“The religion practiced by the Yayoi people was a form of animism and nature worship with no clear distinction between divine and human and nature and divinity. The Yayoi people buried their dead after a mourning period and purification rituals in conical pots or in shallow pits with wooden coffins covered with slabs of stone. They practiced divination using baked deer bones or tortoise shells.

Aileen Kawagoe wrote in Heritage of Japan: “Many ritual objects from the Yayoi period such as bronze bells, bronze weapons, bronze mirrors and stone maces have been discovered buried at various sites in Japan. But it is only recently, that archaeologists have been able to understand how the ritual objects might have been used during the Yayoi period. As rice-farming or rice agriculture was introduced by immigrants into Yayoi Japan, new rituals and ritual accessories associated with agriculture too appeared on the scene. The Yayoi people performed rituals to invite or appease their local deities. [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, heritageofjapan.wordpress.com ]

“Bronze bells (called dotaku in Japanese) were important ritual objects used in connection with agricultural festivals and ceremonial rituals. Rice-farming scenes engraved on bronze bells and pottery shards show people pounding rice and elevated granaries used to store rice. The Yayoi people are believed to have used the bronze bells or dotaku during ceremonies to summon or invite the deities most important to their survival: the spirits of the rice, land (hunting), and perhaps also the spirits of their ancestors. During a Mahan ritual on the Korean continent, bronze bells were hung from a tree and rung by striking the iron clapper on the inside of the bell. Ritual bronze bells in Japan are widely supposed to have been used in a similar way.”

Early Japanese History Websites: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, heritageofjapan.wordpress.com; Essay on Early Japan aboutjapan.japansociety.org ; Japanese Archeology www.t-net.ne.jp/~keally/index.htm ; Ancient Japan Links on Archeolink archaeolink.com ;Essay on Rice and History aboutjapan.japansociety.org ; Metropolitan Museum of Art Department of Asian Art metmuseum.org; Wikipedia article on the Jomon Wikipedia ; Historical Parks Sannai Maruyama Jomon Site in Northern Honshu sannaimaruyama.pref.aomori.jp ; Yoshinogari Historical Park yoshinogari.jp/en ;Good Photos of Jomon, Yayoi and Kofun Sites at Japan-Photo Archive japan-photo.de ; Wikipedia article on the Ainu Wikipedia ; Good Japanese History Websites: ; Wikipedia article on History of Japan Wikipedia ; Samurai Archives samurai-archives.com ; National Museum of Japanese History rekihaku.ac.jp ; English Translations of Important Historical Documents hi.u-tokyo.ac.jp/iriki

Agriculture, Female Shaman and Ancient Religion in Japan

According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: Agriculture was the foundation of all economic activity in Japan until the start of this century. The most important kami, therefore, were those associated with agriculture. In many localities during the Tomb period and later, villagers worshiped a pair of kami, one male and the other female. The thinking was that the fertility of these kami was closely connected with the fertility of the land and that such worship would help ensure a bountiful harvest. Sexual imagery in the form of depictions of male and female organs, often carved out of stone, was common in such worship. This imagery is still seen in numerous local festivals, although with the diminished importance of agriculture, religious depictions of sexual organs today are often regarded as aids for couples trying to conceive. [Source: “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org ~]

“The leaders of locally powerful clans worshiped these agricultural deities since the livelihood of everyone in the area depended on good harvests. In time, many of these clans (uji) came to regard these agricultural deities as their ancestral founders. Local agricultural deities, in other words, became the ujigami (uji-founding kami) of the major local clans. As the confederation of clans in the Yamato area extended its hegemony over the other uji and peoples of the Japanese islands, their ujigami became more widely known. ~

“Of particular importance, of course, was the Yamato royal family, whose ujigami was Amaterasu, a female solar deity (often called the "sun goddess"). Her "deity-body" (shintai--an object in which the kami spirit is thought to inhere) is housed at the inner shrine at Ise, near the coast of the old Yamato region. Worship of Amaterasu was an important duty of the Yamato king, who was as much a religious leader as he was a secular leader. After the Taika Reforms of 645, Amaterasu became, at least in theory, a kami of great importance for all of the Japanese islands. ~

