Korekawa site lacquered objects

Aileen Kawagoe wrote in Heritage of Japan: Jomon craftsmen and craftswomen “made many sophisticated things that were sometimes practical for daily use, but often that were just beautiful to the eye and that had esoteric meaning or abstract value. [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, ]

“Apart from pots and clay (as well as stone) figurines, they also made various kinds of clay masks, stone batons or rods and swords. Other items found in large quantities in northern Tohoku and Hokuriku, included triangular clay and stone tablets, ball-shaped clay artifacts, sword-like (or seiryuto-shaped) stone tools with long handles, crown-shaped stone and clay artifacts, dokko-shaped (resembles a tool used by Buddhist monks) stone tools and gyobutsu (the word means imperial treasures) stone bars.

The Jomon people also made a great many jewellery and ornamental items. They made shell bracelets, stone and clay small beads, large jade beads, pulley-shaped earrings, slit-shaped earrings (called ketsu), magatama comma-shaped jade pendants and deer antler pendants that Jomon men probably wore at their waists. The Jomon craftsmen made many things out of bone as well.” Bone spoons appear to have been made for ritual purposes.

“There were even specialist sites or temporary base camps where the Jomon community focused on the making of a certain craft such as figurines, earrings or shell bracelets. Some of the shell bracelets were made from shell materials that were exotic. For example, the Patella Scutellaria optima shell could be found only in a few areas like Izu and Yakushima in the southwestern seas.

“Many of the Jomon crafts had practical uses for daily life. Cordage was one example. The Jomon people made twisted cords for rope, baskets and netting. They also made cloth fabric from nettle and hemp plants that they could wear, and many wooden items that they could use and which they lacquered to make them waterproof and heat-resistant.”

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

Jomon Lacquerware

Kawagoe wrote: The Jomon people may have invented the lacquering technology. It was an extremely complicated process — refining urushi-poison oak sap and making lacquer took several months and was a specialized task. Iron oxide (colcothar) and cinnabar (mercury sulfide) were used as red pigments to produce red lacquer. The lacquer was then applied with great skill to pottery, wooden bowls, baskets, combs, decorated bows and other items. Sometimes, burial clothes to be worn by the dead were also lacquered. The work produced lasting and beautiful objects that added colour to their lives. [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, ]

“The earliest lacquered objects have been found from the Initial Jomon period (Kakinoshima B. site). Many lacquered objects have turned up during the Early Jomon period which means the lacquer technology had become an established part of Jomon culture by this time. One notable find of an elegant red and black lacquered wooden water jug was excavated from the Kurokawa village in Niigata prefecture.

“The Sannai-Maruyama site has turned up reddish wooden lacquerware with iron oxide applied. Yarn was lacquered red and dried and then tied and shaped into balls at the Wakeyachi A site in Niigata. From the Korekawa Nakai site was found a lacquered wooden bowl-like basket made from tree bark, with a lid that was made by bending and weaving bark. It has a beautiful cloud pattern and was lacquered over.

“The age of the earliest lacquered artefacts from Sannai Maruyama has been found to date to 5500 years ago — the oldest from anywhere in Japan. According to the Kyoto National Museum, Japanese lacquerware culture is derived from Chinese techniques, see Chinese Carved Lacquerware although others (Hudson) believe “that Jomon lacquer technology was developed independently in Japan rather than being introduced from China as once believed”.”

There is some debate as to whether the use lacquer originated in China or Japan. According to the Kyoto National Museum, which takes a nuetral position: “The lacquer tree grows not only in Japan, but in Southeast Asia, China, Korea and other parts of Asia. The lacquer tree does not, however, grow in Europe or America. In the West, lacquerware was often called “japan,” showing that lacquerware-making is an Asian art.”


Thousands of dogu — Jomon Period clay figures — have been found throughout Japan. They are thought to have been prayer figures used in prayers for prosperity and fertility. There are different types. Some female dogu have big butts and hips. Others have babies in their arms. Many are nude and pregnant. Some male dogu have heavy beards and big chests. Dogu faces are remarkably varied. Many have different expressions depending on the angle from which they are viewed.

Dogu were shaped and decorated using sticks and rope. Their designs and the situations in which they were found vary a great deal leading some to speculate that there were animism symbols, funeral objects or healing dolls. Similar ceramic figures were created in Europe and western Asia in the new Stone Age (8,300 to 5,000 B.C.) as Earth Mother figures associated with agriculture. Dogu are generally not associated with agriculture because they appeared in Japan before agriculture did.

Tokyo National Museum curator Yoichi Inoue told the Daily Yomiuri, “The dogu’s designs emphasized body parts that weren’t part of the male form, such as the organs needed in giving birth, showing us that those people weren’t interested in the mysteries of life. They are prayers for a safe delivery. Fertility leads to prosperity in tribes and eventually brings productiveness and prosperity in society.”

