Kofun of Emperor Yuryaku

The Kofun period is named after “kofun” — gigantic earthen burial mounds (tumuli). First were built for important people and often surrounded by a moat, they came in different shapes — round-, square- and keyhole-shaped — and were similar to graves found in China and Korea.

Inside excavated tombs archaeologists have found mirrors, swords, armor, earrings, bracelets, equestrian gear, crowns, shoes, terra cotta figures, and personal ornaments made from precious beads and worked gold and copper. The ancient Japanese, like their Chinese counterparts, probably believed they could take these objects with them to the next life. Earthenware cylinders, “haniwa” clay figures, and sculptures, some as tall as 1½ meters, surrounded the kofuns.

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “ The practice of building sepulchral mounds and burying treasures with the dead was transmitted to Japan from the Asian continent about the third century A.D. In the late fourth and fifth century, mounds of monumental proportions were built in great numbers, symbolizing the increasingly unified power of the government. In the late fifth century, power fell to the Yamato clan, which won control over much of Honshu island and the northern half of Kyushu and eventually established Japan’s imperial line.” [Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art Department of Asian Art, "Kofun Period (ca. 3rd century–538)". Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, October 2002. metmuseum.org ]

There are about 30,000 kofun mound tombs in Japan. These date from the 3rd century to the 7th century. Of these, 188 are designated as ryo, the tombs of emperors and empresses, and another 552 are designated as bo, the tombs of other members of the royal family. There are 46 more designated as ryobo sankochi, or possibly the tombs of members of the imperial family, and 110 other types of "burials" that are treated the same way as imperial mound tombs. These 896 tombs and "burials" are centered on the Kinki District. They were officially designated at the end of the Edo Period and the Meiji Period, based on the Kojiki, Nihon Shoki, Engishiki and other ancient documents. About 600 decortated tombs are known, from Kyushu in the south to the southern part of Tohoku in the north. These date to the 5th and 6th centuries. They are about 1 percent of the total known mound tombs.

Websites: Yamato Period Wikipedia article on the Yamato period Wikipedia article ; Kojiki, Nihongi and Sacred Shinto Texts sacred-texts.com ; Imperial Household Agency kunaicho.go.jp/eindexList of Emperors of Japan friesian.com ; Buddhism and Prince Shotoku onmarkproductions.com ; Essay on the Japanese Missions to Tang China aboutjapan.japansociety.org . References: 1) The Chronicles of Wa, Gishiwajinden by Wes Injerd; 2) Wa (Japan), Wikipedia; 3) Excerpts from the History of the Kingdom of Wei, Columbia University’s Primary Source Document Asia for Educators. Asuka Wikipedia article on Asuka Wikipedia ; Asuka Park asuka-park.go.jp ; Asuka Historical Museum asukanet.gr.jp ; UNESCO World Heritage sites ; 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

Keyhole Tombs

Suyama kofun

The largest tombs were keyhole-shaped. Some covered four or five acres. They first appeared in the Yamato region of present-day Nara Province in the late 3rd and early 4th centuries A.D. and spread to northern Honshu and southern Kyushu by the end of the 4th century. The spread of these tombs is offered as proof of the spread of Yamato culture. Why were the many of mounds keyhole shaped? No 0ne know for sure. One theory is that the shape was meant to looks like a horse’s hoof. Others reason the Kofun-era people experimented with various shapes, and simply liked the “keyhole-shape”.

Charles T. Keally wrote: “The most distinctive mounds of the Kofun Period are the keyhole-shaped mounds, zenpo-koen (square front, round back) and zenpo-koho (square front, square back). These are thought to be associated with the Imperial Family. This shape is uniquely Japanese and its origins are unknown. But Korean archaeologists recently have identified a few contemporary mound tombs in southeastern Korea that they say are also keyhole-shaped. Some people try to use these recent Korean finds to argue for a Korean origin of the keyhole-shaped mound tombs. But this fails to explain why this shape is rare in Korea and only recently recognized there through excavation, whereas this shape is common in Japan, obvious without excavation, and has been known for centuries. [Source: Charles T. Keally, Professor of Archaeology and Anthropology (retired), Sophia University, Tokyo, t-net.ne.jp/~keally/kofun ++]

Other Types of Kofun Tombs

Keally wrote: “There are a number of other shapes, and some mounds are covered with stones. The most common of these non-keyhole shapes are round and square mounds. But there are 11 or 12 eight-sided mound tombs on square bases, and eight that are round on top and square on bottom. In the Kinai district, the eight-sided mound tombs are thought to be Imperial tombs, and there they are dated to the middle 7th century and the beginning of the 8th century. But there are five such tombs in Yamanashi, Tokyo and Gumma prerfectures in eastern Japan, where they are dated to the early 7th century. One of these is the Inarizuka Kofun in Tama City in Tokyo. This mound is 38 meters on a side. It has a platform-like lower layer. A stone-lined side-entrance chamber sits on this platform, and the chamber is covered by the mound making up the second tier. The lower sides of this upper tier are covered with rocks. A recent report on the excavation of an eight-side mound tomb at the Kuwahara site in Ibaraki City, Osaka, suggests that tomb might belong to a member of the Nakatomi clan. This tomb dates to the middle 7th century. [Source: Charles T. Keally, Professor of Archaeology and Anthropology (retired), Sophia University, Tokyo, t-net.ne.jp/~keally/kofun ++]

