Ethics and DNA Testing : A focus on the Emperors and Empresses of the Kofun and Ainu of Japan.

Many questions are raised when it comes to ethical standards associated in the anthropology and archaeology fields.  DNA testing is becoming increasingly valued as a primary source of forensic and historical studies and is giving researchers more information than has ever happened in the past.  However, DNA results and the laboratories that store DNA reports must be properly administered as there are possible ramifications resulting in racial, social and cultural misuse of such reports.   This essay will discuss a couple of modern issues facing the area of criminal and medical DNA studies then focus on a couple of ancestry and origin studies which are sensitive issues in Japanese society.  These relate to many of the Kofun tombs belonging to past emperors and empresses, dating from the 3rd to 7th centuries AD and the skeletal remains of Ainu found over three archaeological sites in Hokkaido dating back to the Jomon period over 3000 years ago.

Ainu couple from the early 20th century

Modern DNA profiling is used for a range of purposes such as origin, criminal and medical studies among others.  A report in the Genomic and Genetic Weekly reveals that an American company is beginning tests to create a drug to help people with schizophrenia.  This may seem worthwhile in helping a group of people with a medical condition, however ethical concerns are raised when the American lab proposed to make a DNA database of all the people tested, who just happened to be of African descent (Rotimi, 2003).  This does not seem to be an isolated event. Various medical laboratories throughout the United States are developing drugs specifically for people based on race.  While these databanks may be well intended unfortunately such data specifically aimed a specific race may well have its consequences.  For example, if a medical insurer were to find out from the stored DNA evidence that heart disease more common in Africans than Europeans those Africans may well be culturally stereotyped and not be able to gain medical insurance.  Similarly criminal profiling via DNA testing has raised similar questions.

Keeping DNA records of criminals may sound like a great idea but what if it were used to racially vilify a social class or culture which could lead to prejudice or racism?  Authorities cannot simply swab everyone and have every persons DNA sitting in a databank? Or can they?  To what point can the ruling authority of a nation demand people to undertake DNA testing?  One such dilemma was face by the people who live in Wee Waa in central New South Wales who were subjected to an ethical predicament when an elderly woman was raped.  Some politicians called for the whole male population of the town to be DNA tested as police struggled to find the old woman’s attacker (Webb, Tranter, 2001).  One would believe that such a measure would challenge our civil liberties and rights of an individual.  Although one might argue that if you have nothing to hide, a simple swab would certainly not be an inconvenience.  According to Webb’s report, enthusiasm for DNA profiling among Australia’s police forces is prevalent. A databank of DNA would increase the identification time to arrest offenders and police believe it would actually deter criminals in committing a crime (Webb, Tranter, 2001).  On the other hand DNA testing has also cleared people who have previously been found guilty in crime.  In the United States 73 people have been released from prison after recent DNA reports proved they did not commit the crime they were found guilty of earlier (Webb, Tranter, 2001).  These two cases involve medical and criminal ethical questions about DNA data banking now I will discuss DNA testing for the purpose of finding the origins of people and specifically the relationship between the Japanese that migrated to Japan from the Asian mainland and the indigenous people of Japan the Ainu.       

The Ainu have long been victimised in Japanese society and it has only been in the past 20 or so years the Ainu have become recognised as a minority group by the Japanese authorities.  2000 years of assimilation has all but eroded traditional Ainu culture and society throughout the mainland of Japan except for the north island of Hokkaido.  In 1899 The Meiji government released a law protecting the native Hokkaido Aborigines.  However, as Hokkaido became a rich food source for the mainland further assimilation was forced upon the last remaining pure Ainu.  Unfortunately, Ainu social structures, living environment, customs, language and means of livelihood had restrictions placed on them. (Cheung, 2003).  By the beginning of the 20th century the Ainu had all but perished.   Sadly it was not until 1993, the International Year of the World’s Indigenous People that the Japanese government began talking about Ainu Indigenous rights.  With help from the United Nations the Japanese government passed a law, the Ainu Shinpo giving limited formal recognition to the Ainu as a minority indigenous group within the Japanese territory, in Hokkaido (Cheung, 2003).  This allowed funding for various cultural activities, conferences, exhibitions and allowed Ainu from around the region to establish community groups.

In 1997 the Foundation for Research and Promotion of Ainu Culture was established, thus began the financial support from the Hokkaido Prefectural government for the study, development and exchange of Ainu culture and activities.  As for the country as a whole, it was not until 2008 that the Japanese government recognised the existence of an ethnic minority and acknowledged mistreatment of the group (Soble, 2008).  One could say that after hundreds of years of neglect in a country that prides itself on national unity and the belief that the Japanese are of a single race such an acceptance of the Ainu and their position in shaping Japan as it is today is a monumental event.  

