku, literally translates as "deepest road" with the connotation of a far away place: the Emishi were seen as inhabitants of this far away land, beyond the frontier. The Ashihase were thought of as a foreign people altogether, and it is not clear who they were; however, in the latest research there are tantalizing clues that the relationship between the Ashihase and the Emishi mirrored the relationship between the Japanese and the Emishi . That is, just as the Japanese were completing their conquest of the Tohoku region, Emishi began to consolidate more of Hokkaido. The Ashihase were most likely an Amur river people who were definitely East Asian hunter-gatherers who moved south from Sakhalin into Hokkaido and were either absorbed or conquered by the Emishi of the Satsumon culture. The Satsumon consolidated their hold about the same time that the Tohoku Emishi began to migrate into Hokkaido (see especially Yamaura 1999:42-45, and the in-depth discussion by Crawford implying that the Tohoku Emishi may have actually created the Satsumon culture. Satsumon is a name of a culture that is ancestral to the Hokkaido Ainu.
According to archeological findings from the fifth to the seventh centuries AD, the northern half of Tohoku (roughly extending from northern Miyagi prefecture to Aomori) and the western part of Hokkaido formed a single cultural area, and many Ainu place names are left in the Tohoku. It is beyond the discussion of this introduction to go into the Jomon, Epi-Jomon and Yayoi cultures as they affected the Tohoku region, but to simplify this discussion, it is now believed that evidence points to the Emishi tie in with the Tohoku Middle Yayoi pottery culture that is heavily influenced by Jomon forms--almost as if these peoples were gradually adopting Yayoi culture from the seventh to the eighth centuries.
A key piece of evidence, however, comes in the form of physical anthropology. In one study after another of cranial and skeletal measurements of past and present Japanese populations there is a historical correlation between the Ainu, the Jomon and the Japanese population from the middle of Japan outward to the peripheral areas, such as the Tohoku where the Emishi lived. In these findings, Jomon skeletal remains are most ancestral to the Ainu population. They had at one point inhabited nearly all of what is now modern Japan. When you compare the cranial measurements of the Jomon with other East Asian groups, including modern Japanese, they define one extreme deviation from mongoloid or East Asian groups. One could consider them to be a race apart from other East Asians, including modern Japanese (see Ossenberg 1986:199-215; Kidder 1993:79,101).
If you met a Jomon person today you would probably think him or her to be a combination European-Austronesian, certainly not Japanese or any other East Asian. We say this because the population was not quite Caucasian in appearance in the same way that someone from Europe is, but they were not Austronesian either in the sense of an Australian aborigine--for example, they were not dark skinned, but mostly fair-skinned. This would also account for the assertion even today that the Ainu are Caucasian. They are not Caucasian but they have some clear Caucasian features. The Ainu are midway between modern Japanese and the Jomon. This makes a great deal of sense since the modern Ainu have bloodlines that are intermixed with both historical Japanese and other East Asians from the Amur river region.
Even today, the traces of Jomon inheritance can be seen in the modern Japanese population. In areas furthest from the central areas of Japan, Jomon features are still present according to the same cranial and skeletal analyses above. As a whole there is a gradient from the modern Kinki (the Osaka, Kansai area), the modern Kanto (the Tokyo area), the modern Tohoku, the Ainu people, and finally the ancient Jomon population. The Jomon as we have previously stated are a race apart from the modern populations of Japan, and the Ainu are closest to them in affiliation, however, not surprisingly, the modern Tohoku population is closer to the Jomon than the modern Kinki group. This modern data corroborates the argument, that each area conquered by the continental Asian group who were the Japanese speakers became absorbed by them, so that those who were conquered later still conserved more Jomon traits than those who were conquered at an earlier time. The Emishi and the Ainu were the latest of the Jomon people to be conquered during historical time, and the conquest of the former is the subject of this web page. As we go further back in time the frontier between the Japanese population and the Jomon population is drawn further south, and there is definite evidence for this.
The place where the Emishi fit into this picture follows in the descriptions given about them in the historical period. They are known as mojin or kebito (hairy people) by their Japanese conquerors, and contemporary Chinese court historians of the T'ang. And this is where history begins to corroborate physical anthropology. The Ainu are known for their abundant hair, both on the torso and limbs, and mostly in their heavy beards. It is absolutely certain that people ancestral to the Ainu lived in northern Honshu in this time period. The cultural area of the Emishi coincides with the areas that used to be under Ainu control. The very word Emishi is probably a Japanese derivation of the word "emchiu" or "enjyu" which translates to "man" in the Ainu/Emishi language. The kanji characters for Emishi are identical to Ezo. Before Ainu came into usage in the Meiji period they were known as Ezo.
