Japanese Scandals -- This Time It's Archaeology

--A Preliminary Report --

Home | Index
Peter Bleed's Response
by Charles T. Keally
November 17, 2000


Mainichi Shimbun (Mainichi newspaper) broke the news on Sunday morning, November 5, 2000 -- an archaeologist, FUJIMURA Shin'ichi, had been caught on video planting stone artifacts at the Kami-Takamori site in the town of Tsukidate in northern Miyagi Prefecture in northeastern Japan.

Kami-Takamori has become famous as the oldest Early Palaeolithic site in Japan, with the ages of eight or more cultural layers ranging from 500,000 to 700,000 years. But more significant was the fact that several caches of neatly arranged stone artifacts indicated levels of early human (Homo erectus) symbolic cognition far beyond anything suspected from the evidence in Africa and Europe. If correct, the evidence from Kami-Takamori could have rewritten our textbooks on human evolution.

Now that -- and possibly the entire Japanese Early and Middle Palaeolithic -- has sunk into the mire of scandal, something that decorates the front pages of Japanese newspapers almost every day, as politicians, bureaucrats, business leaders, doctors, lawyers and leaders from just about every area of life show up in the headlines with their heads hung in shame.

Mainichi Shimbun's exposure of this fabrication was a masterful piece of investigative reporting, something extremely rare in Japan. Rumors of problems in Japan's Early and Middle Palaeolithic research had been circulating for a long time. I first picked up the possibility that artifacts were being planted on Early Palaeolithic sites (the Soshin Fudozaka site in Hokkaido) at a conference in Morioka in December 1999. note 1 And criticism of the quality of the work on these Early and Middle Palaeolithic sites was in print at least by 1986, under the names of ODA Shizuo and Charles T. KEALLY (Oda & Keally 1986). But published criticism was rare.

Sometime during the summer this year, Mainichi Shimbun put together an investigation team to look into all of these rumors. The details are unknown to me, but, on November 6, the day after they broke the news, Mainichi Shimbun published a photograph of Fujimura on the Soshin Fudozaka site at 6:20 a.m. on September 6. The implication is that he was planting stone artifacts there. This seems to be their first step in collecting concrete evidence of the fabrication. Then they set up cameras on the Kami-Takamori site, which was being excavated in October. At 6:18 a.m. on the 22nd, Fujimura appeared on the site. The cameras caught the whole act in detail. The excavation team held a press conference on the site on the 27th to report their new finds, including finds dating over 700,000 years ago. Fujimura was shown on TV giving much of the explanation of the new finds. Mainichi Shimbun then called Fujimura to an interview in Sendai on the evening of November 4 and presented him with the evidence of his fabrication. Mainichi Shimbun published their exposure in the next morning's paper, on pages 1, 2, 3, 25, 26 and 27, with a large selection of photographs that could leave no doubt about the truth of their story.

The story was on the TV news that evening (I missed this), and it was all over the front pages of most major newspapers the next morning, November 6 -- Mainichi Shimbun, Asahi Shimbun, Yomiuri Shimbun, Sankei Shimbun, Tokyo Shimbun, The Japan Times, and probably many others that I have not seen. It was carried on page 38 in the Nihon Keizai Shimbun, which, like the Sankei Shimbun, emphasizes economics more than the more general range of news covered by other major newspapers. This scandal has been in the news most days since then.


Discussion & Criticisms:

The media say that this scandal casts doubt on all of the archaeological sites Fujimura has worked on, and on the Early and Middle Palaeolithic in Japan, on Japanese academia in general, and on Japan as a whole. I agree. Fujimura is the one taking all of the blame for planting artifacts on the site, but I feel all of Japanese society, especially academia, and most particularly archaeology, is ultimately responsible.

I have been working professionally in Japanese archaeology for 30 years -- in Japan, unlike most other non-Japanese archaeologists who visit occasionally for fieldwork. My main interest has been the Japanese Palaeolithic, and, within that, I have always been very interested in the question of an Early and Middle Palaeolithic here. This question has been a controversial one since its inception in the early 1960s. note 2 But it has never been approached in an academic and scientific manner.