“Moving a few centuries back in time to the early tomb period, religious life seems to have been dominated by women with special spiritual powers. These women functioned as shamans and were often political leaders as well. Female leadership in religious and political life was common throughout many parts of East Asia prior to the spread of Confucianism and Buddhism. In Ryukyu, for example, female shamans (noro in Japanese; nuru in Okinawan) played a major role in local religious and political life until this century. The head priestess of Ryukyu (Kikoe-Ogimi) was nearly as powerful as the king until the seventeenth century. In Japan, by the time of the Taika Reforms, female shamans no longer played a role in the official state religious ceremonies. A few centuries earlier, however, female shamans sometimes served as leaders of the Yamato Kingdom.” ~

Animal Worship in Yayoi Japan

“Kawagoe wrote: “Animals pictured on the bronze bells include: deer, fish, birds, wild boar, dragonflies, frogs, lizards, turtles, dogs, snakes, mantises, spiders and crabs. These animals likely represented local deities that were being worshipped and appeased by Yayoi people at the time. Deer and birds (herons and cranes) appeared the most times in Yayoi bronze bell art, and are thought to be especially important grain deities connected with the cyclic activity of agricultural life. Around 200 pictures of deer carved on Yayoi pottery were also discovered. (Deer appeared far many more times than wild boar on most of their bells … even though the Yayoi people preferred eating wild boar to deer...Archaeologists have concluded that deer represented the life-giving spirits of the land, herons and cranes spirits of rice, and the human images, their ancestors by studying ancient Japanese documents and examples of folk customs as well as animal habitats. [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, heritageofjapan.wordpress.com ]

“Experts believe the Yayoi people worshipped an important deer deity and they practised a magical ritual of sowing seeds in deer blood that they believed would speed up the germination of rice plants. They believed that the deer’s life force helped in the growth of rice. Since antlers were shed on a yearly cycle, the deer likely symbolized regeneration, growth and decay which the people associated with the growth cycle of plants. According to an ancient 8th century legend from the Nara period, rice that has been planted in the fresh blood of a deer germinates mysteriously overnight. The myth related to spring rice-planting rituals, is recorded in the “Local Record of Harima Province” (“Harima no kuni Fudoki“).

“Cranes and herons were probably sacred birds to the Yayoi people. Wooden birds attached to wooden poles have been found at a number of excavated Yayoi sites. The sacred bird is thought to be symbolic of the rice spirit bird that brought the first rice seeds to man in its beak. Experts believe there was a yearly ceremony performed when the Yayoi priests would don bird plume outfits, board a boat and go out to meet and call the birds (i.e. bird spirit) back. Engravings of boats and feathered priests are known from a number of pottery vessels such as the one found on a pottery jar dated to the Middle Yayoi period from Inayoshi, Tottori prefecture. What was the role of the feathered shaman priests depicted on the pottery and was the boat was a mock one or did the shaman priests actually get into real boats that were cast out to water.”

Divinization, Magic and Shamanism in Yayoi Japan

Kawagoe wrote: “Seasonal agricultural and magical rites and ceremonies were performed by the Yayoi people, like the Jomon people who came before them. They left behind many signs of their rituals. The bronze bells and mirrors were used in their ritual ceremonies as were stone halberds and stone swords and other such ritual tools. [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, heritageofjapan.wordpress.com ]

“The Chinese account Wajinden mentions that the people of Wa during a time of civil unrest had enthroned Himiko as their queen. Queen Himiko, records the Wajinden, was a shaman priestess who governed, controlled and captivated the minds and loyalties of her people through divine spiritualism, magic and sorcery. She was shrouded in an air of secrecy, mystiscism and asceticism. Nobody saw her except the lone male servant who had access to her for the purpose of serving her meals and being her spokesman and messenger. Wajinden recorded that 1,000 maids served her willingly.”

“An etching of what is thought to be a shaman has been found on a Yayoi pottery shard “Shamanism involves ecstasy and trances, and provides shamanic followers with a source of inspiration in times of need. Shamans have the roles of go-between mediums, revealing the will of the gods; as prophetesses, seers or readers of divine oracles; soothsayer, fortune teller, medicine man, procurers of good fortune and as such whose services were especially needed in times of wars, famines, and other social crises.

“Divination or scapulimancy – the practice of divination by burning scapulae (shoulder bones) usually that of deer (tortoises were occasionally used). An oracle would probably have been delivered by reading the heat cracks, scratches and lines. More than 100 oracle burnt bones excavated at 25 Yayoi sites throughout Japan are evidence of this practice. The Chinese Wei Zhi chronicle records the reasons behind the practices of the Yayoi people as thus: “Whenever they undertake an enterprise and discussion arises, they bake bones and divine in order to tell whether fortune will be good or bad. First they announce the object of divination, using the same manner of speech as in tortoise shell divination; then they examine the cracks made by the fire and tell what is to come to pass.”