Ainu villagers.

MacCord (1959) writes that there are hundreds of Ainu skeletons that are stored and have been well documented in Hokkaido University, Sapporo.  MacCord made the suggestion in 1959 that the examination of the skeletons found at excavated sites in Hokkaido could potentially reveal that the Ainu and that despite contrary belief contemporary Japanese are not so dissimilar (MacCord, 1959).  I am yet to find any study done on these skeletal remains and hope there is information out there and I have simply not been able to find them.  However there are three important sites in Hokkaido that that have been studied as I will now discuss.

Radio carbon dating of these sites was carried out by the U.S Geological Survey Radiocarbon Laboratory.  The oldest site being Taniguchi just north of Hokkaido’s capital Sapporo.  Shards of pottery and stemmed projectile pointed obsidian were found.  The only organic material found was charcoal.  The site dates to Middle Jomon about 1938 BCE.  The second site is just north of Tomakomai in the south of Hokkaido.  Various forms of pottery dating from the Middle Jomon, Late Jomon, Final Jomon and Epi Jomon have been found from this site.  Stone implements, flint and obsidian projectile points as well as flake scrapers have been uncovered.  Tests show the age of the site at 1218 BCE, however from the extent of the pottery found, the life of the site extends for over 2000 years.  The final of the three sites is in Oatsu just north of Chitose.  The site consists of pit dwellings, which is similar to those found in Aomori Prefecture in northern Honshu.  Artifacts include Haji pottery and stone implements.  Carbon dating was carried out on remains of timber from a house dating 1100AD (MacCord, 1959).  The findings from these sites show that the Hokkaido Ainu were late in their development which shows the influence of modern Japanese and their move north into Hokkaido which was not until the late Tokugawa period.  Despite well documented sites like these the Ainu who were associated with these sites have not been mentioned.

The origins of the Ainu can be found as suggested by Matsumoto who bases his study on genetic marker of the immunoglobulin G gene.  He found that the Ainu and the Ryukyu islanders differed from the general Japanese populations and that it is not possible that the Japanese migrated from the south through Okinawa and into the mainland.  It also shows that the Ainu may have initially migrated to Japan from the north through the Kuriles, Sakhalin and Hokkaido.  Although modern Japanese have similar DNA to the Ainu it shows that the Ainu linage, who are believed to be the original Jomon people, broke away from the origin much earlier than the people who migrated via Korea who evolved with the southern mongoloid people.  A report published in 2009 goes a little further pinpointing the origins of the Japanese belonging to the northern Mongoloid group in northeast Asia, most likely in the Baikai region of Siberia (Matsumoto, 2009).  Eastern Asia comprising of northern and southern Mongoloid groups.

Another DNA report believed to be used more for forensic policing states the purpose for this study was due to the increase in foreigners living in Japan and essential in forensic casework (Maruyama et.el, 2003) distinguishing closely related populations such as Japanese, Korean and Chinese.  However, I can use these results to discuss the close relationship between Japanese Korean and Chinese and how similar their hapologroups are.  The report found several hapolong groups are also unique to the Japanese and Korean.  The most common haplogroup in the Japanese population accounted for 33-36% of the population.  Koreans were slightly lower and the Chinese had 12-14%. Microhapologroup M in Japanese was 70-74%, Korean 65-71% and Chinese 52-56% (Maruyama et.el, 2003).  From these findings it may be concluded that modern Japanese origins are from the Asian mainland, namely Korea and that the Ainu, although originally from the same regions migrated to the Japanese archipelago much earlier.  This brings about the next topic which will discuss the ancient leaders of Japan and where their ancestries come from.

Traditionally, Japanese professionals felt that a person knows good ethical behaviour by birth, and that, by birth, a person will behave ethically. Therefore, there is no need to write down a codes of ethics (Keally, 2006). Unfortunately this system had been abused for years yet nothing was reported until a serious breach of the gentlemen’s agreement in late 2000 by archaeologist Shinichi Fujimura who was caught planting artifacts on a Jomon archaeological site.  A code of ethics had been discussed by members of the Japanese Archaeological Association (JAA) since the 1970s but it was not until this hoax that a code of ethics was drawn up.  A final draft was presented to the JAA in 2006.  The publication of a code of ethics was an important turning point which allowed a selected few people into the mysterious Gosashi Kofun, said to be the tomb of Empress Jingu (201-269AD).