Most of the world accepts humans in northern China at least by 700,000 years ago, and continued occupation of northern China after that. Japan was connected to the continent by land bridges at least twice during the past 700,000 years, and large land mammals migrated into the islands over these land bridges. It seems improbable that humans were not in Japan during the Early and Middle Palaeolithic. But demonstrating that requires solid scientific evidence, which we have never had.

The archaeologists who look for and excavate Early and Middle Palaeolithic sites note 3 appear to me to be much too careless in their work. They have a strong tendency to ignore criticism or to laugh at the critic. I have seen them brush off the opinions of experts in geology and absolute dating on matters related to the geology of their sites and the validity of the dates. They approach their work with too little caution and doubt. note 4 I see no indication that they have geologists studying the ancient topography to determine the site context. I see little to indicate adequate study of the sources of the lithic materials. No one seems to check the possibility that the pits might have a natural explanation, instead of a human one. And I see no sign of good studies of site taphonomy -- the study of the processes of how the site changed from the original deposition to its present condition. The interdisciplinary work emphasizes tephra-chronology and absolute dating.

The archaeologists who question the validity of the Early and Middle Palaeolithic finds -- the human origin of the lithics or the accuracy of the dates or Fujimura's "god hand" (magic hand, divine hand) -- also are doing very poor work. They rarely put their doubts into print, but instead pass them around as rumors. note 5 And these doubting archaeologists criticize the dates without fully understanding the problems of the dating methods. They criticize the lithics without understanding how to distinguish a naturally produced geofact from a humanly produced artifact. They do not adequately excavate the deeper strata in their own sites in order to look for Middle and Early Palaeolithic materials. Most do not go to conferences emphasizing the Early and Middle Palaeolithic sites. And most of all, they do not try to explain why humans were not in Japan before about 35,000 years ago. note 6

As an archeologist I, too, come in for a lot of criticism on this matter, but in a somewhat different way from most others. I feel there are serious problems with the materials said to be evidence for an Early and Middle Palaeolithic in Japan. I have very strong doubts about that evidence. But, unlike other doubting archaeologists, I have maintained fairly close contact with Kajiwara and Kamada note 3 since shortly after publishing the article in 1986 that strongly criticized their work and finds. They have kept me included in all of their work since then. I could see that, IF their finds were valid, they were extremely significant. And I was beginning to think that at least some of the Middle Paleolithic sites, such as the Ohira site in Fukushima Prefecture, might eventually prove to be valid. But I found a lot of cause for doubt, while still thinking that sooner or later this doubt would be cleared up. I certainly felt that I did not have any scientifically valid bases for dismissing their finds.

But I did not go to enough of their excavations, or stay long enough when I did visit. I did not look over their collections of artifacts carefully enough either. I did not speak my doubts loudly enough or publish them enough. And I just never seemed to be able to find the time (lots of weak excuses) to pull together all of their material into a coherent scheme that would make the weaknesses clear. Consequently, Kajiwara's comments in 1994 acknowledging that Kami-Takamori's lithics were exactly like Jomon lithics did not stick with me very long. And the presentation on the Soshin Fudozaka site in 1999 did not register as an indication that perhaps all of the Early and Middle Palaeolithic sites that Fujimura had been associated with might be planted. When I saw the morning paper's headlines on November 6th, I was taken by complete surprise. That is unforgivable. But, as a result of Mainichi Shimbun's revelations on November 5th, I see that the various causes of doubt actually are not weaknesses in the data but indications of artifact planting on all the sites.

Now, after throwing criticism at every archaeologist in the country, including myself, let me spread the criticism even more widely. Geologists do not or will not study these Early and Middle Palaeolithic sites and publish their opinions and doubts about them -- this is an archaeological problem, they say, not a geological problem. The researchers doing the dating are not discussing, or at least not emphasizing, the large statistical errors on most of the absolute dates they produce, plus-minus factors in excess of 10% of the measured age, and often more than 20% of the measured age. A plus-minus factor of greater than 10% suggests problems with the date and with the context.