The excavation of the Kumano Jinja Kofun in Fuchu City, Tokyo, in 2003 and 2004 has sparked a lot of discussion of the mound tombs with round tops and square bottoms. This tomb had a thin square base 32 meters on a side, and a thicker second square tier 23 meters on a side. The round top was 16 meters in diameter. The tomb, as it remains today, is 5 meters high. The sides of the round top and middle square tier were covered with stones. A large side-entrance stone burial chamber was set in the middle tier and covered with the round upper tier. The tomb is thought most likely to date to the early half of the 7th century. The Kumano Jinja Kofun sits alone about 500 meters from the nearest bluff. Along this bluff are two clusters of smaller round mound tombs dated to the 6th to mid 7th centuries. +++

“The other seven mound tombs in Japan with round tops and square bottoms are located in Nara (2), Osaka (1), Gifu (1), Shizuoka (1), and Saitama (2) prefectures. One of the two tombs in Nara is the Ishibutai Kofun, thought to be the grave of Soga Umako (d. 626). These mound tombs with round top and square bottom seem to date from the beginning of the 7th century to the beginning of the 8th century.” +++

Massive Size of Kofun Tombs

Nintoku's Tomb

Keally wrote: “ The most outstanding characteristic of these mound tombs are the sizes of some of the ones dated to the 5th century. There are well over 10,000 mound tombs in Japan, and these range from 5 meters in diameter up to the collossal Daisenryo Kofun (Emperor Nintoku’s tomb) dated 443 A.D. This keyhole-shaped tomb is 486 meters long, 305 meters wide at the widest point, and 35 meters high at its highest point. This compares to the Great Pyramid of Giza, which is 230 meters square at its base and 144 meters high. [Source: Charles T. Keally, Professor of Archaeology and Anthropology (retired), Sophia University, Tokyo, t-net.ne.jp/~keally/kofun ++]

“The Konda Gohyoyama Kofun (Emperor Ojin’s tomb) is the second largest at 415 meters length. In the traditional geneology, Emperor Nintoku succeeded Emperor Ojin. Their huge mound tombs manifest the power of Wa in the early 5th century. But already by the late 4th century and early 5th century there were quite a few tombs that exceeded 200 meters length. However, the largest keyhole-shaped tomb in the 6th century is the Mise Maruyama Kofun (probably Emperor Kinmei’s tomb, d. 570), which is 318 meters long. After that, the tombs continue to become smaller and disappear altogether in the early 8th century. ++

It is estimated that Emperor Ojin’s mound tomb has 1,400,000 m3 of dirt, or about 170,000 large dump-trucks of dirt, and that it would have taken 1,000 laborers a full 4 years to build. Emperor Nintoku’s tomb is larger.

Yayoi Period Tumuli and Burial Mounds

Uzumasa Takatsuka kofun

Aileen Kawagoe wrote in Heritage of Japan: 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.

History of the Keyhole-Shaped Mounds

During the A.D. 5th century, the construction of keyhole kofun began in Yamato Province; continued in Kawachi, where gigantic kofun, such as Daisen Kofun of the Emperor Nintoku, were built; and then throughout the country (except for the To-hoku region). The proliferation of keyhole kofun is generally assumed to be evidence of the Yamato court’s expansion in this age. However, some argue that it simply shows the spreading of culture based on progress in distribution, and has little to do with a political breakthrough. Keyhole-shaped kofun disappeared in the late A.D. 6th century, probably due to the drastic reformation in the Yamato court, where Nihon Shoki records the introduction of Buddhism during this era. [Source: Wikipedia]

3-D map of the Kakatsuyama kofun

Keally wrote: “The origins of the Kofun Period mound tombs is clearly in the Yayoi Period, although ultimately continental influence might well be a factor, too. The most common Yayoi burials were in the ground in a square area delimited by a ditch or moat. The burial in the middle had a low mound over it. Toward the end of Yayoi, some of these ditches or moats became round. With higher mounds, these were the most common kofun tomb in the Kofun Period, but the burial was on top of the mound instead of under it. The square mounds, too, continued from Yayoi into Kofun, but these later ones also had the burial in the top of the mound instead of under it. [Source: Charles T. Keally, Professor of Archaeology and Anthropology (retired), Sophia University, Tokyo, t-net.ne.jp/~keally/kofun ++]

Kawagoe wrote: The famous large keyhole mounds did not appear until late Yayoi or the beginning of the Yamato period. The earliest among them emerged in the southwestern corner of the Yamato Basin near Mt Katsuragi and in the northeast at the foot of Mt Miwa. Eventually they spread out along the Yamato River, and then to faraway corners of Japan such as Echizen, Izumo. Keyhole mounds in Kyushu (the largest of which are the Mesahozuka and Osahozuka mounds in the Saitobaru mound cluster) have been found as well, dating from the middle half of the 3rd century. The keyhole mounds were built in quick succession, often in lines or clusters, eventually becoming the standard sort of mound for the highest ranking rulers and kings. [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, heritageofjapan.wordpress.com]

