Photo/IllutrationThe Koyamada burial mound in Asuka, Nara Prefecture. This photo was taken in December 2014. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

The Soga clan, one of ancient Japan's most influential families with powers exceeding even those of the emperor, likely had Korean roots, according to a well-respected scholar citing recent archaeological discoveries.

"Nihon Shoki" (The Chronicles of Japan), one of the oldest books of classical Japanese history, notes that the clan reached its pinnacle of power in the early seventh century and embraced foreign learning.

Numerous artifacts of Korean Peninsula origin were recently unearthed in Asuka village, Nara Prefecture, where the family was based.

The new theory is proposed by Yasushi Ban, an archaeologist and assistant chief of the cultural property preservation section of Nara Prefecture’s education board.

He argues that the family originated in Jeolla province, in what is now the southwestern part of South Korea.

Ban said the Soga clan clearly dominated the political life of the Asuka region in Nara Prefecture through trade and land development.

It also exerted tremendous influence through marital connections with the imperial family, but the clan's high-handedness backfired and led to its downfall.

“There will be arguments for and against my idea, but I hope my theory to be treated as constructive, given that conventional research is unable to connect the dots,” he said.

Ban elaborated on his ideas in a book titled “Sogashi no Kodaigaku: Asuka no Toraijin” (A study of ancient history on the Soga clan: Koreans in Asuka), published by Shinsensha Co.

Nihon Shoki refers to Soga clan heads who were no longer content to act behind the scenes as they jockeyed for power, making specific mention of Soga no Emishi and his son Soga no Iruka, who are depicted as arrogant and tyrannical.

Soga no Emishi strove for ultimate power following the death of his father, Soga no Umako, by ordering that his uncle be killed.

Soga no Emishi's son engineered a feud with the imperial family that led to the deaths in 643 of Prince Yamashiro, the son of Prince Shotoku (574-622), and Yamashiro's wife and other relatives in a bid to control the throne. He was eventually killed in 645 by Prince Naka no Oe (626-672), who later ascended to the throne as Emperor Tenji in what came to be known as the Isshi Incident.

Recent archaeological finds pointing to a Soga clan connection in Asuka village include the Miyakozuka burial mound, which dates to the latter half of the sixth century and is thought to be the tomb of Soga no Iname, the father of Soga no Umako, a powerful government figure, who died in 570.

The nearby Koyamada burial mound, which dates from the mid-seventh century and was discovered when a school building for children with physical or mental disabilities was replaced, is considered by some archaeologists to be the tomb of Soga no Emishi.

Books themed on the Soga clan have been released one after another by researchers as the family remains a hot topic among historians.

Ban's long association with the Archaeological Institute of Kashihara in Nara Prefecture led him to conduct major excavations in the area. His work with the National Research Institute of Cultural Heritage in South Korea led him to also study exchanges between Japan and the Korean Peninsula in ancient times.

Given the circumstances facing East Asia between the fifth and seventh centuries, Ban concluded the Soga family originated in Jeolla province.

He focused on developments there from the mid-fifth century to early sixth century as the area was a loose confederacy of small states between the third century and the first half of the sixth century.

Keyhole-shaped burial mounds were built there only in the early sixth century, igniting controversy over who the tombs were for.

The ancient Korean kingdom of Paekche that formed deep ties with Japan was based in Jeolla province, and its capital was located in present-day Seoul.

But a larger Korean kingdom called Koguryo, whose territory stretched from northeastern China to the northern Korean Peninsula, decided to expand southward, and Paekche’s capital fell in 475.

A new capital was established in what is now Kongju, in the southern part of the peninsula, and Paekche tried to extend its influence southward, triggering tension with small communities in Jeolla province which traditionally interacted actively with Japan.

Numerous earthenware artifacts with features unique to Jeolla province and elsewhere on the Korean Peninsula have been unearthed in the Asuka region, indicating it had a sizable Korean community.

As very little is known about the Soga clan's earliest members, Ban surmises that the family moved from Jeolla province and had mediated between Japan and Paekche as it was well-versed in both Japanese and Korean cultures.

Ban said it was clear that the Nara Basin attracted hordes of non-Japanese of various classes and that the Soga kin who made the sea crossing eventually gained full control of the Asuka area.

His excavations suggest that the Soga clan introduced sophisticated techniques from the Korean Peninsula to develop and strengthen its economic base by patronizing technological skills and manufacturing. The clan also played a key role in foreign diplomacy.

Ban concluded that Soga no Iname seized an opportunity to rise to great heights based on the family's expertise when Japan urgently needed to absorb Paekche's advanced ideas and technology.