Japanese academia is famous for its closed system. Students cannot pass teachers. Lower ranking teachers and students must agree with the ideas of the higher ranking teachers and the leader, or be expelled from the group. Many academics spend their whole career in the same university system, from student to teacher to retiree. This is why Japan has so few Nobel Prizes in science, why most of those scientists have done all or most of their research outside of Japan, and why they are unknown in Japan until they are recognized by the world. It is this system that has a lot of the responsibility for both Fujimura's acts and for the fact that no one caught it earlier.

Japan is discussing education reform a lot these days. One of the ideas being expressed is to put education back into college education. This is a clear acknowledgment of what everyone already knows -- that college is not likely to produce an educated graduate. Notably, about half of Japan's archaeologists have only B.A. degrees. And even the ones who go on to higher degrees get education only in archaeology; they do not get a good interdisciplinary education in all of the other sciences that bear strongly on archaeology -- geology, absolute dating methods, palynology, biology, cultural anthropology, and many others. This narrow, incestuous education is also to blame for archaeologists not seeing the problems in the Early and Middle Palaeolithic sites.

The scandals involving high ranking people in Japan's iron triangle of politicians, bureaucrats and business leaders stem from the closed system there, too, and from the forced compliance with the group, the hierarchical structure, and the secretiveness. This is just another face of the ultimate cause, or causes, underlying this recent scandal in archaeology.

A lot of the media discussion focuses on what it is about Fujimura and his life that drove him to plant artifacts on a site. He was under pressure to produce results -- for various reasons. He dances naked at parties to liven things up (Aera Nov. 20, 2000, p. 19). These are distractions. I have seen many archaeologists fabricate reports in order to get budget money. In the video I have, Fujimura was not the only one dancing naked, and a lot (but by no means all) of the viewers seemed to enjoy the exhibition. And a great many conference goers spend the whole night drinking -- to liven things up -- and show up the next morning horribly hung over or still drunk. Some cannot even read their own papers. If Fujimura's actions mean he had some sort of mental problem, then a whole lot of other archaeologists do too. The real problem is why it took so long to see the problem in his "god hand" and all of the other problems in the Early and Middle Palaeolithic sites he has worked on. Why did so many leading archaeologists accept, as wholly valid, materials that have so many questionable aspects?

Whatever the explanation for Fujimura's behavior turns out to be, it is merely a proximate explanation. The ultimate cause lies way beyond this individual. Fujimura deserves criticism for his actions. But he also deserves our sympathy, for he is ultimately a product of a system that is producing a lot of scandals, stress and suicides. And every day, it seems, the media report that what we see of the scandals, stress and suicides is just "the tip of the iceberg."



And now, to return to the beginning, Fujimura is admitting to planting artifacts on only two sites, the Kami-Takamori site and the Soshin Fudozaka site. But reviewing all the publications on the Japanese Early and Middle Palaeolithic sites, note 7 and my own notes and memory and the new information being brought out in the media, I feel there is a good chance that all of the Early and Middle Palaeolithic sites that Fujimura has worked on are fabrications. The few sites of this early age that I know of that Fujimura has not worked on have their own problems of validity. We seem to be back to zero on this question of humans in Japan before 35,000 years ago. Which means, we either have to find and/or validate some concrete evidence of humans in Japan in the Middle or Early Palaeolithic, or we have to develop a very good hypothesis explaining why they were not here.

I am not at all certain Japanese archaeology is up to either task.