Ritual Uses of “Magic” Mirrors in Ancient Japan

Yayoi Period Japanese may have used “magic mirrors” to conjure up images of mountain wizards and divine beasts for sun-worshipping rituals, scientists at Kyoto Nation Museum said in January 2014. Tsuyoshi Sato wrote in the Asahi Shimbun, “The Kyoto National Museum said patterns engraved on the back of a type of bronze mirror associated with ancient queen Himiko are projected on a wall when sunlight reflects off the front. Ryu Murakami, head of the museum’s curatorial board, said the discovery could provide valuable clues in studying how bronze mirrors were used in ancient Japan. “Someone apparently noticed the phenomenon and intentionally shaped mirrors in this way,” he said. “I believe they have something to do with sun worship.” [Source: Tsuyoshi Sato, Asahi Shimbun, January 30, 2014 /=/]

“Using a 3-D printer, Murakami, an expert in historical materials science, produced replicas of two Sankakubuchi Shinjukyo mirrors from materials used in the originals, such as copper and tin powder. The mirrors, 21 and 24 centimeters in diameter, were found in the Higashinomiya tomb in Inuyama, Aichi Prefecture, and are owned by the Kyoto National Museum. The Sankakubuchi Shinjukyo mirror, believed to be produced around the third century, is characterized by its triangular rim when seen in cross-section. Its back features a relief engraving of wizards and mythical creatures. /=/

“More than 500 mirrors have been unearthed in areas from the northeastern Tohoku region to the southern island of Kyushu, with many in the Kinki region. The mirror is associated with Himiko because some were inscribed with the year 239, when a Chinese emperor presented 100 bronze mirrors to the queen’s emissary, according to a Chinese chronicle. Some ancient Chinese mirrors are known to function as magic mirrors.” But the Kyoto National Museum “announcement was the first to confirm similar properties in an ancient mirror excavated in Japan. /=/

“In a magic mirror, unevenness on the polished surface—too subtle to be detected by the naked eye—reproduces patterns on the back when sunlight reflects off the front. Minute concavities and convexities that mirror the backside designs are created during the polishing process. The concave parts focus light, while convex parts diffuse light, resulting in the projected image. Murakami has yet to confirm whether other types of bronze mirrors work like a magic mirror, but he believes that other Sankakubuchi Shinjukyo mirrors have similar projective qualities if substantial differences exist in the metal’s thickness. /=/

“Shoji Morishita, an associate professor of archaeology at Otemae University’s faculty of cultural and historical studies, said researchers tended to focus on the back of bronze mirrors, but cutting-edge technologies have shed new light on the mirrors. “The finding could lead to reconsideration of the role of mirrors in ancient rituals,” said Morishita, who is well versed in bronze mirrors. “Sometimes, dozens of mirrors are found from the same burial mound. Theoretically, it’s not hard to imagine that they were lined up to project a number of images.“

Yayoi Burials

burial jar model

Kawagoe wrote: Archaeologists have found different kinds of burials from excavation sites around Japan. The burial culture of the Yayoi period showed a change from the earlier Jomon burial rituals in that it was the beginning of large-scale formal cemeteries. [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, heritageofjapan.wordpress.com]

Charles T. Keally wrote: “Not far from the village was a burial ground. The most common and wide-spread form of burial was a small trench in the middle of an area enclosed by a square ditch (moat). The area enclosed was anywhere from a few meters on a side up to 20 or 30 meters across. Low mounds covered the burials in the center. There is little doubt that these are the precursors of the later Kofun period mound tombs. The jar and cist burials usually pictured as representative of Yayoi burials are in fact mostly limited to a small region of northern Kyushu and not representative at all. [Source: Charles T. Keally, Professor of Archaeology and Anthropology (retired), Sophia University, Tokyo, net.ne.jp/~keally/yayoi ++]

“Burials under low mounds in enclosures surrounded by a ditch (moat) were common everywhere in Yayoi Japan. Most enclosures were square, but many late ones were round. By the 3rd century in the Kansai District, a number of new forms appeared, and one, the keyhole shape, is thought to be associated with the Yamato central power. The keyhole-shaped mound tombs define the boundary between the Yayoi and Kofun periods archaeologically, but in fact the differences in the common culture for a century on either side of this boundary are largely insignificant.” ++

