seaweed in a bowl found at Kamegaoka site

Aileen Kawagoe wrote in Heritage of Japan: "What the Jomon people ate depended on where they lived on the archipelago and on the seasonal foods that were available. According to a study, the diet of the Jomon people included a substantial amount of marine protein (foods culled from the sea): in western Japan, this formed generally less than about 50 percent of the diet, while in Central Japan and Hokkaido it was between about 40 percent and 80 percent. [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, ]

“Plant and animal remains from Jomon sites show that Jomon people were skilled at using different kinds of resources during the different seasons of the year. Some historians believe the Jomon people’s diet corresponded to the seasons and have drawn up a seasonal food calendar where certain foods are available during a certain season or part of the year. Perhaps, more importantly, since the Jomon people were hunter-gatherers, not farmers, what they ate depended on the animals and plants that lived or grew naturally in the ecosystems in which the people lived. Using the big words of archaeologists and historians, you might say that the Jomon people were skillful at exploiting their ecosystems and managing their natural food resources in a sustainable way.

According to studies, there were three main different Jomon ecosystems: 1) a forest and freshwater lake or river environment (in western and eastern inland areas of Japan); 2) a forest and river estuary environment (eastern and central Japan areas); 3) a forest and seaside environment (Pacific coast and Pacific Shelf areas).

“Some scholars have noted a striking pattern and relationship between the pursuit of game food in the diet and the total Jomon population in the Kanto region: they two are inversely proportional. Jomon population rose from the Incipient to the Middle Jomon when it reached its peak, before decreasing. On the other hand, spearheads and arrowheads, the two main weapons used by hunters throughout the Jomon period (excepting the Incipient Jomon period where tanged points were associated with the spearheads), as well as the number of hunting pit-traps, were at their lowest during the Middle Jomon. It was also observed that during a short period of the Early Jomon when population dipped sharply in the Kanto region, there was an increase in hunting tools did, in fact, occur. It is thus inferred that the prosperity of the Jomon people could be linked with plant foods subsistence strategy, and that they only fell back on game as a major component of their diet when plant and seafood resources became scarce or difficult to come by.”

Early Japanese History Websites: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website,; Essay on Early Japan ; Japanese Archeology ; Ancient Japan Links on Archeolink ;Essay on Rice and History ; Metropolitan Museum of Art Department of Asian Art; Wikipedia article on the Jomon Wikipedia ; Historical Parks Sannai Maruyama Jomon Site in Northern Honshu ; Yoshinogari Historical Park ;Good Photos of Jomon, Yayoi and Kofun Sites at Japan-Photo Archive ; Wikipedia article on the Ainu Wikipedia ; Good Japanese History Websites: ; Wikipedia article on History of Japan Wikipedia ; Samurai Archives ; National Museum of Japanese History ; English Translations of Important Historical Documents

Jomom Food Hunted and Gathered from the Forest

Unearthed chestnuts, walnuts and the seeds of cultivated plants (Sannai-Maruyama Site)

Kawagoe wrote: As you can see, the forest is the common factor in all three of the above ecosystems. The land of the Jomon people was covered in broadleaf evergreen forest provided rich foods for all groups of Jomon people, wherever they lived. There are about 435 native plants in Japan that can be eaten by humans. Archaeologists have recovered at least 58 species of plant remains from Jomon archaeological digs. [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website,]

The main foods gathered from the forest were acorns (Quercus mongolica, Quercus serrata, Quercus Acutissima, Castanopsis and Cyclobalanopsis), walnuts (Juglans sieboldiana), chestnuts (Castanea crenata), horsechestnuts or buckeyes (Aesculus turbinata), hazelnuts, or beechnuts as part of your main diet. Among the less important foods were: wild edible mushrooms, wild grapes, butterburr (Petasites japonicus), young fronds of the fern (Pteridium aquilinum) and buckwheat and Japanese Knotweed (Polygonum cuspidatum) shoots and dogtooth violet. You might also be looking out for green gram beans (phaseolus sp. or Vigna radiata), kudzu vine (Pueraria lobata), Ubayuri lily bulbs (Cardiocrinum cordatum), cereal grasses (rice, barley), arrowroot, roots and rhizomes such as burdock (Arctium Lappa L.), taro and yam (Dioscorea japonica) tuber roots, and vegetables such as rape (Brassica). Jomon people also enjoyed fruits and berries such as raspberry (Rubus), elderberry (Sambucus), mulberry (Morus) and wild grape (Vitis). Ingredients for ceremonial foods included some shiso and egoma herbs (Perilla frutescens).