Charles T. Keally
Professor, Archaeology
Department of Comparative Culture
Sophia University
Tokyo, 102-0081 Japan


Note 1:
At the 13th Meeting of the "Northeastern Japan Palaeolithic Discussion Group" held in Morioka City, December 18-19, 1999, I wrote the following notes on the resume sheet for the Soshin Fudozaka site, recording what the presenters (TAISHI Yuka & NAGASAKI Jun'ichi) were saying --
  • site is a 4-m belt left between bulldozed areas.
  • Found 3 or 4 artifacts in cutting (Fujimura)
  • Exc. wide areas leaving section belts and found NOTHING.
  • Next year exc. belts and found 5 artifacts at/near same level.
  • Exc. deep and found 4 artifacts on top of base gravels (Fujimura) ca. 200,000 yrs
Although they did not say so directly, I got the impression that the presenters were trying to say they thought Fujimura might very well have planted the artifacts. The chuckling around the audience suggested I was not the only one getting that impression. But Nagasaki's publications around that time and later suggest he sees no problems in these facts -- that he accepts this site as valid.

Note 2:
In the 1960s and 1970s, the question of an Early and Middle Palaeolithic in Japan revolved around Prof. SERIZAWA Chosuke's finds, most in North Kanto north of Tokyo and at the Sozudai site in northern Kyushu in western Japan. As far as I can tell, no one in the mainstream of Japanese archaeology ever accepted Serizawa's materials. His two main sites, Hoshino and Iwajuku O (Iwajuku D), were talus, as was explained to me clearly by a prominent geologist at the Iwajuku site. Of Serizawa's materials, only those from Sozudai today remain controversial, with some archaeologists accepting them as humanly produced artifacts and others, myself included, arguing that the lithics are all naturally produced geofacts.

But after about 1980, the situation began to change as the "Miyagi archaeologists" started to make their work public. The Miyagi archaeologists were a group of younger (in the early 1980s) archaeologists who worked with Serizawa in Sendai in Miyagi Prefecture. They included at that time OKAMURA Michio (presently an archaeologist with the national Cultural Affairs Agency), KAJIWARA Hiroshi, KAMADA Toshiaki and FUJIMURA Shin'ichi, and a number of others. Their mentor was SERIZAWA Chosuke. These were the core members of the Sekki Bunka Danwa Kai, now called the Tohoku Kyusekki Bunka Kenkyujo (Tohoku Palaeolithic Laboratory). Their finds at a number of sites in Miyagi Prefecture were accepted by a good many Japanese archaeologists, including some of the leaders in the field. Since then, the controversy about the Early and Middle Palaeolithic in Japan has focused on their finds.

Note 3:
The main people are KAJIWARA Hiroshi (an archaeologist at Tohoku Fukushi University), KAMADA Toshiaki (a college-trained archaeologist and Buddhist priest), FUJIMURA Shin'ichi (an amateur archaeologist), and a number of other archaeologists and amateurs who have yet to gain fame. OKAMURA Michio (an archaeologist with the national Cultural Affairs Agency) was one of the leading members of the group until 1990. And Prof. SERIZAWA Chosuke is the group's mentor.

Note 4:
At the 8th Meeting of the "Northeastern Japan Palaeolithic Discussion Group", held at the Tohoku Geijutsu Koka University, December 17-18, 1994, I made the following notes on the resume sheet for the Kami-Takamori site --
"Most artifacts well made, bifacial. Look almost like Jomon. Kajiwara (P.C.) says mixed together they can't be distinguished. Found from Tm-18 to Tm-1 and below. Takamori nearby yields very different lithics."
P.C. means personal communication, i.e. Kajiwara himself said that the Kami-Takamori artifacts are indistinguishable from Jomon artifacts -- in 1994, six years ago. Yet no one seems to have seen this as a reason to suspect something was wrong. I took it as evidence that the strata were very likely badly disturbed and therefore the artifacts might not be older than Jomon. The idea that this similarity could be the result of someone planting the artifacts never crossed my mind then; it does now.