Yayoi Burial Rituals and Mortuary Customs

According to the Wei dynasty account, when someone died, the Yayoi people mourned for ten days and burial was done in a single coffin. They dressed in hemp clothes for mourning.Kawagoe wrote: “The Hirabaru mounded grave was orientated towards sunrise (at the vernal and fall equinox season) and is thought to have been a site where sun worship as well as ancestral worship were practiced. Two pairs of postholes thought to have formed tori gates were directed eastwards at the Takasu mountain and the mountain pass of Hinata in east-south-eastern direction — perhaps symbolising the power of the dead person that extended beyond the mountains, or in reverence for a nature or mountain deity. [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, heritageofjapan.wordpress.com]

Yoshinogari northern bural mound

“Most burial jars of ordinary graves, and there were hundreds and even thousands of such jars at some Yayoi cemetery sites, contained no grave goods. However, a number of remarkable finds of grave goods have been found: Bronze mirrors were the most valuable of grave goods marking the grave of a very high-ranking person. The Hirabaru mound site had 39 bronze mirrors; the Mikumo-minami-shoji burial no. 1 site had 35 mirrors; Suku-okamoto site 32 mirrors; Mikumo-minami-shoji burial no. 2 site 22 mirrors; and Ihara-yarimizo site had 21 mirrors.

“Glass beads from burials were analysed by scientists and found to have been lead-barium glass of the kind found in the pre-Han period in China. Such glass bead items, known as pi, were likely to have been objects of trade between Yayoi Japan and China. At the Yamamoto site in eastern Japan, 68 glass beads were recovered from the burial mound, along with pottery.

“Hirabaru mound had turned up some of the largest finds of glass beads: 480 dark blue globular beads; 10-12 cylindrical glass beads; 17-18 “bone-like” cylindrical beads; 12 cylindrical agate beads forming a bracelet; 1 amber-opal earring and 500 amber-opal beads; 320 rings of deep blue joined glass beads that made up a necklace; and three blue curved glass beads (magatama) uncommonly perforated on both sides. Agate beads and amber-opal beads were unknown in Yayoi Japan, and most likely arrived as trade items from Han period sites in China or from the Chinese outpost of Lolang in Korea. Shell bracelets were found in a burial jar of a female from the large communal cemetery of the Yoshinogari settlement alongside with a bronze mirror. The shells bracelets were made out of cone shells from the south seas. The female skeleton was thought to have belonged to a female shaman priestess.”

Burial Mounds at Yoshinogari

Kitafunkyubo (Northern Burial Mounds) at Yoshinogari, a Yayoi site in the outhern Japanese island of Kyushu, is thought to have been the final resting places of successive generations of Yoshinogari rulers. Located here are artificial mounds, very strong in structure, made up of layers of different kinds of soil. Fourteen burial jars were found in the mounds. One of them contained glass beads and an elaborately-designed bronze sword. These burial mounds were made and used in the middle Yayoi period around 1 B.C. The area was not used as a cemetery afterward, perhaps because it was believed to have been a resting place of ancestral spirits. [Source: Yoshinogari Historical Park yoshinogari.jp ]

The Prayer Hall here is believed to have been where people said prayers and made offerings to ancestral spirits resting in the mounds. The tall pole in front of the northern burial mounds is called Ricchu, or Column. It seems to have been a symbolic pole, marking where ancestral souls rested. A tomb path at the site is believed to have been used by people visited the burial mounds to worship souls of ancestors.

Some funerary goods were found in one of the 14 burial jars. Although a grip of a regular bronze sword is made of wood, the sword found here was made entirely of bronze, which is very unusual. Raw materials of the beads cam from China. It is not clear however whether the beads were made in Japan or China, or even somewhere else. Such valuable grave goods indicates the man buried there was person of high status.

The unglazed burial jars at Yoshinogari are of a distinctive type found only in the northern part of Kyushu. The body was bent to fit into the jar and then the jar was buried in the ground. This type of burial was common for about 200 years, during the middle of the Yayoi period. There are two types of burial jars at Yoshinogari. One is a two-piece jar divided in the middle that could be open, making is easier to place the body inside. The other is a simple jar covered with a big, flat-stone lid. Although differences in how the jars were used has not been determined, scholars speculate it probably had something to do with differences in social standing.