“The keyhole mounds also grew in size. This indicated that the workforce and number of labourers available had grown as well … either because of a burgeoning local population or because of a large influx of immigrant workers, or perhaps due to a combination of both. And the presence of increasingly larger tumuli indicated the presence of increasingly powerful rulers in the area...At the end of the Kofun period, the culture of building massive kofun tumuli began to die out due to resources being diverted toward temple-building instead. Square mounds then became the preferred shape of mounds for the highest ranking aristocrats all over Japan. ”

Kofun Burials

Kawagoe wrote: “ Early on in the Kofun period, the deceased person was placed in a wooden coffin buried directly in the tomb summit, or in a pit lined with stone slabs, and then covered over with ceiling rocks. Later, stone coffins were used. In the late Kofun period, stone chambers with horizontal entrance passages were constructed. This way, they could re-enter the chamber and add more burials of family members later. [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, heritageofjapan.wordpress.com ]

Inside a kofun in Fukuoka

Keally wrote: “ The burials in the Early and Middle Kofun mounds were place in the top of the mounds, usually in stone-lined chambers entered from the top. Some burials had coffins of various types and others have no trace of a coffin. Late Kofun chambers were usually set on the ground under the mound and entered from the side through a passageway (yokoana chambers). Some of these yokoana chambers were set in the mound. A few such chambers have paintings on the walls, such as the long-famous Takamatsuzuka Kofun near Nara, or the recently discovered Kitora Kofun in the same area. Both these tombs are thought to date to the very end of the 7th century. [Source: Charles T. Keally, Professor of Archaeology and Anthropology (retired), Sophia University, Tokyo, t-net.ne.jp/~keally/kofun ++]

“Burial goods are commonly mirrors and beads (magical items) and various other things, including weapons, in the Early Kofun Period. But weapons and horse gear are the distictive burial goods in the Middle and Late Kofun Period. Sue ware of Korean origin also appears in the burials from the Middle Kofun Period on. This "sudden" appearance of continental and warrior burial goods around the middle of the 5th century is the basis for Egami Namio’s famous "horse-rider" theory of the origins of the Japanese nation. This theory is controversial, but the burial goods do suggest at least that the leader changed from a magician to a warrior. One of the most famous tombs yielding warrior-related goods is the end 6th century Fujinoki Kofun near Nara.” ++

Kofun Burial Goods

Items found in Kofun-era burial mounds from the 4th centuries through the 6th centuries have included jewellery (crowns, earrings, necklaces, bracelets, pendants and belts made of gilt, gold, silver, glass, jade or jasper); armour; weapons with ring pommels and hilts often inlaid with silver or gold, richly patterned; horse decorations and equipment; bronze mirrors; steatite ritual vessels and items; and tools such as iron forging tools. [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, heritageofjapan.wordpress.com]

painting in the Takehara kofun

Kawagoe wrote: 40,000 mortar-shaped beads and many sword-shaped objects, perforated discs and comma-shaped magatama beads were found in the moat of the Nonaka tomb in Fujiidera City, Osaka. These were likely ritual objects used in burial or ancestral worship rites. [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, heritageofjapan.wordpress.com ]

“From the third to the fifth centuries, tomb rituals were conducted probably by shamanistic chieftains and clan leaders in conjunction with the idea of quelling evil to confine the soul in the burial chamber and to protect the dead against evil spirits (in which the bronze mirror had a key instrument). From the 6th century, rituals appear to have evolved into ceremonies to properly send off the dead into the netherworld.

In January 2010, Japanese archaeologists announced they had unearthed pieces of 81 ancient bronze mirrors from a 3rd-4th century stone chamber of the Sakurai Chausuyama burial mound in Sakurai, Nara Prefecture. The Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “The pieces, which belonged to 13 different kinds of mirrors, were the largest number to be excavated as burial items from an ancient tomb in the nation. The tomb dates to between the late third century and early fourth century. Some of the pieces had been made in the same mold as Sankakubuchi Shinjukyo mirrors, which are engraved with Seishi Gannen (in the Japanese reading), a period name of Wei-dynasty China, meaning the first year of the Seishi era, or 240. Himiko, a female ruler of the Yamatai-koku kingdom, is said to have received 100 mirrors from the Wei dynasty in that year. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, January 12, 2010]

“The Kashihara Archeological Institute in Nara Prefecture believes the discovery may help directly link the Yamataikoku kingdom with the Yamato dynasty, in the present-day Kinki region, that was later to be known as the Imperial Court. “We could assume the tomb had more than 100 mirrors. It suggests the power held by the King of Wa [an ancient name for Japan],” said Taichiro Shiraishi, director of the Chikatsu Asuka Museum in Osaka Prefecture, specializing in archeology.”