ODA Shizuo and I made the following criticisms 14 years ago (Oda & Keally 1986):

  • there were few excavated sites, most artifacts were collected from cuttings, and the excavations were small [this criticism no longer holds]
  • the geology is complicated and controversial, making inter-site geology very different [meaning that aligning sites into regional sequences was difficult, but this is no longer a serious problem]
  • no vertical displacement of artifacts (artifacts always found on the surfaces of geological strata) in contradiction to geological and other evidence for considerable disturbance of the geological strata [this criticism has never been answered]
  • assigning a drill and some pottery to the Late Palaeolithic cultures simply because they were found in that geological stratum, even though they were clearly Jomon [meaning the interpretation of the site taphonomy was careless, suggesting that this same carelessness was affecting the interpretation of the Early and Middle Palaeolithic taphonomy, a criticism that is still valid]
    • note that this error -- not recognizing vertical displacement of artifacts -- is commonly seen in many Palaeolithic sites, not just the ones assigned to the Early and Middle Palaeolithic periods
  • the lack of refittable pieces and flaking debris [a criticism still not answered adequately]
  • selective use of dates from a very poor collection of absolute dates [this situation has improved considerably in the past decade]
  • the chunky lithics from the lower levels of some sites were not artifacts, and the small lithics (flakes) from strata 14 and below at Babadan A also probably were not artifacts [after this, chunky artifacts no longer were found, and bifacial spatula-shaped artifacts began to appear]

TAKEOKA Toshiki more recently has summarized many of the sources of doubt that still need to be answered (Asahi Shimbun, Nov. 10, 2000, p. 13):

  • 90% or more of the Early Palaeolithic sites and artifacts have been found by one person [Fujimura]
  • even though nothing has been found until then, when he [Fujimura] shows up, suddenly lots of artifacts are found
  • continuous finding of things like cache pits that have never been found elsewhere in the world with such early dates
  • each time they dig, the age of the sites gets older by 100,000 years
  • despite going through several glacial and inter-glacial cycles, the artifacts are always found on the flat surface [of a geological stratum]
  • 600,000 years ago or 100,000 years ago, the artifacts are the same form and materials; they show no evolution
  • if there are 10 tools, there should be 100 flakes from their production, yet no flakes are ever found.

These sources of doubt do not prove that these sites are invalid (fabrications), but they do make such a good case for that interpretation that a lot of work needs to be done if the sites and lithics are to be accepted. With all of these problems, it makes one wonder about the intelligence of the people who readily accepted these finds, without expressing a word of reservation. Some of those people are leading archaeologists here.

Note 5:
I am one who did put his doubts into print, in 1986 (Oda & Keally 1986), and at least as far as Serizawa Chosuke is concerned I ceased to exist from that day. He will not even return greetings when we pass at a conference. TAKEOKA Toshiki is another who put his doubts into print (Yukan Yomiuri Shimbun, Nov. 7, 2000, p. 15). He says that since he published a critical report in an academic journal in 1998, the Miyagi archaeologists will no longer show him their artifacts.

It is worth noting in this context, too, that the members of the group will say over beer that they do not accept any of Serizawa's Early Palaeolithic sites except Sozudai, but they will not put that criticism into print. Okamura was one of those until 1990, when he joined the national Cultural Affairs Agency. That year he published a book on the Japanese Palaeolithic in which he gave a lengthy discussion of why Serizawa's "chert culture" was no good (Okamura 1990, pp. 41-42).

Note 6:
I tried to do this once, at the 36th International Conference of Orientalists in Japan (May 20, 1991, Tokyo), but, in my own opinion, I failed completely to present a good hypothesis explaining why humans were not in Japan before 35,000 years ago, or before 100,000 years ago.

Note 7:
I have final excavation reports for 12 of the main Early and Middle Palaeolithic sites (I think this is all there are). I also have conference reports on 18 other Early and Middle Palaeolithic sites, and journal articles on 2 others. I have visited the excavations at 8 of the sites, and I have attended most of the 13 annual conferences of the "Tohoku Kyusekki Bunka o Kataru Kai" sponsored by Sekki Bunka Danwakai/ Tohoku Palaeolithic Laboratory.

References Cited


Back to Top