More than 18,000 dogu figures have been unearthed throughout Japan. More than 2,000 dogu have been unearthed in Iwate Prefecture; so many that a guidebook on them has been published. The British Museum possesses a number of dogu and has hosted a dogu exhibition.

One of the oldest dogu is a 13,000 year old female figurine found in Higashiomi, Shiga Prefecture. The Asahi Shimbun reported: “The figure, which was discovered at the Aidanikumahara archaeological site, is from an incipient era of the Jomon Pottery Culture, according to the Shiga Prefectural Association for Cultural Heritage. Another female clay figure from approximately the same era was found in Matsusaka, Mie Prefecture, in 1996.” [Source: Asahi Shimbun, June, 01 2010]

History of Dogu

dogu from Kazahari, Aomori, 1500 BC

Kawagoe wrote: “Masses of dogu “have been recovered from sites in Hokkaido, Tohoku, Kanto and Chubu from the Middle, Late and Final Jomon periods. The Sannai Maruyama village site alone turned up 1,500 figurines. Nearly 4,000 figurines were recovered from sites in the Tohoku region.[Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website,]

“From Middle to Late Jomon periods, the Jomon people made large numbers of human figures from clay, especially in the Chubu region. These figurines mostly represent pregnant women, a typical example and a famous figurine is called the Jomon Venus figurine. Such clay figures have been discovered in great numbers in the eastern parts of Japan and in Kyushu, particularly in the area around the outer crater of Mt. Aso.

“The earliest figurine found (at the Kayumi Ijiri site in Mie prefecture) is dated from the Incipient Jomon period. It had rounded breasts that suggested the figure was that of a woman’s. Only a few clay figurines from the early periods have been found and the figures usually had very clean and curved lines and modern looking abstract forms. Many more clay figurines were produced during the Middle Jomon periods, but the largest numbers with the most diverse forms and shapes date from the Late Jomon periods.

Meaning of Dogu

Kawagoe wrote: “Due to the unusual contexts in which they were found, sometimes appearing to have been scattered or broken on purpose, scholars and scientists are pretty sure” dogu “must have been used for ceremonial rituals and weren’t dolls for children.” [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website,]

Nishi-no-mae Iseki dogu

“They are thought to have been used in some ritual ceremony to cure illness or to cleanse people of their faults or impurities. Perhaps like existing customs in some rural parts of Japan today where figurines are made to protect people from disaster and epidemics, the figurines may have been used as ritual substitutes for the owners. A smaller number of scholars think the figurines may have been charms or protective amulets used to call upon the divine gods for favour. [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website,]

“Other figurines, particularly those of western Japan may have been connected to agricultural fertility and rice cultivation in the Late Jomon of Kyushu. Perhaps they accompanied prayers for abundant harvests. Others may have been ancestral gods. Others think the figurines were female because the clay dolls were made and owned by women and were a symbol for reproduction and the regeneration of life. They may have been used for protection against the risks of childbirth, illness and death, or they may have been used in fertility rites to make their chances of having babies or of giving birth to healthy babies more successful.

“Most figurines were found in the midden dumps and around large Jomon settlements in Yamanashi prefecture. In some places, small numbers of figurines were intentionally buried, inside small, simple stone circles. Clay figurines were clearly used as burial offerings only at the end of the Jomon era in some Hokkaido sites.”

Plump “Venuses” and Other Types of Dogu

Kawagoe wrote: “Why were there so many female figurines and pregnant-looking figurines?...Some Japanese archaeologists believe the pregnant figurines represent an earth goddess or deity. With genetic studies showing some Jomon people to be bearers of Y-chromosome haplogroups D and C which are related to Tibeto-Burman and Buryat-Siberian populations – among whom the worship of earth goddess and fertility goddess was common, this theory now has strong support.[Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, ]

“Common to prehistoric and ancient Central Asian and Eurasian populations was the worship of an Earth Mother (Siberians and Mongols) or Great Goddess who assisted in the creation (Siberian) or childbirth process (Turkic-Tungus); or the Great Mother figure associated with Earth and Nature (Yakuts). Figurines extremely similar to some Jomon dogu have been fashioned in eastern Siberia’s Malta– Buret and Serbia since Palaeolithic times.

“Most of the Jomon figurines do not look like real people and are not realistic depictions but are whimsical or have distorted forms with large faces, small arms and hands and compact bodies. Some of the later figurines look like people wearing goggles (and spacesuits) that have given rise to wackier theories that the Jomon worshiped ancient spacemen. Some of the northern Middle Jomon period figurines were slab-shaped. However, styles became more varied during the later part of the era, and included heart-shaped, triangular-shaped figurines, horned-owled, cat-faced and slit-goggled figurines.”

Dogu Used in Snake-Cult Rituals?