Items Found in the Fujinoki Tomb: Silver Daggers, Fish-Shaped Belts and Korean-Style Crowns

The Fujinoki Tomb located in Ikaruga, Nara prefecture and dated to the end of the 6th century A.D. Kofun period, is a circular tomb mound with a stone burial chamber (2.67 meters wide by 4.41 meters high) and corridor that opens to the southeast. The chamber and corridor together run for a total length of 13.95 meters. Forty-seven pieces of Haji and Sue pottery-wares were found at the front of the chamber. A house-shaped coffin made of tuff and painted in red vermilion lay sideways, near the back of the chamber. The remains of two people were found in the coffin – a male of between 17 to 25 years old and another individual whose sex and age were not ascertainable. The bodies were draped in a thick ornamented textile cloth that was excavated in unusually good condition for something that old. [Source: Fujinoki Tumulus website, Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, heritageofjapan.wordpress.com ]

Kofun crown

Items found within the coffin include: ornamental metal beads; Ornamental glass beads (more than 10,000 pieces); 1 gilt bronze crown (According to Kidder, “most gilt-bronze crowns found in Japan were made in Korea” and that they were specifically of Paekche craftsmanship, but there are others who suggest that they resemble Silla crowns) 2 pairs of gilt bronze shoes with dangling fish ornaments; 1 large ornamental fish-shaped waist-sash belt; 1 belt-buckle; 1 bronze belt with two silver daggers stuck inside; 2 pairs of heavily gold plated earrings; 416 gold pendants; 2 pieces of ornaments with dragon designs; 1 pair of gilt-bronze half-cylindrical leg guard pieces.

Inside the stone chamber piled on the floor behind the sarcophagus a number of war-related artefacts and horse-trappings were also found, and the most unique and splendid of the tomb’s artifacts are thought to be the horse trappings with rich decorations such as the open-worked motifs of palmetto, phoenix, elephant, and devil’s face. Among the other finds were: 1 suit of iron armor (1,000 slats); Dipper shaped stirrup; Iron arrows and arrowheads; 5 large swords including ceremonial ones with bead decoration; 1 gilt bronze saddle decorated with elephant and phoenix motifs; 1 pc. gilt bronze straps unions with metal pendants; 3 pieces of bell-shaped harness pendants; 2 pieces of prickle leaf-shaped harness pendants; Gem with three round bulges; 1 pc. heart-shaped ornament; 1 pc round-shaped ornament; 2 pieces of decorative fitting used at joint of the crupper (a strap attached to the saddle or harness to keep it from slipping); 4 copper mirrors – one of the copper mirrors has a wide rim with small motifs of animals, deities and abstract designs; another mirror, according to Kidder, has inscriptions of three characters (yi zi sun) implying “May the owner have an abundance of descendants” exactly like the mirror from the Paekche tomb of King Mu-nyung (d.523). Kidder draws comparisons for Fujinoki tomb’s grave-goods to those from the tomb of King Mu-nyung, and is of the opinion that most of them may actually have come from Paekche. Other artefacts of much interest are the cloth fragments found in an extremely fragile state that were used to wrap the bodies and tomb artefacts. They were determined to be made of plain silk fabrics, twilled fabrics, warp pattern brocades and embroideries as well of “Ra” fragments. Although an examination and analysis of 15 specimens of the horse equipment relics was made, the report was inconclusive about the origin of the horse-trapping relics.

Kawagoe wrote: “The outer appearance and structure of the Fujinoki Tomb is also thought to be of Korean influence. Some academics think the gilt crown and shoes are similar to those of Paekche, others think the gilt crown resembles that of Silla’s. It is thought that because the tomb is located in Ikaruga away from the Soga clan’s power base in the Asuka capital, the tomb must have belonged to a different immigrant clan, but allied to the Soga clan who had connections with the Korean peninsula. Based on dating of tomb artefacts as well as a document found in an old sea-chest at Sogenji (a sub-temple of Horyuji) that refers to the tomb mound as the Misasagi-yama of Emperor Sushun (‘misasagi’ means ‘imperial mausoleum’, Kidder has proposed that the tomb belonged to Emperor Sushun (a.k.a. Hatsusebe no Waka-sazaki who reigned between 587-592) whose mother was the daughter of Soga no Imame. However, the age of one of the bodies in the coffin is only between 17 and 25 years old whereas Emperor Sushun is believed to have died at the age of 79 (and the age of the other body has not been ascertained).”



Clay cylinders and images called haniwa were often half buried in the tomb surface encircling most of the tombs. While early haniwa were simple earthen cylinders, many of the later haniwa were sculpted into extremely artistic and aesthetically pleasing shapes and objects that tell us a lot about the kofun people and daily life. [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, heritageofjapan.wordpress.com ]

Keally wrote: “The Nihongi (Nihon Shoki) records the story of the origin of haniwa under the Emperor Suinin in the 32nd year of his reign. The Kojiki says "they first made a human fence at a tomb" (haniwa) in the reign of Emperor Sujin, Suinin’s immediate predecessor in the mythologies. The story is mythological, like the emperors most likely are, but it shows an awareness of the haniwa on the mound tombs in the early 8th century, shortly after the mound tombs and their haniwa ceased to be used. (The Kojiki was published in 712. The Nihongi was published in 720 and records events to 697.) [Source: Charles T. Keally, Professor of Archaeology and Anthropology (retired), Sophia University, Tokyo, t-net.ne.jp/~keally/kofun ++]

“Haniwa clay figures are found on most mounds of this period. Their origins and purpose are unknown. The earliest haniwa are large clay cylinders, and these remained the most common type throughout the Kofun Period. Figure haniwa appeared later and are more common in eastern Japan than in western Japan. These included various animals, humans of all social standings, buildings, armor, weapons, shields and other things. ++

