Ancient artifacts raise question: Is Japan an island? The Japanese set great store in the belief that their culture is distinct from other Asian cultures. The discovery of an ancient tomb has brought that belief into question, stirring controversy among historians and archaeologists.

When archaeologists recently uncovered an ancient stone coffin in western Japan, they dug up more than Japan's past. They recharged a controversy about the origins of Japan's culture that has very modern implications. The discoveries inside the tomb have been the subject of intense public interest, covered as lead items on the evening television news and garnering front-page newspaper headlines.

Inside the sixth-century tumulus, which contains the remains of two people believed to be members of the ruling elite at that time, the archaeologists found numerous artifacts which are clearly of Korean origin.

Korean and Japanese archaeologists have hailed the importance of the finds but disagree about how to interpret the evidence of the cultural links between the two Asian neighbors.

``This may be a great discovery for the century. It will give Japanese archaeology an opportunity to find out more about the nation's ancient period and to change its long-established view of the history of Japan,'' says Lee Jin Hee, a Korean archaeologist who teaches at Tokyo's Meiji University.

``We had expected to see this kind of discovery even before the lid was open,'' says Tadashi Katada, archaeologist at Teizukayama University of Nara Prefecture.

``Korean relics have been found in several tombs, so I don't think this event has such a character that will overturn the Japanese historical view,'' he says.

Japanese set great store in the idea that their culture is ``unique,'' distinct and separate from those of its continental Asian neighbors in Korea and China.

They acknowledge certain cultural debts, such as the transmission of Buddhism, the Chinese writing system and the Chinese classics, and Korean artistic influences. But all of this is generally viewed as borrowings grafted onto a unified Japanese nation.

The Japanese view often col lides with that of Korean archaeologists and historians who conversely portray Japanese culture as virtually an offshoot of theirs. Such views are amplified by modern history, by Korean resentment over Japan's 40 years of colonial rule over their country and continuing evidence of Japanese feelings of racial superiority towards Koreans.

The rare opportunity to open the previously untouched 1,400-year-old Fujinoki tomb in Ikaruga, near the ancient capital of Nara, has resparked this clash of opinions.

The contents of the tomb reflect a key period of Japanese history, when historians believe the country was first united through an alliance of powerful clans. The Yamato Court, as it is called, was centered around Nara, and is said to embody Japan's distinct culture.

There are considerable differences among scholars about the early history of Japan. Japanese court historians wrote accounts of that period that are highly colored by the legends of an imperial dynasty said to extend far back into Japan's pre-history. But some historians even speculate that some of the clans responsible for forming the nucleus of Japan were in fact from Korea.

The work on the tomb has been going on for some time but it was not opened until Oct. 8. Among the objects found inside the stone coffin were six swords tentatively identified as Japanese. But archaeologists agree that other decorative items, including gilded bronze shoes with tiny rings attached and what appears to be a crown, definitely came from Korea.

Some Japanese scholars interpret the Fujinoki relics as simply proof of acquisitions from abroad by the Yamato clans.

``There is no other way to interpret it other than a Japanese of high status [buried in the coffin] just loved being stylishly dressed and could afford those things,'' says Kiyotari Tsuboi, a noted archaeologist.

Korean historian Kang Jai Eun believes it is quite possible that the tomb's inhabitant was a Korean. ``It isn't strange to think that an immigrant from the continent was buried with Japanese things,'' says Mr. Kang, who currently teaches at Hanazono College in Nara Prefecture.

``The basis of the Japanese archeology has always been the Yamato Court's unification of this nation,'' Korean archeologist Lee says.

``They tend to interpret everything as Japan against the others. But, I don't think the boundaries of modern nations can apply to the ancient period,'' he adds.

``They should think about archeology from a much broader point of view: that Japan was part of the East Asia. The idea is still strong that history was made around the Japanese imperial court, as was taught in the prewar education in this country,'' he adds.

These explorations of the past have prompted some intensely nationalistic feelings among both Koreans and Japanese. There is even a rumor among Koreans that the first Japanese emperor came from the peninsula. This stems from the fact that the Imperial Household Agency has not allowed archeologists to investigate into the ancient imperial tombs.

``Those tombs are religious objects for the imperial family,'' says Mr. Lee. ``I myself would oppose the idea of having someone dig up the tomb of my ancestors.''

Calmer voices among the scientists view the discoveries at the Fujinoki tombs as an opportunity for everyone to gain more understanding.

``The research is important not only for Japan, but also so we may be able to know more about East Asian culture as a whole, including the Korean Peninsula and China,'' argues Mr. Lee.

``I hope that everything will be scientifically solved,'' says Shunpei Ueyama, director of the National Museum of Kyoto. ``Archeological study should be that way.''

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