Reconstruction of a house in Ofune

Aileen Kawagoe wrote in Heritage of Japan: “At the very beginning of the Jomon era (10,000-8,000 B.C.), the Jomon hunter-gatherers lived in caves or rock shelters like people during the Paleolithic era did. Very soon however, the Jomon people learnt to build and to live in pit dwellings. And for nearly 10,000 years, and even into the next Yayoi era, pit dwellings continued to be the basic kind of home for people. [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, ]

“There are 2 types of basic dwellings for the Jomon: 1) Pit-type dwelling – this consists of a shallow pit with an earthen floor covered by a thatched roof’ 2) Circular dwelling – a round floor was made from dried clay or stones, and covered with a roof. Some pit houses were small, others were larger with thatched roofs supported by sturdy posts set deep into the ground.

“Pit dwellings are found in thousands of excavation sites all over Japan. The average settlement is oval shaped, with the dwellings located in a circle or semi-circle (sometimes called the horseshoe shape). This may have been designed for creating a community space for group tasks such as stone tool or pottery manufacture and perhaps for village meetings and ceremonies. However, the central plaza space in the middle of many of the settlements was often also the village cemetery. In some Jomon villages, roads that were sometimes paved led from the pit dwellings through the village and down to the sea or river.”

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History of Japan Wikipedia ; Samurai Archives ; National Museum of Japanese History ; English Translations of Important Historical Documents

Inside a Jomon Pit-Dwelling

Ofune excavation

Kawagoe wrote: ““Pit houses in the early days were often built so that the floors were sunk into the subterranean earth level where the earth’s natural warmth made for more comfortable homes. Floors were often half meter below ground level and were usually just dirt or earthen floors tamped hard. In the very beginning, Jomon homes were mere circular huts. [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website,]

“Later, the Jomon people built sturdier inner posts, usually five or six strong enough to hold a roof over a square or rectangular floor with rounded corners. Still later during the Jomon era, however, many pit houses were raised and sometimes had floors covered in flagstones. Kaya (Miscanthus) grass was used as roofing grass to keep the home dry, and rainwater shed by the pitched roof drained off through surrounding ditches.

“At some point, fireplaces were moved into the houses, allowing for indoor cooking and helpful in smoking away insects and keeping the occupants warm. Fireplaces were sometimes placed in the middle, but usually not. They were sometimes lined with stones or furnished with a bowl or pot. Most pit houses also came with smoking ditches, used for smoking meats. Where food was plentiful, storage pits could be found both inside and outside the pit houses. The pits were lined with layers of leaves and nuts to keep the pit dry.

“The floor area could be 3 meters or more in diameter which was spacious enough for cooking indoors and storage. Storage pits were found both inside the houses and outside. Pit houses were usually equipped with a hearth. Sometimes, the houses were built with a special fire pit with a tunnel connecting the pit to a ventilation shaft. Scholars think these fire pits were best designed for smoking meat, fish or shellfish.”

Jomon Storage Pits

Kawagoe wrote: “Although pots had been invented by hunter-fisherfolk of the earlier Paleolithic people, they were not terribly useful to the nomadic people. It was only when storage pits began to be used that people began to settle down for longer periods of time in their pit house hamlets or villages. Once food could be stored in pits, people didn’t need to move around following their moving live sources of food anymore. Experts believe there is a strong connection between the use of the storage pit and the semi-sedentary lifestyle of the Jomon people. [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, ]

“The storage pit from Jomon times comes from the the Higashi-Kurotsuchida site in Kagoshima prefecture radiocarbon dated to 11,300 years ago (to the Incipient Jomon period). A storage pit with large quantities of konara acorns (Quercus serrata) inside was discovered. These acorns had to be first soaked in water, then boiled to remove the bitter tannic acid before they could be eaten, which meant that the Jomon people had already by then developed a sophisticated method for removing the tannic acid. “The storage pit is the most common characteristic that is noted of Jomon settlements everywhere, so researchers believe that nut storage played a most important role in Jomon survival and in their food-collecting strategy. In Western Japan, wet storage pits are common — in which layers of leaves, wood fragments and clay are used to line the pits, or mats and baskets may be used to store the nuts. In eastern Japan however, dry storage pits, often flask-shaped pits are found. Food remains have not been recovered from these pits, so scholars assume that food was first placed in containers such as pots or baskets before being stored in the pits. They think the pits were also used to store acorns and other nuts.