“Two important facts for understanding haniwa are their quantities — total and of each type — and their arrangements on the tombs. Perusal of several hundred pages of archaeological books dealing solely with haniwa or mound tombs turned up detailed discussions of the types, the evolution of the types, and speculation on the meanings of the haniwa, but only vague, sketchy mentions of the quantities and arrangements, with no hint of regional and temporal variations in the quantites and arrangements of the haniwa. ++

“The quantities of haniwa seem to range from a few to a few thousand on any one kofun, with cylindrical haniwa always by far the most common. The basic arrangement is one, two or three rows of cylindrical haniwa set around the flanks of the mound. A few figure haniwa were sometimes included among these. But most figure haniwa apparently were set in square or rectangular enclosures made of cylindrical haniwa and several figure haniwa. These enclosures appear to have been located both on top of the mound and near the bottom, or nearby but outside the mound area itself. The rows of cylindrical haniwa minimally served to reduce erosion of the mound. What other purpose they might have served is not known. The enclosurse with figure haniwa seem to represent various aspects of the funeral rites or of beliefs about life after death.

Haniwa Birds and Boats: Transport for the Dead?

In 2009, researchers at the Nara prefectural Kashihara Archaeological Institute announced that pieces of a vessel-shaped haniwa with rare markings has been excavated at the Suyama kofun in Koryocho, Nara Prefecture. The Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “The patterned pieces are believed to be part of a talisman and were found on the north side of the 220-meter-long, keyhole-shaped tomb mound built between the late fourth century and the early fifth century. Three years ago, a wooden ship with similar surface patterns was excavated from the moat surrounding the tomb. “The discovery indicates that people from that age shared a view that souls of the dead are transported to the afterlife by a ship,” an institute researcher said. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, March 26, 2009]

“The patterns carved on the surface are known as chokko-mon, which combine straight and curved lines. It is only the second vessel-shaped clay object with these kinds of markings ever excavated in the nation. The researchers excavated about 50 pieces of the clay object from a spot near where the mound meets the moat. They believe that the entire clay object originally measured 1.3 to 1.4 meters long and 50 centimeters tall–the largest among vessel-shaped clay objects ever found in the country.”

In the abstract of an article on bird-shaped haniwa placed on kofun burial mounds in Kofun period Japan, Takayo Kaku on Nihon Kokogaku, “These bird haniwa include chickens, waterfowl, cormorants, hawks, and cranes or herons. In this paper, I analyze the morphology of these haniwa in comparison with the actual shape and ecology of these birds. Haniwa chickens are found from the very beginning of the custom of placing these sculptures on tombs and they continue right through the period of haniwa use. Their numbers are also much greater than finds of other birds. [Source: Takayo Kaku, Nihon Kokogaku 14, November 2002]

“Haniwa chickens are found from Kagoshima to Iwate Prefectures, a distribution that is more or less the same as the distribution of kofun with haniwa.Bird-shaped haniwa differ as to the time of their appearance and their locations on tombs depending on the type of bird. This means that all birds did not play the same role but that their significance probably differed depending on the type of bird.

“Bird-shaped haniwa cannot be considered as one group but must be seen separately depending on the bird. In order to classify these haniwa, therefore, this article considers the ways in which the characteristics of the actual birds are represented in haniwa form. Since they are all birds, there are certain shared features common to the whole category, but there are also differences in expression than can be used to differentiate different types of bird. If one looks in detail at the expression of each part of the body, early examples use actual birds as models but before long the stylistic expression becomes fixed and in the majority of cases the sculpture was made based on bird-shaped haniwa rather than the birds themselves. The types of birds also became limited and it was not possible to freely represent birds in haniwa form. “

Regions with Kofun Tombs

Kofun-era kofun and ancient shrines in south Nagoya

Keally wrote: “Mound tombs, especially the larger ones, tend to be located in clearly defined regions. Mound tombs are common in Kyushu only in the northwest, especially in the Chikugo River plain in Saga and southern Fukuoka prefectures. There is another such concentration of tombs in the eastern part of the Inland Sea in Okayama Prefecture on Honshu island and just across the water in Kagawa and Tokushima prefectures on Shikoku island. Similar concentrations are found in eastern Shimane Prefecture from Izumo to Matsue City on the Sea of Japan, in Nara and Kyoto prefectures, along the shores of Ise Bay from Nagoya to Ise, in Ishikawa Prefecture on the Sea of Japan, on the Kanto Plain in eastern Japan (especially in North Kanto), and on the Sendai Plain in northern Japan. There are smaller concentrations of tombs in Shizuoka Prefecture, and in the intermontane basins around Nagano, Yamagata and Kofu cities. [Source: Charles T. Keally, Professor of Archaeology and Anthropology (retired), Sophia University, Tokyo, t-net.ne.jp/~keally/kofun ++]

Archaeologists identify these concentrations with regional power centers, and they identify small clusters of tombs within these concentrations with the various clans known from later documents. In the north, keyhole-shaped mounds appeared in the Sendai Plain as early as the 5th century; the northern-most such tomb is in southern Iwate Prefecture. But most tombs in the northern regions are later. This northern region was the frontier with the Emishi barbarians who lived in northern Tohoku. Keyhole-shaped mound tombs are extremely rare in southern Kyushu, the home of the Hayato barbarians. ++