Approximately 15,000 jars are believed to have been buried in mounds in Yoshinogari. Among them, over 2,000 jars are buried in a 600-meter long row on both sides of the path in the middle of the northern mounds. (The path is thought to have been a way to visit the graves or a line to separate them by ranks.) People at the time seem to have paid homage to the deceased.

Yoshinogari Burial Practices

“Noblemen and ordinary people alike were buried in ceramic jars comprised of two jars placed with their open ends together and sealed. When a person was buried a pit was dug and one earthen jar was placed in the side of the pit, the body with legs bent was placed inside and the other jar was attached in such a way that it extended into the pit, which was then filled in. Noblemen were buried with distinctive bronze daggers. “Kawagoe wrote: “At the Yoshinogari burial mound site, the people would proceed from the mound along a passageway ending at a pair of postholes which are thought to be tori gates. In front of this gate is a large pit filled pottery. Traces of fire found here suggest fires were lit here, as food offerings contained in the pottery were made to ancestors by family members or tribal members. The passageway and tori gates are thought to have been the earliest examples of the Shinto gate. (According to the Japanese religion, the pilgrim on his way to a Shinto shrine to worship his ancestors also has to pass a torii, a Shinto gate.) [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, heritageofjapan.wordpress.com ]

“Funerals and rites for the dead appeared to have been important and elaborate to the villagers, especially where members of the village of an elite status were concerned. In an area quite separate from the communal cemetery for commoners, a 30 by 40 meter mound was constructed where the village chiefs and leaders were buried. Five of the six jars found in the centre of the mound contained cylindrical jade-like glass ornaments from China as well as bronze daggers that came from the Korean peninsula. [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, heritageofjapan.wordpress.com ]

“For the commoners, they built a cemetery containing long rows of jar burials. About 2,000 burial jars, have been found both inside and outside the ditches. Inside one of these jars with a stone lid, buried with a female body, was discovered a finely-made bronze mirror (7.4 centimeters in diameter with a pattern of interconnected arcs and a eight-character inscription) in the renkomon style of the Early Han Dynasty period). The female had been buried in silk clothes and wearing 25 shell bracelets on her right arm and eleven bracelets on the left. The shell bracelets were exotic items, made from cone shells from the south seas and must have shone beautifully like pearls when they were first worn. Other items excavated from Yoshinogari include Japanese-style bronze mirrors, coins, bells, halberds, iron tools and wooden tools.”

Northern burial mound

Megalithic Stone Burials

“Kawagoe wrote: One of the rarest burial customs seen at the beginning of the Yayoi era in Kyushu was the burying of the dead in megalithic stone graves. The dead corpse was placed in an earthen jar, a wooden or stone coffin or a pit, with a single large capstone right over the grave. This custom was copied from the Korean practice of dolmen construction, and probably came with Korean immigrants. The practice was limited to burials in Saga and Nagasaki prefectures only in the very early days of the Yayoi period and did not prove to be popular as it did not last very long. [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, heritageofjapan.wordpress.com ]

“On the Fukuoka plain, the people of the Early Yayoi period buried some of their dead directly into pits without coffins and some of them into wooden coffins. Placing their dead (or interring their dead) in burial jars was to become the main kind of burial and one of the most distinctive types of burial for the Yayoi culture.

“Especially popular during the Middle Yayoi period, the jars were at first placed horizontally (e.g. those at Itazuke site). Later, they were placed at an angle to counter the weight of the earth pressing down from above. And finally, the custom shifted to burying the jars upright with the mouths turned down. Bones are often painted red, their sacred colour. By Late Yayoi, it became common to wrap the bodies placed into the jars in mats.”

Yayoi Jar Burials

“Kawagoe wrote: At the Yoshitake-Takagi site in Fukuoka city, 34 jar burials (in which 16 adults were buried) and four wooden coffins were excavated. All four of the coffins and eight of the mortuary jars contained grave goods such as jasper, jade or glass beads and a bronze dagger. One of the coffins contained two daggers, a bronze halberd, spearhead and a mirror – something worth noting – because it is the earliest collection of the mirror-sword-jewel combination that is traditionally connected with the imperial family of Japan. [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, heritageofjapan.wordpress.com ]

“At the Yayoi commoner’s excavated cemetery from the Kanenokuma site in Fukuoka, were found 348 burials in large jars (called kamenkanbo), a large number of which were burials of children, thus allowing experts to figure out that this was the preferred form of burial for children. 119 other burials were direct into the pit or in wooden coffins, as well as two stone coffin burials.

