Writing materials

Japan’s ‘oldest known script’ just a permanent marker: experts

For years, Japan has been in possession of what many consider to be the earliest extant writing in the nation’s history. However, new work from a research team in the city of Nara casts major doubt on this claim. What was once considered “ancient writing,” they concluded, appears to be too modern a phenomenon.

The Yayoi Stone

New discoveries from Japan’s past, of course, are not new. A museum in the city of Mihara (Hiroshima prefecture) draws attention for its display of Japanese sweets that dates back 200 years to the Edo period, when the Tokugawa family ruled[2].

The artifact in question, however, dates back much longer. It is a stone from the Yayoi era in Japan (200 BC – 300 AD) The Yayoi succeeds the Japanese prehistoric Jomon era (縄文; joumon) and marked the introduction of rice cultivation.

Many examples of Yayoi stone and iron work exist in Japan’s many historical excavation sites. This one, however, was considered special. It was a stone discovered at the site of Matsue City in Shimane Prefecture in 1997 (Heisei 9). It measures 9 cm long and 7.5 cm wide.

And we thought he was carrying something special: writing. If verified, this would be the oldest known example of writing in Japan. So far, that honor has gone to a sample believed to belong to an emissary from the land of Na, one of the nations inside Japan during Yayoi.[3].

A modern invention

Alas, that was not to be the case.

Speculation has abounded for years as to what the stone might be or what the symbol might represent. One school of thought said it was a whetstone. Another said it might actually be an inkstone.

The researchers from the city of Nara therefore decided to analyze it further. With the help of the Nara Institute of Science and Technology (NAIST), they examined the stone and the script using spectral analysis.

The result? Spectral analysis does not show that the writing uses materials that would have been available to people in the Yayoi era. In fact, it looks the most like…permanent marker ink.

In other words, the sample has been contaminated, deliberately or accidentally. At least one researcher believes the contamination occurred when someone brought a marker used for labeling too close to the artifact.

Not the first false alarm

It would not be the first time that the Japanese scientific community has its hopes raised. In the 2000s, Japan was rocked by a series of frauds when Fujimura Shinichi spent six months planting ancient artifacts around Japan which he later “discovered”.[4]. He planted the goods in the 70s and his deception went undiscovered for years. Even professional researchers have been duped[5].

So far, however, nothing funny seems to be plaguing the Matsue Stone. The original researcher who speculated that the stone may contain writing has admitted the new analysis. If further tests corroborate what the Nara researchers have found, he said, he will quash his hypothesis. The researcher, however, argues that there is other evidence to demonstrate that some form of writing existed during the Yayoi.

What to read next


[1] 弥生時代の「最古の文字」、実は油性マーカーの痕? コンタミか. Asahi Shinbun

[2] 【日本最古か?】“200年前に作られた和菓子”に新たな事実… 三原市で展示. YouTube/NTV

[3] 地中から現れた文字. Toyama Prefecture

[4] 旧石器捏造事件. Wikipedia Japan

[5] 「神 の 手」 に だまさ れ た 研究 者 、 お 前 前 は バカ バカ か 迫ら れ た 問い 問い 問い 問い 2000 「「 あれ 」< < 20 >. Yomiuri Shinbun