Imperial Tombs from the Kofun Period

Late Kofun Emperors and Tomb Shapes (emperor, dates, tomb shape) include: 1) Keitai (507-531) keyhole; 2) Ankan (531-535), keyhole; 3) Senka (535-539), keyhole (emperors Kogyoku and Saimei are the same person). Tony McNicol wrote in National Geographic News: “The Imperial Household Agency looks after some 896 sites said to contain the remains of imperial family members. Of those, around 70 are kofun tombs dating to before the seventh century. These keyhole-shaped mounds surrounded by moats are some of the largest and most historically important burial sites in Japan. While the Imperial Household Agency shares the results of its research, the agency has been reluctant to give independent archaeologists access. In a fax to National Geographic News, the Imperial Household Agency’s Tombs and Mausolea Division wrote: “Imperial Household religious ceremonies continue to take place at tombs and mausolea. As they are objects of remembrance and veneration for the public and imperial family, preserving their peace and dignity is of paramount importance.” [Source: Tony McNicol, National Geographic News April 28, 2008 ]

Keally wrote: “The early mound tombs took advantage of natural topography, and they are located mostly in hilly areas. But Middle Kofun mounds were built on the plains. By the Late Kofun Period, keyhole-shaped mounds had also appeared in the mountainous areas and on some islands, and there were clusters of small round mounds in many regions. [Source: Charles T. Keally, Professor of Archaeology and Anthropology (retired), Sophia University, Tokyo, t-net.ne.jp/~keally/kofun , The Nihon Shoki is an ancient history record finished in A.D. 720 ++]

Researchers want very much to investigate or even excavate the Imperial Tombs but the Imperial Household Agency — the bureaucracy of the Japanese Emperor — has repeatedt told them no. Nichols wrote: “High on archaeologists’ wish list for access is the fifth-century tomb of Emperor Nintoku in Osaka Prefecture. In the past the agency has refused access to the tomb on the grounds that the boat to cross its moat is too old and unsafe. At 1,594 feet (486 meters) long, the mausoleum is the largest in Japan. “[It is] almost as large as the biggest of the Great Pyramids [of Egypt] in volume,” Edwards said, “and like the latter it is a truly monumental work from the ancient period.”

Mt Miwa Kofun: the Tombs of Yamato Kings?

In the Shiki area at the foot of Mt Miwa (in the southwestern corner of the Nara plain) six very large kofun were built from A.D. 250 and 350. Because of their large size and the artifacts found in and around them, the Mt Miwa tumuli are believed to be final resting place of powerful priest-kings — rulers of the new and expanding Yamato kingdom.

Tonotono-tsuka kofun

the six Mt. Miwa tumuli are: 1) 280-meter-long the Hashihaka mound in (said to be grave of Princess Yamato-totohi-momoso Sakurai); 2) 230-meter-long Nishitonozuka in Tenri city); 3) 207 meter-long Tobi Chausu-yama of Sakurai; 4) 240-meter-long Mesuri-yama in Sakurai); 5) the 242-meter-long Ando-yama in Tenri city (Sometimes called the tomb of Emperor Sujin); and 6) the 310-meter-long Shibutani Muko-yama (sometimes called the tomb of Emperor Keiko). [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, heritageofjapan.wordpress.com , Wikipedia]

The tombs: 1) are exceptionally large (twice as large as any tomb found in Korea); 2) were all built in quick succession, one after the other, in the Shiki area; 3) contain impressive coffins made of split bamboo and pine and surrounded by lavish grave goods: 4) contain large numbers of mirrors, weapons, tools and ornaments. Religious objects and pottery have also been found on and around the mountain.

Keyhole Tombs in Korea

In recent years keyhole tombs have been found in areas of the ancient Kaya (Gaya) confederacy on the southern Korean peninsula. The keyhole tombs that have thus far been discovered there were built between the 5th and the 6th centuries. Whether they were built for a local chieftain influenced by Japanese culture or for a Japanese immigrant is debated.

Some scholars say the keyhole tombs in Korea are evidence of Japanese culture influencing Korean culture. Other scholars say it is the other way around: another example of Korean culture influencing Japanese culture. Most cultural transplants from the era are thought to have been from China and Korea to Japan. The contents of the tombs come from different places: ceramics from South Cholla province as well as Kaya and Japan and gilt-bronze ornaments and other highly-values goods from the Paekche kingdom.

Kawagoe wrote: Thirteen “keyhole-shaped tombs dated to the latter half of 5th century to the first half of 6th century – have been found in Korea, all located in South Cholla province in the area of the Yongsan River basin — six of these have been excavated. All 13 tombs were surrounded by moats with many Korean-made “haniwa”-like cylindrical potteries placed on top of these mounds. The tombs also had corridor-style stone chambers, some of which with walls that are painted with red coloring…closely resembling corridor-style tombs in North Kyushu dating to the 5th and the 6th century.[Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, heritageofjapan.wordpress.com]

Did Keyhole-Shaped Tombs Originate in Korea?