The Jomon also hunted large and small animals for meat. Hunter went after deer, wild boar and bear. Meat was an important food source during the winter times when other kinds food was scarce and animals could be tracked in the snow. Wild boar was a comon source of meat. These animals are found on all the main islands of Japan except Hokkaido. Smaller mammals and fowl that were eaten included tanuki (racoon dog), hare, pheasant and duck. Fish were abundant in streams and rivers or lakes. Jomon fishermen employed hunting spears, nets, weir traps and basket traps Jomon people in areas near river estuary tidal flats ate freshwater shijimi clams (Corbicula japonica), mud snails (Batillaria attramentaria) both of which may be collected from brackish waters.

Jomon Shellfish Diet

different kinds of shells found at Choshichiyachi shell midden

Kawagoe wrote: “Archaeologists have looked at thousands of excavated shell middens (which were once the kitchen dumping ground for the Jomon society) and have gathered that the Jomon coastal dwellers collected over 350 species of shellfish. Molluscs, like the hard clams (Meretrix lusoria) and gastropod Umbonium monoliferum were important protein food in the Jomon diet. Shell-gathering was the work of the women, young and the elderly. They carried out their shell collecting activities most intensively during spring, but then the activities slow down gradually over the summer and become slack during late autumn and winter. Living close to a river estuary, you would have scoured the tidal flats at river mouths for shells and molluscs. Clams are easily collected in the spring when tidal flats are exposed for a longer time at ebb tide during the spring equinox tide.[Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website,]

Charles T. Keally wrote: “Some books refer to the Jomon as the "Shellmound Culture." This is a misnomer. About 3,000 of the more than 50,000 Jomon sites are shellmounds. But even on the eastern shores of Tokyo Bay, where shellmounds are relatively dense (there are about 600 shellmound sites around all of Tokyo Bay), most "shellmounds" are in fact little more that a number of scattered household-sized kitchen middens, not mounds at all, with less than 20 percent of the sites there in any one period having large horseshoe-shaped mounds. Moreover, these large mounds all belong to the last 2,500 years of the Jomon culture, and they are most common in the last 1,000-1,500 years. [Source: Charles T. Keally, Professor of Archaeology and Anthropology (retired), Sophia University, Tokyo, ++]

“Evidence from stable isotopes also indicates that the people at shellmound sites depended much more on terrestrial food sources than they did on marine food sources. Roughly 60 percent of their nutrition came from C3 plants [most common and the most efficient at photosynthesis in cool, wet climates] and herbivores, with only very small portions coming from fish, molluscs and C4 plants (grains). Even in Hokkaido where marine food sources were used extensively, these were sea mammals and fish far more than molluscs. ++

Jomon Seafood

shell midden

Jomon coastal divers scoured “ sandy bottoms of about 5 meters in depth looking for hamaguri shells (Meretrix lamarckii) which were quite the Jomon people’s favorite, also for oysters (Crassostrea gigas). Thin-shelled surf clams (Mactra venerifornis) could be picked right off the muddy beaches. In inlets and bays fishermen caught Cluperioidei sp., horsemackerel (Trachurus sp.), halfbeak (Hemiranphus sp.), and black sea bream or porgy (Acanthopagrus sp). On the muddy sea floors of the interior of the bays, Jomon people collected mainly oyster (Crassostrea gigas) and ribbed cockles (Tegillarea granosa). On the sandy floor in the middle of bays they collected clams (Meretrix Lusoria), short-necked clams(Tapes japonica). Other likely catches included rockshells (Rapona thomasiana), razor clams (Solen strictus), abalone (Haliotis) and crabs. [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website,]

Jomon who went out into open sea in dugout canoes fished for Pacific salmon (Oncorhynchus sp.), bluefin tuna (Thunnus Thynnus), sea bass or perch (Lateolabrax japonicus), moray scad (Gymnothorax kidako), horsemackerel(Trachurus sp.) and sea turtle. They also launched special expeditions to hunt sea mammals such as whale, seals, sea lion, and dolphin. The hunting of big fish and sea mammals were especially important to the Pacific coastal dwellers. The Jomon people utilized bone hooks, barbed spear bone points, harpoon tips, fishing net floats and sinkers. Other common catches for you might have been rock bream (Oplegnathus fasciatus), opaleye (Girella nigricans), parrotfish (Leptoscarus japonicus), bonito (katsuwono pelamis), bartailed flathead (Platycephus indicus), mullet and (Mugil cephalus).