Mitsujo Kofun, Hiroshima

Archaeologists both Japanese and foreign have all but been excluded from entering the Kofun tombs.  Several theories exist as to why they are a no go zone for people who want to study them.  The Imperial Household Agency administers all matters relating to Japanese emperors and empresses past and future.  They state that the tombs are religious sacred sites and want to preserve the tranquillity and dignity of their first leaders (Parry, 1995).  The IHA generally believed that without a code of ethics it was not safe or ethical to allow for anyone to enter the tombs.  But others such as Parry notes that the early emperors and empresses were of Korean ancestry (Parry, 1995) and up until the current ruling royal family acknowledged the roots of their ancestry in 2002 no information would be allowed to be gathered from these tombs including possible DNA testing on the remains found in the tombs.  Indeed, Japanese culture throughout the Kofun period was heavily influenced by the waves of Korean immigration to the Japanese archipelago.  This theory is strongly supported based on the scale of cultural and technological imports from the mainland during this period (Matsubara, 2002).  Lee Jing Hee, a South Korean professor emeritus of archaeology at Wako University in Tokyo believes mainstream Japanese historians underestimate the magnitude of the influx of culture and people from Korea due to the myth of Japan as an ethnically homogeneous country (Matsubara, 2002) and the Shinto folklore belief that the Japanese emperors and empresses were descendents of the deity Sun Goddess, Amaterasu.

There are believed to be about 30,000 Kofun mound tombs and over 200 000 ancient burial mounds in Japan and date from the 3rd century to the 7th century. These tombs were officially designated at the end of the Edo Period and the Meiji Period, based on the Kojiki, Nihon Shoki, Engishiki and other ancient documents. About 600 decorated tombs are known, from Kyushu in the south to the southern part of Tohoku in the north. These date to the 5th and 6th centuries (Keally, 2009, Parry, 1995).  The final resting place for one of the Kofun Emperors is Nintoku, the 16th Emperor of Japan who reigned between 313AD and 399AD and is found in the city of Sakai just outside Osaka.

Nintoku Kofun

Despite the grandeur of the tomb and the wealth of information that may lie beneath no one has officially been permitted to enter the tomb in over 1600 years.  Professor Hatsue Otsuka of the Meiji University has studied the Kofun period and tombs for over 50 years yet still feels as though she is only touching the surface (Parry, 1995).  Some progress however has been made since 1995.  After the JAA released the code of ethics and professional standards in 2006 the IHA did allow a selected few Japanese and foreign academics from selected organisations in 2008 to enter the Gosashi Kofun, said to be the tomb of Empress Jingu who ruled from 201 – 269 AD.  It was the first time in 130 years anyone had entered an imperial tomb (Keally, 2009, McNicol, 2008).  Despite the team spending over two hours in the tomb nothing is mentioned about whether any human remains were found inside.   Issues relating to the origins of the Empress and artifacts from inside the tomb were not laid to rest but experts celebrated it as a first step toward expanded access to the mysterious tombs (McNicol, 2008).

There are many ethical issues to consider when doing any study associated with DNA testing.  Whether it is used for any of the discussions in this essay or other reasons, serious considerations must be taken about how these results are used and stored.  Also I would like to note that this is not an essay to criticize the Japanese people, their ideologies and beliefs.  It is to create an understanding for foreigners who wish to study Japanese history and archaeology that we as visitors must understand their ethics, cultural and social sensitivities.  There have been very few studies done (at least by foreign scholars) or publications released about the origins of the Kofun Emperors and Empresses and unfortunately studies on the Ainu are again very few and far between.  I hope one day more people will be interested in studying these topics.

Reference list

Kaestle, Fredrika and Horsburgh. Ancient DNA in Anthropology: Methods, Applications and Ethics. Yearbook of Physical Anthropology. Wiley-Liss, 2002

Keally, Charles. Japanese Archaeology online website,, accessed 21.3.2012

MacCord, Howard.  Archaeology and the Ainu, American Antiquity, Vol.24, April 1959, pp. 426-427

Matsubara, Hiroshi. Emperor’s remark pours fuel on ethnic hot potato.  The Japan Times. 12.3.2002.  Online at  Accessed 23.3.2012

McNicol, Tony.  Japanese Royal Tomb Opened to Scholars for First Time.  National Geographic News.  28th April, 2008.  Online at  Accessed 13.4.12

Parry, Richard.  Japan Guards the Emperor’s Secret.  The Independent.  12 November 1995.  Online at  Accessed 23.3.12

Rotimi, Charles. Research Ethics; As Role of Race in Research Questioned, a DNA databank is Proposed. Genomics & Genetics Weekly, 15th August 2003.

Soble, Jonathan.  Tokyo to recognise Ainu.  The Financial Times.  5th June 2008.

Webb, Eileen and Tranter, Kieran.  Genes R Us – Ethics and Truth in DNA. Alternative Law Journal.  Vol.25, No.4, August, 2001. pp.168-171

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