Kawagoe wrote: The keyhole-shaped tombs have long been regarded a characteristic unique to Japan during the Kofun period. However, after Dr Kang in-gu’s claim in 1985 that he had discovered keyhole-shaped tomb in the Korean peninsula at the tomb of Changgo-bong — many historians began to claim that the keyhole shaped tombs originated in Korea … like so many of the other continental imports from the Yayoi through the Kofun periods. One popular Korean theory that has been gaining ground claims that the keyhole tombs in South Cholla were constructed for the ruling elites from Paekche who had invaded the Kinki region of Japan to form the dominant ruling group of Kofun period Japan. [Source: “Keyhole-shaped Tombs in the Korean Peninsula” by Hideo Yoshii(Kyoto University), translated by Hyung Il Pai (UC Santa Barbara), UCLA Center for Korean Studies; Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, heritageofjapan.wordpress.com; ]

“Archaeological evidence suggests that it is unlikely that Japanese keyhole shaped tombs originated in Korea’s South Cholla, for these reasons: 1) The South Cholla tombs were built from the latter half of the 5th century to the first half of the 6th century, but keyhole shaped kofun mounds were first constructed first in the the second half of the 3rd century in the Kinai region (Nara and the vicinity) then spreading to other parts of Japan, with the tombs reaching massive sizes in the 4th century and into the 5th century. Since the keyhole tombs emerged much later than the largest of the keyhole tombs in Japan, it is hard to hold that keyhole tombs emerged in Korea spreading to Japan. [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, heritageofjapan.wordpress.com ]

“2) In Japan, mound tombs had already existed from the Late Yayoi period or earlier with many reaching massive sizes in the transition period into the Kofun period, and the evolution of and merging of various shapes into the keyhole shapes over time can be evinced from the layout of the regional tombs. Most Japanese and Western archaeologists and historians believe that “Yayoi evolved without obvious break directly into the KOFUN culture”. By contrast, in South Cholla, at time when keyhole tombs were constructed, square-shaped mounded tombs were also being constructed at the same time indicating that the keyhole tombs were imported ideas from their neighbours in Japan with whom they long had close trading ties. Another evidence of the local South Cholla culture was that the local elites continued to keep their traditional burial culture of giant jar coffins which was distinct from that of incoming Paekche arrivals and its other neighbours.

“3)From archaeological viewpoints, it appears that the keyhole tombs in the South Cholla province of Korea were constructed by the local elite group of a culture that was distinct from Paekche’s – but that had long acted as trading intermediaries with its neighbouring groups — with Kaya, Japan as well as the people from Paekche who had begun to expand their territorial control into South Cholla. Archaeological evidence also showed that integration with Paekche only happened much later — the local elite in South Cholla province only became bureaucrats of Paekche after the mid 6th century, judging from the late emergence of corridor style stone chambers of Nungsan-ri type were constructed in the mound of tomb No.3 at Pogam-ri.

“From the foregoing, the new and perhaps the most plausible view is that the local ruling elite groups in South Cholla had imported the Japanese Kofun style of building the keyhole tombs, while furnishing a mixture of grave goods with local-Kaya-and-Japanese potteries and gilt-bronze-ornaments-prestige goods from Paekche. It is like that South Cholla acted as a buffer and intermediary zone, one that enriched all those in the Peninsula through trade and demand for its luxury goods, so much so that the its burial customs and societal traits became so similar to and intertwined with those in the Japanese islands. The consensus among scholars is that there was a brisk trading and maritime network between Korea and Japan. The conditions were favourable for royal lineages and certain occupational clans from Kaya, Silla and Paekche to settle in Japan. Northern Kyushu, stretches of the Inland Sea and post-4th century Nara region became areas where the presence of Korean immigrant settlers were particularly felt. It is likely that through a combination of royal alliances and with ruling elites present in Japan as well as coercive force or military action, the Korean ruling elites helped usher the unification of Kofun Period Japan. The clever weaving of key local and regional legends as well as continental ancestral legends in the first historical chronicles, the Kojiki and Nihon Shoki, appears to mirror this process of a minority ruling power coopting, pacifying as well as allying with regional elites in Japan, while consolidating its centralized authority through the creation of a highly stratified caste-like society. While it is not denied here that many Korean immigrants (from various parts of Korea) brought their skills, techniques and technologies for gilt-bronze working, ironworking, horse-riding, and sueki-ware, the keyhole-construction style of the Kofun tombs remains uniquely Japanese … at least for now.”

Researchers Allowed to Check an Imperial Tomb

Keally wrote: “On February 22, 2008, at 1 p.m., 16 "outsiders," the representatives of 16 academic organizations, entered the grounds of an imperial mound tomb for the first time in 130 years. This "on-the-ground research" was the culmination of over 30 years of almost annual requests by the Japanese Archaeological Association and other academic organizations for permission to investigate the imperial tombs. “The Imperial Household Agency had refused permission for outsiders to enter the grounds of these tombs on the need for tranquility and dignity.[Source: Charles T. Keally, Professor of Archaeology and Anthropology (retired), Sophia University, Tokyo, March 14, 2008, t-net.ne.jp/~keally/kofun ++]


“The tomb investigated this time is the Gosashi Kofun, said to be the tomb of Empress Jingu. The investigation was 2½ hours walking around the lower terrace of the mound, and noting haniwa and other features visible along the way. The Gosashi Kofun is located in Misasagi-cho in Nara City. It is a keyhole-shaped mound tomb 270 meters long and presently thought to date to the mid 4th century, the middle of the Early Kofun Period. (Empress Jingu’s dates are generally given as A.D. 201-269.) But haniwa sherds discovered during the February investigation suggest the angular front part of the mound spread wider than apparent today, indicating this tomb dates to the end of the Early Kofun Period or the beginning of the Middle Kofun Period (ca. A.D. 400).” ++