“Why were the pits of western Japan wet? It is thought that the wet pits would keep out insects or that the nuts preserved in these wet pits would be prevented from germinating for a long time, tens of years. This ensured a food supply in case of famine. Apart from underground storage pits, some settlements also had raised buildings that were probably storage houses or warehouses. Hundreds of these raised storage houses were found at the site of Sannai Maruyama village. In addition, large building with huge columns is an outstanding architectural feature of the Sannai-Maruyama ruins and may have been a huge raised warehouse or large trading hall for servicing the Sannai-Maruyama village as a trade center. “

Jomon Toilets

Kawagoe wrote: “Studies show (yes, somebody studies things like that) that the Jomon people went regularly to (and their housedogs were toilet-trained as well to) poop, more properly, to defecate onto a shell midden. The shell middens, which were basically their kitchen dumps, were located outside their dwellings or a short walk away. After the grand business was finished, they covered up their mess with more shells. [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, ]

“What happened then was that calcium seeped out of the shells and permeated the excrement(poop). The excrement then hardened and turned into a stone-like state. You know how poop usually has a sort of ice cream shape, and scientists call that ice-cream-shaped excrement – coprolites. The coprolites naturally stuck to the shells maintaining their original shape.

“As it turns out, this was a very satisfactory arrangement as it left the area around Jomon homes sanitary and unpolluted, so the people only had insects and weeds to contend with. Studies also show that the roundworm didn’t appear until after the Jomon era ended and until the Yayoi people who came later had changed the Jomon toilet arrangements.”

Jomon Wood Construction

chestnut pillar at Sannai-Maruyama

Kawagoe wrote: Woodworking or carpentry was already an important craft or skill for the Jomon people, especially for building. From the Sakuramachi site in Toyama prefecture of the Middle Jomon period, a large number of wooden items, including more than 100 wooden beams, crosspieces, and posts were found. [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website,]

“It appears that the Jomon people were skilled in working with wood from an early period. The Jomon people cut down trees to size for building things and for erecting buildings. The oldest piece of wood used in Jomon construction is reported to have been found in the Yokoo site in Oita prefecture is dated to 10,000 years ago. The 3.8 meter-long piece of wood (had six circular joint holes in it about 3 centimeters in diameter and) is thought to be a roof beam from a house built on stilts.

“Several other pieces of Jomon construction timber from the Oyabe site in Toyama prefecture dated to 4,500 years ago, revealed that the Jomon people were already using an advanced construction technique called watariago-shiguchi in Japanese. The technique that joined building timbers together with a mortise and tennon joint into the form of a wooden cross, was used in the 7th century structure of the Horyuji Temple which is oldest surviving wooden building in the world.

“The Jomon people made wooden frames for the walls of storage pits and for the posts of their buildings. They chopped down and hollowed out trees to make dugouts or canoes and made paddles to steer them. They learnt to use and work with many kinds of trees: chestnut, Japanese cedar tree (Cryptomeria japonica), mukunoki (Aphananthe aspera), inugaya (Cephalotaxus harringtonia), Japanese nutmeg (Torreya nucifera or kaya), camphor (Cinamonium camphora or kusunoki).”

Jomon Timber and Building Techniques

In 2001, Kyodo Press reported: “A piece of building timber that may be the oldest ever found in Japan has been unearthed in an archaeological layer dating from the Jomon Period, which began about 10,000 years ago, officials in the city of Oita said Sunday. The 3.8-meter-long piece of timber was found in the Yokoo site, about a meter beneath another layer in which a 4,000-year-old acorn storage pit was previously found. The Jomon Period lasted from about 8000 B.C. to 200 B.C. The piece of wood has about six circular joint holes in it about 3 centimeters in diameter...he wooden beam may predate a 4,500-year-old piece of construction timber discovered in Oyabe, Toyama Prefecture, that is currently considered the oldest of its kind. The layer where the beam was found was very moist and prevented the material from coming into contact with air, preserving it, they said. [Source: Kyodo, May 14, 2001 ^]