“At the Doigahama cemetery site in Yamaguchi Prefecture, the majority of Yayoi 200 or so skeletons found there, lay in extended positions with their heads pointing east, the rest had their heads pointing north. The Yayoi people also segregated the burials of community members from those of outsiders married into the group.

“In Honshu, however, there existed a different burial custom. When a person died, the Yayoi people would first bury the dead corpse in an earthen pit (in a temporary mortuary house). After the flesh had decomposed, the dead remains would be exhumed (dug up) and possibly in order to remove several of the teeth to be worn by relatives. Then the remaining bones and teeth would be moved into a jar for burial into a pit in a separate formal cemetery. The jars commonly had narrow necks of 10 centimeters diameter. Bones that could not fit into the jar would be cremated and returned into the main pit. Burnt animal sacrifices were presented as this stage perhaps as ancestral offerings, and the teeth were returned by the relatives to the main pit after having worn them for a time.

“Cremated bones have been recovered from the Yatsuhagi cave in Gunma prefecture. Human bones, teeth with holes pierced for use as ornaments were uncovered at several sites. Archaeologists used to think that knife-like marks on bones meant that cannibalism had taken place, but now experts are of the view that the cut marks, such as those found on bones excavated from caves on the Miura peninsula, were made during the defleshing of the bones for secondary burial. Many of the jars had been repaired carefully. Jars of several individuals were re-buried together in a pit on a single occasion even though they had not died at the same time. These secondary pits were usually separate and far away from the village settlement.

At the Ikawazu site, a Yayoi secondary burial grave was found to contain the remains of two adult men and eight women and three infants – the site had grave goods including jars with sculptured faces. At the Izuruhara secondary burial site, glass beads were found. These grave goods were all rare … experts have noted that there is never more than one jar with a sculptured face at any given site, so that the jar may have belonged to someone with a specially important position in Yayoi society like a powerful village chief.”

burial jar rows

Yayoi Period Tumuli and Burial Mounds

Kawagoe wrote: “From the middle Yayoi to the early Yamato period, rather large mounds (funkyubo) were being constructed on hills or knolls from a zone extending from Chugoku to Shikoku in the west to the Kanto plain in the northeast. These were either square in shape and surrounded by moats and ditches, similar to those found in China and north Asia. [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, heritageofjapan.wordpress.com]

“Before keyhole shaped mounds became the standard, a wide variety of mounds of differing shapes and sizes could be found all over Japan. These can be classed into the main types: 1) empun: round tomb mound; 2) zempo koen fun: front-square and rear-round tomb mound; 3) zempo koho fun: front-square and rear-square tomb mound; 4) hofun: square tomb mound.

“By the late Yayoi period however, some mounds became larger (between 40 to 80 meters long) and a few of the late 3rd century mounds are known to have evolved the keyhole shape (e.g. Hashihaka and Hokenoyama and Kurozuka mounds) similar to those typical of the later Yamato mounds.

Pre-Yamato mounds with haniwa clay tubes and stone cist burials have also been found at the Makimuku site in Sakurai (Nara Prefecture) and as far east as Ichihara in Chiba Prefecture. The early mounds were probably built at a stage for leaders who had brought several agricultural communities under their control but had not yet accumulated power and authority equal to that of a Yamato king. Round mounds present from the beginning of the period, served as burials for lower-ranking aristocrats. By early 6th century families of clan leaders were buried in round mounds in what were clan cemeteries clustered on hillsides.

Yayoi Moated Burial Mounds

Kawagoe wrote: The custom of secondary burials gradually gave way to the moated precinct which became one of the most common types of burial during the Yayoi period. In the centre of the precinct, the mounds are usually square or circular and inside the mounds were wooden coffins or pit burials. The pits were sometimes found inside the moats. [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, heritageofjapan.wordpress.com]