Tony McNicol wrote in National Geographic News:“The event marked the first time that scholars had been allowed inside a royal tomb outside of an official excavation led by Japan’s Imperial Household Agency. Archaeologists have been requesting access to Gosashi tomb and other imperial sites since 1976, in part because the tombs date to the founding of a central Japanese state under imperial rule. But the agency has kept access to the tombs restricted, prompting rumors that officials fear excavation would reveal bloodline links between the “pure” imperial family and Korea—or that some tombs hold no royal remains at all. “The main achievement of the occasion was that for the first time we could enter to do [our own] research,” said Koji Takahashi, a Toyama University archaeologist and spokesperson for the group. [Source: Tony McNicol, National Geographic News April 28, 2008 ]

“Gosashi tomb in western Japan’s Nara Prefecture is revered as the resting place of Empress Jingu, the semi-legendary wife of the country’s 14th emperor. Jingu is thought to have ruled as regent for her son starting around A.D. 200. During their two-and-a-half-hour visit, the team was allowed to explore the lower part of the 886-foot-long (270-meter-long) burial mound. The archaeologists weren’t allowed to excavate, but they did find previously unknown terra cotta haniwa figures on the tomb’s eastern side. These funerary statues were believed to help tend to the elite after death.

Why the Imperial Household Agency Doesn’t Want Researchers to Investigate Imperial Tombs

The Imperial Household Agency has repeatedly said that research of the Imperial Tombs may be possible but “excavation is not permitted.” Koji Takahashi, a Toyama University archaeologist told National Geographic News: “The tombs hold the key to unlocking details of the Kofun period.” he believes the agency is reluctant because excavation might threaten bureaucrats’ control over the tombs.

Tony McNicol wrote in National Geographic News: Of the oldest, most significant tombs under the agency’s jurisdiction, very few can realistically be proven to contain the remains of imperial family members, he said. Nevertheless, the status of the tombs is all but set in stone. The last time that the agency changed an imperial tomb’s designation was in 1881. [Source: Tony McNicol, National Geographic News April 28, 2008 ]

“Other experts have suggested that the hesitation is because courtiers and conservatives fear excavation will uncover blood ties between the supposedly pure Japanese imperial line and the Asian mainland, specifically Korea. But Walter Edwards, professor of Japanese studies at Tenri University in Nara, argues that the “Korean bones” issue is a red herring. “Blood links between Korea and the Japanese imperial family are documented from the eighth century,” he said. “Even the current emperor [Akihito] has said that he has Korean ancestry.” Edwards suggests that the agency’s attitude has more to do with trying to maintain the imperial family’s dignity.

“But faced with the costs of keeping up hundreds of sites, the reputedly cash-strapped Imperial Household Agency may eventually allow more access as a way to get more public funds, he suggested. The agency may now try to handle the tombs as both national heritage sites and as private graves of the imperial family. “The problem is how to strike a balance between the two,” Edwards said.

small kofun under a highway in Nara

Keally wrote: “ The mound tombs designated as the burials of early emperors are the focus of considerable controversy. Archaeologists want to excavate them, of course, but the Imperial Household Agency refuses to let any outsiders onto the grounds of these tombs. There is a myth around that this refusal is because the Imperial Household Agency, and thus the emperor and his family, will discover that the Japanese imperial line is Korean in origin. But the fact that some of the Great Clans around the imperial line and providing wives and mothers for the emperors were descendent from Korean immigrants is clear in the Nihon Shoki and has never been censored from the history books. And there are a lot of people in Japan and in the world who would refuse to let archaeologists or anyone else dig up the graves of their ancestors, especially in a country where none of the archaeological organizations has a code of ethics. [Source: Charles T. Keally, Professor of Archaeology and Anthropology (retired), Sophia University, Tokyo, t-net.ne.jp/~keally/kofun , The Nihon Shoki is an ancient history record finished in A.D. 720 ++]

“However, the facts are much more complicated that this. The Imperial Household Agency has been doing some excavation work on the designated tombs, in conjunction with maintenance work, and recently they have let a select few archaeologists join in the work. And some tombs designated as imperial tombs have been excavated in the past. Nintoku’s tomb is one of these. There also are major problems with the designation of kofun mound tombs as imperial tombs. During the period of mound tomb building, no one kept records of who was buried in which tombs. When the first histories of Japan were compiled in the early 8th century, the memory of these tombs was already lost and the writers had to guess. Then nothing more was done for over 1,000 years, until efforts were made in the late Edo and early Meiji periods to determine which mounds were imperial tombs. Some of these designations are now known to be wrong and a large portion of the others are suspect. If archaeologists have not already accidently excavated an imperial tomb, sooner or later they will, unless all kofun mound tombs are investigated and far more reliable designations of the imperial tombs are made. In fact, only 2 of the mound tombs are generally agreed to be designated correctly, the tombs of Emperor Temmu and Tenji. ++

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

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; 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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