“Nagajiro Miyamoto, a Tohoku University professor of Art & Design and an expert in architectural history, said the timber was probably a roof beam from a house built on stilts. “The discovery will be invaluable in restoring a construction from the Jomon Period,” Miyamoto said. “Construction material from the Jomon Period is rare, although material from the Yayoi Period (which followed Jomon) has been unearthed many times.” ^

In January 2015, Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “A rectangular timber with its tip shaped into a tenon, presumably from the Jomon period, has been discovered among ancient ruins in Noto, Ishikawa Prefecture, according to the town’s board of education. The timber, discovered at the town’s Mawaki remains from the Jomon period (ca 10,000 B.C. to 300 B.C.), is believed to be the oldest of its kind ever found in Japan, according to the education board. Until today, the mortise-tenon joint technique is believed to have started in the Yayoi period (ca 300 B.C. to A.D. 300), as no timbers with a tenon were discovered from any timber remains before the Yayoi period. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, January 30, 2015 ^^^]

“The mortise-tenon technique is a method used to join two pieces of timber. According to the announcement, the discovered timber, about 1 meter long, had a 10-centimeter-long tenon that is 6 centimeters thick. The timber is 16 centimeters wide at its widest area and about 7 centimeters thick. The tenon and the joint part were elaborately whittled so the timber could be connected vertically. The shape of the tenon was close to that of a contemporary tenon, according to observers. No timber pieces with a corresponding mortise have been found. “It is an important historical discovery in terms of studying woodwork from the Jomon period,” said Tokyo Metropolitan University Prof. Masahisa Yamada, an expert on archaeology who participated in the excavation. “It is possible the timber was made as part of a column for a special facility for a ritual of some sort, not for a house.” ^^^

“According to Yamada, timbers were excavated from the Jomon-period Miyanomae remains in Hida, Gifu Prefecture, but they were not processed to make a mortise-tenon joint. Primitive tenons had been discovered in two ruins of the Jomon period — the Oshorodoba remains in Otaru, Hokkaido, and the Shimoyakabe remains in Higashi-Murayama, Tokyo. However, they were logs, and their tenons had been made simply by shaving the edge of the log.” ^^^

Jomon Villages

Excavation work at the Sannai-Maruyama archeological site in Aomori Prefecture has revealed a large prehistoric village that thrived nearly 7000 years ago. The Jomon inhabitants utilized a wide variety of forest and marine resources, but the staple of their diet was cultivated chestnuts, grown in extensive orchards. Chestnuts were one of the very first plants to be actively cultivated in Japan. Huge chestnut logs were also used as columns for building homes and ceremonial centers. One impressive structure is supported by six chestnut columns, each a full meter in diameter, and is thought to have stood three stories high. [Source: Kevin Short, Yomiuri Shimbun]

Kawagoe wrote: “During most of the Jomon era, people lived in small pit houses or dwellings no larger than 4 meters that were grouped in hamlets of about 5 pit houses. However, a few large settlements numbering up to 50 or 60 buildings have existed since Early Jomon days, as early as 9,000 B.C. In eastern Japan, the hunter-gatherer population peaked and the largest settlements appeared during the Middle Jomon era. But in western Japan, settlements began to increase in size only from the Middle to Late Jomon period. [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, ]

reconstructed Jomon houses and watchtower

“Recent studies show that Jomon people tended to settle longer in order to organize themselves better to forage for and collect or gather seasonal foods more efficiently from nearby resource areas. Where they could find a location that was close to plentiful food sources (i.e. within a radius of 2 – 40 kilometers) for two or more seasons, the population would grow and the settlement increase in size.

“The studies show that as Jomon hunter-gatherers learnt how to use storage pits (in addition to their pottery), the Jomon tribal groups were able to stay put in a place for longer periods of time and to grow in size. As they settled for longer periods in a place, the way in which the Jomon people organized themselves also became more complex. Some village sites began to specialise in what they hunted or collected and in what they produced for trade or exchange with other settlements. Their burial and ceremonial customs and religious rituals became more complex. Large settlements such as Uenohara from the Early Jomon period are associated with storage pits, burial pits and ceremonial things such as clay figurines and earrings and beads.”