Jomon Cooking

Kawagoe wrote: Archaeologists have tried to recreate the Jomon cooking scene and some of the dishes and foods, after examining the remains of the kitchen dumps or middens in excavated sites. Jomon people who lived on the coasts liked hearty seafood stews, made up of various fish, clams and other shellfish catches of the day. The ingredients would have varied with the seasons. The food was cooked in large conical or rounded pots with tapered or pointy bottoms that sat well in the soil and ash of the bonfire or hearth. Wooden frames in which burnt cobble stones, burnt shell fragments and charcoal have been found in shell midden sites. Scientists think these indicate the Jomon people were in the habit of steaming oysters (Crassostrea gigas) and oriental clams (Meretrix lusoria). [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website,]

hearth at Komakino

“One of the main dishes of the Jomon meal is thought to be a humble dish of acorn flour dumplings boiled in a herb and root vegetable soup flavored with rock salt or other ingredients boiled with wheat, millet or other available cereals. All were boiled in ceramic vessels that had been handmade and low-fired in bonfires or pits. From food remains found in the ceramic pots, it was possible for archaeologists to know that the Jomon chef spent a long time finely chopping his or her herb or root vegetable ingredients on a flat stone, then throwing them all into the large Jomon pot and letting them boil extremely slowly over the fire.

“Another food popular with the Jomon was the chestnut or other kinds of cookie made from nut-dough. One particular discovery, at the Ondashi site, Yamagata prefecture, was of a cookie or biscuit-like food with beautiful patterns applied on the surface. The cookie was made of chestnut, walnut flour, meat and blood of wild boar, deer, and wild bird eggs.

“The Jomon had already mastered techniques of leaching tannin (which makes the nuts bitter and inedible) from certain kinds of nuts, and preserving them in wet pits. Later, they processed the nuts using mortars and pestles to make dough which would then be made into breads (like Idojiri bread or koppepan), cookies or patty like dishes. Egoma oil may have been used to coat or flavor the cookies. Shiso beefsteak herb (Perilla frutescens) was used to season and garnish raw fish dishes.

“Many of the pit houses were equipped with a firepit with a smoke tunnel that may have been used to smoke meat. Archaeologists also believe that the many shell middens are evidence that the Jomon people must have dried or smoked a lot of fish and shellfish (and perhaps whale and sea-mammal meat in certain coastal areas), some for storage or for trading.

“By early Jomon times, some of the Jomon tribes had learnt how to ferment and brew fruit wine from elderberries, mulberries and wild grapes. A black wooden pitcher from a site in the Kitakanbara Kurokawa village in Niigata prefecture which was unearthed. It was found to have contained a lot of elderberry. The pitcher was lacquered with sculpted patterns. Scholars believe the pitcher was likely used for some kind of religious ceremony.”

World’s Oldest Pottery Used to Cook Fish in Japan

early Jomon pot

In April 2013, scientists announced that world’s oldest pottery used to cook fish in Japan. Ida Torres wrote in Japan Daily Press, “Archaeologists from the University of York have found out that the chards of the ceramic pots discovered at different digs around Japan reveal more about the cooking habits and lifestyle of the people in the Jomon period. These pots that date back as far as 15,000 years to the last ice age were used for more than just decorations. They were probably the earliest incarnations of what everyone calls now nabemono, or hot pot. [Source: Ida Torres, Japan Daily Press, April 11, 2013 ]

“Researchers discovered traces of freshwater fish and marine organisms such as shellfish on the more than 100 pots they were analyzing. The pots are some of the oldest clay vessels discovered, but no one knew before this what they were used for. Their analysis shows that these clay pots were used to cook warm dishes of salmon and shellfish during the chilly last years of the Ice Age.Dr Oliver Craig, an archaeologist and director of the BioArCh research centre at York University, led the research and published their findings in the journal Nature. He said that the pots may have been used as more than just a revolutionary cooking vessel, but may have been also used for special, celebratory feasts, given the elaborate designs on the pots. The fact also that they were heavy and bulky suggests that the people in the Jomon age were probably settling down in communities.