“Inside of the Yayoi mound was usually buried a person of paramount importance to their society, most probably some very powerful tribal chief or shaman priest(ess) who had wielded a strong influence and power over people for many kilometers. The mound was built in an area totally separate and away from the communal cemetery or cemetery for the common people. The earliest of the mound burials was at the Mine site in Fukuoka. It was a rectangular mound 18 meters long, 13 meters wide and one meter high and was surrounded on three sides by a 1.7 meters deep ditch. Apparently a very important ruler member of the Yayoi community and family members were actually placed in the large jars and entombed within the mound. “A rectangular mounded and moat-enclosed grave at the Hirabaru site in Fukuoka prefecture contained a wooden split log coffin that had been painted red (in cinnabar pigment) which was the custom for Middle and Late Yayoi burials. The moats usually contained only one individual, sometimes with additional pit burials in the moat. The earth dug from the moats was usually used to pile up the mound. A great deal of labour was mobilised for the building of each of the mounds, some of which were huge. Historians believe that the higher the mound, the more important the standing or status of the person buried within the mound. The mounds were however too numerous to have been reserved for elite rulers, and are thought to have been used as a mode of burial for powerful families as well.

“The moated burial precinct eventually replaced the secondary burials in popularity perhaps because there was a shift towards beliefs in ancestral worship and ideas about treatment of the dead resulting in new mortuary rituals. The segregated moated precinct also showed the kinship groupsand ties based on the agricultural production unit and also showing their stress on their ancestral rights to land. One ethnologist (Obayashi) has suggested that the central mounded area surrounded by the moat may be symbolic of the rebirth of Onogoro Island according to the land creation mythology.

“During the last phase of the Yayoi period, the mounds characterized by their size and variety and quality of grave goods are thought to reflect a society becoming increasingly complex and hierarchical (with many layers of differing status and ranks for different people). The grave goods and type of coffin or burial and height of the mound would distinguish the person buried in it according to his social status or his role as chief, shaman priest, warrior, craftsman, rich or poor farmer, etc.

“The network of gigantic tombs (that continued into the Kofun era), and the distribution of grave goods, particularly of bronze mirrors, found within the mounds are considered by many experts to reflect the specific political happenings during the era and to reflect who controlled what resources such as specialized crafted items or exotic items that could be obtained only through trade or diplomatic exchanges. The pattern of prestige goods found in the mounded tombs all over the country likely mirrored the relationships and political alliances between the ruling chiefs while they had been alive.”

Yayoi Boat-Shaped Coffins

“ Boat-shaped coffins have been found Yayoi Period tombs. It is thought that these coffins were made to ferry the deceased to the after-life. The oldest boat-shaped wooden coffin, dated to be around 2000 year old, in the middle of the Yayoi period. world, was found by construction workers while preparing to build a new hospital in the Kita Ward of Nagoya. This boat-shaped wooden coffin is approximately 200 years older than any previously found. [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, heritageofjapan.wordpress.com ] “Another large boat-shaped coffin was found in the tomb of the Ohoburo Minami Kofun-gun in Northern Kyoto, dated to the latter half of the Yayoi Period (4 B.C.-4 A.D.), containing various precious grave goods, including a beautiful cobalt blue glass bangle, an iron bangle and many iron swords. [Source: Mainichi Shimbun, February 21, 2009, A Journey for Tango Kingdoms, The Tango Tour Guide website ]

“Following the Yayoi Period, the Kofun Period saw funerary boat haniwa in common use surrounding keyhole shaped tombs, and the famous tomb painting of a boat, along with representation of the sun, moon and birds resting on the boat, from the Mezurashizuka Kofun in Fukuoka, suggests that boats of the dead ritual symbolism was significant to people of those times. [Source: A Witness to History, National Museum of History website, ]

“Many other cultures in Southeast Asia also buried their dead in boat-shaped coffins, namely, the Xiaohe culture in Xinjiang; the Bo people (Sichuan) and Ba and related Tujia peoples of China; Minyue culture (Wuyi mountains, Fujian); the Dongson culture, Vietnam; Niah caves, Borneo. The Japanese boat-shaped coffin relics may indicate incoming migrants from one of these cultures in Southeast Asia, particularly Austronesian cultures. The coffins at the Xiaohe Tombs were buried in five levels, each coffin resembling an upside-down ship on the shore with the dead buried within. Live cows had been killed at the burial and their skins were used to wrap the coffins. As the skins dried and shrank, the coffins were bound increasingly tighter. [Source: Epoch Times]

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons; National Museum of Science, Tokyo kahaku.go.jp; Yoshinogari Historical Park yoshinogari.jp.

Text Sources: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, heritageofjapan.wordpress.com ; Charles T. Keally, Professor of Archaeology and Anthropology (retired), Sophia University, Tokyo, ++; Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org ~; Asia for Educators Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ; 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 September 2016

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