Jomon Evolution from Hunter-Gathering to Settled Life

Kawagoe wrote: “What scholars are certain of from studying the excavated Jomon homes, is that Jomon people achieved stable, though only semi-permanent settlements very early — by 13,500 years ago from the Incipient Jomon (very soon after the end of the Paleolithic or Pleistocene era). The wintering camp, Sojiyama site in southern Kagoshima prefecture, Kyushu Island and the summer campsite, Kakoinohara site are thought to be the earliest villages. Village sites of Uenohara Section 4 (about 12,800 years ago) and Uenohara Section 3 (9,500 to 8,250 years ago) appear to have been occupied for longer periods with more numerous house pits, greater quantities of highly decorated pottery and more substantial and durable site features. [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, ]

“The Earliest Jomon period site of Kakuriyama, Kaseda City dated to around 9,800 years ago, is thought to have been occupied throughout the year although the majority of Jomon settlements were only occupied for part of the year and were seasonal basecamps to which the people returned again and again.

“Scholars think that the Jomon people became more settled or sedentary when the weather became warmer and the numbers of nut-bearing trees increased and more nuts became available for food. Many Jomon villages appeared to have chestnut groves or forests close by. And since wherever Jomon settlements existed remains of certain plants could be found, e.g. hemp, burdock, taro yams, barnyard grasses, beans and legumes, beefsteak (shiso and egoma) herbs, various kinds of berries and gourds, experts are agreed that Jomon villagers tended to and cultivated those plants. Of those, the various kinds of nuts were the most important and the villagers dug lots of storage pits to save the nuts as a source of food. This is thought to have caused the village population to grow, allowing the people to stay in one place for a longer time.

“Scientists are fascinated with the large Jomon villages because the Jomon hunter-gathering society does not fit accepted theories about sedentism. Scientists have always thought that large settlements only grew where populations supported themselves by farming or agriculture. Jomon people, however, became sedentary or semi-sedentary without relying on farming for their livelihood or subsistence.

reconstructed Jomon village

Jomon Village Patterns

Kawagoe wrote: “One commonly seen type of village arrangement was circular or horseshoe-shaped, with a central open space, surrounded by raised storage buildings supported by posts in the ground, pit house dwellings and stone pavements. The central space was probably used for ceremonies or group activities like processing food, tool-making, pottery-making, etc. In many cases, the central space has been found to be the village cemetery. [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website,]

In many of the villages especially during the Middle and Final Jomon periods, the Jomon people built special ritual sites, consisting of paved areas and stone circles with low upright stone monuments. These monuments were sometimes arranged so that they were oriented for watching sunsets over the nearby mountain peaks — aligned for some kind of calendar or astronomical reckoning. Some of the communities were joined by good roads and even paved paths.

“The bigger Jomon settlements are considered to be unusually large compared to the hunter-gathering settlements elsewhere in the world. Scientists and scholars have been studying to know why. Archaeologists have found, for example, that in estuaries or coasts facing the ocean where good fishing was to be had or lots of shellfish to be gathered, was where a large Jomon settlement or shell midden was located. Other choice locations for settling down were marshy areas around bays, inlets and tidal flats where the rich animal and plant life of marshes and nearby forests provided food resources.”

Sannai Maruyama: a Jomon Trading Center ?

Kawagoe wrote: “The most famous of the large Jomon villages is Sannai Maruyama in Aomori prefecture from which 700 pit dwellings, long houses with thatched roofs, raised-floor buildings (very likely these were storehouses), grave pits, burial jars and stone circles were found. However, this extremely large village, Sannai Maruyama, is an exception to the typically smaller villages seen throughout the land. Experts are almost certain from the many precious items such as lacquered and exotic goods like jade and amber ornaments found on the site, that Sannai Maruyama was a large trading center. [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website,]

reconstructed Jomon houses

“Sannai Maruyama was located at head of Aomori Bay. Large numbers of people likely arrived from all over Japan and from across the seas to trade by pre-arrangement and at a pre-appointed time of the year. Despite its large size for a village, Sannai Maruyama is still thought to have been only a seasonal camp that was not occupied throughout the whole year.”

Some of the other “larger settlements, include the Miharada Site in Gumma Prefecture (from the Middle Jomon) with 333 dwellings occupied over several hundred years; the Nishida site in Iwate prefecture (Late Jomon). Shokado was another very large Final Jomon site that was a site that specialized in making clay figurines and other crafts. Most of the large settlements were found to be seasonal special purpose settlements or temporary basecamps.”

Jomon People: Suburban Hunter-Gathers

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. “

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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