“This discovery also sheds a new light into the Stone Age men, who are typically described as hunters and gatherers. But the 30 milligrams of burnt remains from the vessels show that they cooked and stewed their food and ate them in groups. According to Simon Kaner, head of the Center for Archaeology and Heritage at the Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Cultures, eating has always been a study into a community’s social behavior. “

The University of York reported: “Until quite recently ceramic container technologies have been associated with the arrival of farming, but we now know they were a much earlier hunter-gatherer adaptation, though the reasons for their emergence and subsequent widespread uptake are poorly understood. The first ceramic containers must have provided prehistoric hunter-gatherers with attractive new ways for processing and consuming foods but until now virtually nothing was known of how or for what early pots were used. The researchers recovered diagnostic lipids from the charred surface deposits of the pottery with most of the compounds deriving from the processing of freshwater or marine organisms. Stable isotope data support the lipid evidence, and suggest that the majority of the 101 charred deposits, analysed from across Japan, were derived from high trophic level aquatic foods. [Source: University of York, April 2013 ||:||]

“Dr Craig said: “Foragers first used pottery as a revolutionary new strategy for the processing of marine and freshwater fish but perhaps most interesting is that this fundamental adaptation emerged over a period of severe climate change. “The reliability and high abundance of food along shorelines and river-banks may well have provided the initial impetus for an investment in producing ceramic containers, perhaps to make the most of seasonal gluts or as part of elaborate celebratory feasts and could be linked to a reduction in mobility. This initial phase of ceramic production probably paved the way for further intensification in the warmer climate of the Holocene when we see much more pottery on Japanese sites. This study demonstrates that it is possible to analyse organic residues from some of the world’s earliest ceramic vessels. It opens the way for further study of hunter-gatherer pottery from later periods to clarify the development of what was a revolutionary technology.” ||:||

“The study also involved researchers from Archaeological Sciences, University of Bradford; Division of Chemistry and Environmental Sciences, Manchester Metropolitan University; School of Environmental Sciences, University of Liverpool; Department of Archaeology, University of Aberdeen; Centre for the Study of Cultural Evolution, Stockholm University; The Archaeological Research Laboratory, Department of Archaeology and Classical Studies, Stockholm University and Arctic Centre, University of Groningen, Netherlands; and Niigata Prefectural Museum of History, Niigata; Research Institute for Humanity and Nature, Kyoto and Wakasa History and Folklore Museum, Fukui, in Japan.” ||:||

Did Jomon Women Eat Too Many Sweets and Snacks?

chestnut remains

In October 2008, Kyodo News reported: A “team headed by Hisashi Fujita, an associate professor at Niigata College of Nursing, found that Japanese women in ancient times were more prone to tooth decay than men, which the researchers say indicates they were more prone to dig into snacks. The team looked at teeth from about 270 people of the Jomon Period (about 10,000 B.C. to 400 B.C.), and found that those from women aged 40 and older had suffered more decay than any other demographic. [Source: Kyodo News, October 24, 2008 \=]

“According to the group, an estimated 1 percent to 3 percent of hunting people in world history had significant tooth decay, but the rate for the Jomon people was far higher, at 8 percent. This indicates the Jomon diet was high in starch, which can cause tooth decay, the group said. “The variety of food should have been limited compared with current times, but cookies mainly made of acorns and chestnuts have been discovered from the Jomon Period,” Fujita said. “We think the women of that time liked eating snacks,” he said. Unlike modern people, most of the decay was found at the root of the teeth. This indicates the Jomon people probably didn’t brush and food particles accumulated in the gaps between their teeth. \=\

“Few back teeth of the Jomon people suffered decay, the team found. This is probably because the surface of the back teeth were typically worn down as they ate food mixed with fine sand and often chewed on animal leather to soften it, said Kazumichi Katayama, a professor of anthropology at Kyoto University.” \=\

Analysis of Amino Acids Used to Study Jomon Food

Kawagoe wrote: Traditionally, the Jomon people have been characterized as an affluent forager culture. This was because it was commonly thought that the Jomon people were foragers who searched for food in the wild, living well off the land given the abundant fruit and nut of the forests and the rich seafood that was available from the coastal areas. Recently however, some experts are drawing a rather different picture. They say that the Jomon society was made up of collectors, who settled in a residential base, from which they sent specially organized task groups or teams of people some distances away to various locations where food or other supplies like clay, various stones, asphalt and other raw materials could be found. [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, ]

“Some researchers say the Jomon people were not much different from modern people who settle in the suburbs and then commute to the city for their jobs. The Jomon people in the same manner, say these experts, also commuted from their settled residential villages on a daily basis to various places where they carried out their different jobs like gathering plants and nuts, collecting raw materials such as clay, hunting and processing of animals or seafood tasks. These places would have been well known resources to them and their ancestors, and may have been protected territories that were purposefully visited over and over again.