Even if we accept these arguments plenty of questions remain. What were the differences between the Ainu and the Ashihase? What happened to the Emishi who migrated to Hokkaido, and how did they influence the development of Satsumon culture? What is the relationship between the Hokkaido and Tohoku Emishi, and when did the Ainu emerge? One thing is certain: we shouldn't even think of Ancient Japan as being composed of a single ethnic group like it appears today. Racial or ethnic affiliation did not determine who were or were not Japanese subjects: the connection between culture and blood came after centuries of political unity. For example, ethnic Korean and Chinese immigrants migrated to Japan at this time to help consolidate the bureaucracy and form artisan groups.
Even if we answer the earlier question about Emishi ethnic affiliation as positively Ainu, they were different culturally from both Japanese and Ainu. They cannot be seen as either one or the other. First of all, as you will begin to see in the following web pages, the Emishi had a distinctive culture that differed from that of the Ainu. Like the North American Indians, there were different cultural groups among the Jomon tribes, and the primary difference was that the Emishi were horse riders, and much of their culture and style of warfare were adapted to the use of the horse. Second, the Emishi had a profound influence on the emerging Japanese Yamato state: they basically forced the Yamato to adopt much of their style of warfare, and even the title of Shogun came out of warfare against them. Historically, they certainly rejected affiliation with the Japanese. Further, to complicate matters, many Emishi became subject to the Japanese state and eventually disappeared as a separate ethnic group, becoming intermarried with other ethnic Japanese. It is almost certain that this intermixing took place in different degrees according to the time period and location. The western side of the Tohoku (towards Akita) probably has seen less due to the mountains making the western side less accessible, whereas, the Pacific side has seen to more thorough assimilation because of the broad Sendai plain, but even here not until the modern period when movement has been aided by economics (job concentration in Tokyo, for example) and transportation has the mixing become more complete.
The historical reality unfolds below. Many Emishi did not accept Yamato rule. They fought long and hard to preserve their independence, but in the end lost against sheer numbers, not because of technological disparity. However, after a couple centuries, the descendants of the Emishi gained de facto autonomy for a time under the Abe, Kiyowara, and the Northern Fujiwara, though they had by that time become assimilated into Japanese culture.
This page has briefly introduced the Emishi from a cultural and ethnic perspective. A good comparison that goes beyond the scope of this discussion is between the American colonies and their eventual conquest of the Native Americans of the eastern seaboard, particularly the Iroquois, who resisted conquest for two centuries.
The illustration shows Emishi as they may have appeared in the seventh century AD. They have some armor taken either from trade with the Japanese, or in some cases from captive and fallen soldiers. These would include the iron helmets and leather cuirasses. Weapons were items of trade. Swords and daggers were of Emishi manufacture. The tatoos reflect a description given to these people in the Nihon-shoki, The shield held by the man (second from the right) is purely conjecture and reflects a Jomon design from the Kamegaoka culture. Their clothing is purely Ainu in design and execution assuming that this textile culture was shared with their ancestors the epi-Jomon as well. This is not known for certain. This differs from the illustration on the main page and from the one in the fushu page simply reflecting an earlier Emishi type who was not yet affected by incorporation into either an allied role (fushu) or into Japanese culture. The cultural motif of the original Emishi, and the epi-Jomon hunters is reflected here. However, the physical types here range from epi-Jomon (Ainu) to a mixture of Yayoi Japanese settlers with the epi-Jomon through interracial unions. How common or uncommon this practice was among the Emishi of this time period is not known.
Ossenberg, Nancy S., "Isolate Conservatism and Hybridization in the Population History of Japan" in Akazawa,T. and C.M.Aikens,eds., Prehistoric Hunter Gatherers in Japan. Tokyo: University of Tokyo Press, 1986.Ossenberg, Nancy S., et.al. "Ethnogenesis and craniofacial change in Japan from the perspective of non-metric traits." Anthropological Science. 2006:114:2 (pp.99-115). Available on website, full text here. Confirms the earlier findings upon which much of this discussion is based (for the serious student only).Yamaura, Kiyoshi and Ushiro, Hiroshi, "Prehistoric Hokkaido and Ainu Origins" in Fitzhugh, William W., and Dubreil, Chisato O.,eds., Ainu: Spirit of a Northern People. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1999.Kidder, Jr., J. Edward, "The earliest societies in Japan", in Brown, Delmer M., ed., The Cambridge History of Japan, volume 1: Ancient Japan Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.August 25 / 2000 by Suzutayu (updated layout 2013.1.19 Kenjiro)