“The Jomon people tended to send their hunting teams to base camps over distances of between 2-50 kilometers, either day trips or short trips to satellite base camps a distance away. At the Takase river site, the Jomon people collected shellfish from marshes just below their site or tidal flats a short walk away, and fished from the bay or seashore within a distance of 2-3 kilometers away. But Jomon gatherers of plant foods and nuts and acorns would have foraged for food much nearer to home from wooded areas within 2 kilometer radiuses of their settlements. In this way, the Jomon people were able to exploit more efficiently the limited resources that were available to them. Such Jomon collectors would have moved their residential bases only a few times a year. “

Hirohiko Nakamura wrote in the Asahi Shimbun: “Research is also being done on the eating habits of ancient Japanese by analyzing amino acids taken from human remains and animals excavated at archaeological sites. A University of Tokyo team led by Minoru Yoneda, a professor of isotope ecology, has focused on nitrogen inside amino acids. Through eating, nitrogen is absorbed into the body where it accumulates. The team believes it may be able to figure out eating habits by examining the proportion of nitrogen isotopes N15 and N14 extracted from bones. [Source: Hirohiko Nakamura, Asahi Shimbun, January 17, 2014 +++]

“Yoneda and his team extracted collagen protein from human and animal bones found at the Tochibara rock shelter, a site in Nagano Prefecture that dates to the Jomon Pottery Culture (8000 B.C.-300 B.C.). In the samples extracted, the team examined the proportion of nitrogen isotopes in the amino acids phenylalanine and glutamic acid. Yoneda said the size of the Tochibara rock shelter suggests that it likely housed a large number of people. According to one theory, an enormous quantity of food was needed to feed the community. That could have marked the start of farming in the area because of uncertain supplies of food from hunting. +++

“The results of an analysis of the amino acids showed a large divergence in the ratio of nitrogen isotopes between Margaritiferidae, a family of freshwater mussels and mollusks, on one side and humans and land animals on the other. The team said the results indicate that humans relied on land ecosystems for food. Furthermore, the value of the isotopic ratio in humans is nearly the same as that for foxes, which are mainly carnivorous animals, rather than the figure found in largely herbivorous animals such as deer, rabbits and wild boar. This demonstrates that while the humans were omnivorous, they principally consumed meat. The results allow the researchers to estimate that 50 to 70 percent of the protein consumed by humans came from land animals. This finding caused Yoneda to express doubts about conventional theories. “If they primarily lived as farmers, then the figure should be closer to those of herbivores,” he said. “Perhaps agriculture had not developed yet in this region.” +++

Jomon People: Suburban Hunter-Gathers

“Studies of Late and Final Jomon skeletons from the Tsukumo shell midden in Okayama prefecture and the Yoshigo shell midden in Aichi prefecture, showed that a very select few females of Jomon society wore a large number of shell bracelets on both wrists. The bracelets were too small for adults and must have been put on when they were children. Since the shell bracelets were very fragile, it meant that these Jomon girls had been selected when they were still little — for a special role in society that would not have required them to do any daily chores like collecting shellfish and gathering plant food. Some scholars figure that these girls may have been shamans in charge of the ceremonial rituals of the Jomon society.

“Burials with grave goods in areas with stone circles in the Late and Final Jomon. Some scholars think that from the Middle Jomon period onwards social inequality existed. They figure that there must have been special leaders and important elders in Jomon society from the special treatment of certain graves, the more refined grave goods that were found, the presence of grave goods with children and differences in facilities within houses. They observed a trend to include grave goods with children and infants in 17 percent-25 percent of all cases in Hokkaido and the Kanto in Final Jomon. The grave goods marked the graves as belong to children who had inherited wealth and ascribed status.Archaeologists also know that Jomon men and women did different jobs and owned different goods of prestige in society. Jomon women carried out the gathering of shellfish and acorns, nuts, and berries and other plant foods. Jomon men did the hunting and other jobs that required strength and labour like construction work. Archaeologists figured this from examining the skeleton remains which showed that the bones of male skeletons are five times more likely to have fractures than the bones of female skeletons. Jomon men and women were also buried with different grave goods: slitted stone or clay earrings are found only on female skeletons while waist pendants are found only male skeletons.

“Differences in styles of pottery, houses, fireplaces and burials between the different groups indicate socially complex tribal relations. This can be seen from the groupings of burials, probably of kin groups and families. Many of the large settlements had a long span of occupation with pit dwellings being built and rebuilt over thousands of years in the same area. These settlements were likely occupied by the same family and whose family members lived in the area from generation to generation, preserving their control of territory and resources.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons; National Museum of Science, Tokyo kahaku.go; Jomon Archaeological Sites in Hokkaido and Northern Tohoku

Text Sources: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website,; Charles T. Keally, Professor of Archaeology and Anthropology (retired), Sophia University, Tokyo, ++; Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University ~; Asia for Educators Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, ; Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan; Library of Congress; Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO); New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; Daily Yomiuri; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated January 2017

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