Kawagoe wrote: “Many of the figurines were made and laid out specially or in public communal settings, which tells us they were likely to have been used in magical rites or ceremonies probably to aid or celebrate the success of important occasions of fishing, hunting expeditions and childbirth. [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, ]

“A few heads are crowned with a coiled snake. Experts believe the figurines were used during snake-cult ceremonies performed by female shamans. The animal-like faces are usually telltale signs of animistic forms of nature worship; that is, animals in nature were sacred to or revered by the Jomon people. (Similar cults are known to have existed from pottery of a shaman with snake atop the head from the Yang-shao culture in Pan-shan China 3,000 B.C. and with Buryat shaman traditions that revere the snake in their rituals and that include a drumstick that has a carved snakehead at its end, as well as wands or shaman dresses that are decorated with ribbons symbolizing snakes.)

“The sacred snake was most likely the mamushi, a deadly snake that could be found at high altitudes and in the cool mountains and around Lake Suwa where the snake-worshipping people of the Middle Jomon people lived. One poisonous bite of the mamushi upsets the brain and nervous system, and the Jomon people would have been in awe of this animal. If so, another question scholars ask is, were there shamans in Jomon society or powerful leaders who were performers of magic and rituals, like in other similar cultures elsewhere in the world?”

Jomon Stone Circles

Oyu stone circles

Hundreds of stone circles and stone features dating back to the Jomon Period have been found all over Japan. Ceremonial stone circles first appeared at the beginning of Jomon era. One found at the Wappara site in Nagano prefecture consists of upright long stones arranged in a circular pattern. More elaborate stone circles appeared later. Archaeologists have discovered extremely large numbers of stone circles in Hokkaido and northern Honshu that date to the Late and Final Jomon era. [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, ]

Kawagoe wrote: “Why did the Jomon people go to all this trouble and work to construct the stone circles and stone features? It was a feat for prehistoric peoples dragging huge stones up mountain sites without cranes, wheels and other modern-day sophisticated tools … to remote dangerous terrain such as the one at the top of Mt Komekamiyama. “Stone circles are often located at a site usually a mountain location from which the sunset or stars such as Polaris could be viewed at the time of the equinox or solstice. Some scholars think that some of the stone circles were designed and used for social and religious rites marked by or coordinated by some kind of astronomical calendar.

“Some of the stone circles in Japan have alignments that are useful for calendrical reckonings, and are noted to be similar to that found at the Stonehenge in England but that the stones are usually shorter. For example, it has been observed that the place of the sunrise over Mount Tsukuba on the morning of the winter solstice was marked by extending a line from the central marker of the stone circle at the Terano Higashi Site of Totigi. There are also scholars who think the chosen locations of the stone circles for sightings of the heavenly stars such as Polaris – showed the Jomon people’s sense of awe of celestial phenomena, the worship of celestial beings, or a world view, or perhaps was evidence of a nature worship such as of sacred mountains.

“Others think the sites were burial marker sites or cemeteries since burial pits or graves have been excavated under some of the stone circles or near them. Apart from burial pits, many artifacts that show their use during ceremonies have been found on or nearby the stone circle sites. These artifacts make scientists think magical rites or ceremonies were conducted at stone circles to improve the Jomon community’s chances of success in hunting, fishing or harvests. Many such stone circles are located in places where no pit dwellings have been found. That fact suggests to experts that the Jomon people gathered at the stone circles only for ritual gatherings at an appointed time.

“It is likely, with so very many stone features of different kinds and spanning thousands of years, that the Jomon stone circles were used for various purposes at the different locations by different Jomon tribes. The style of the stone circles is thought to be unique to Japan and to have been developed independently of other regions in East Asia because the stone features elsewhere are very different.”

Types of Jomon Stone Circles

sundial-like stone circle at Oyu

Two types of Late Jomon stone circles are well-known: 1) the “sundial” stone circle, which consists of one large upright stone in the center of a cluster of hot-dog-shaped stones arranged in a radiating pattern; and 2) stones organized in circular or square patterns. [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, ]

Kawagoe wrote:“ Examples of the first type include “the Oyu site in Akita prefecture where two large sundial stone circles named the Manza and Nonakado Stone Circles were found. Rocks had to be carried five to seven kilometers from the Akuya River east of the Oyu site to construct the two stone circles.” An example is the second type can be found at “the Komakino site in Aomori prefecture where a large stone circle made of three concentric rings was excavated. The stone circle was constructed using about 2,400 boulders from the Arakawa riverbed which was nearby but 70 meters lower than the higher ground where stone circle was. The Morimachi stone circle, Washinoki ruins, near Hakodate city, Hokkaido, has three circles and is about 37 meters in diameter and is one of the largest stone circles.

“Other kinds of stone clusters have been found. At the Monzen site in Iwate prefecture, an arrow-shaped stone feature that was made up of about 1,350 stones, with 15,000 stones densely scattered on its eastern side. The stones were granite beach gravels and must have been transported from the nearest beach which was 1 kilometer away. See access and accommodation map.

Some of the stone circles that were built by the Jomon people appear to have been monuments that were aligned to certain celestial bodies, and were likely used to help in the predictions of the seasons In 1994, the Society for East Asian Archaeology reported: “The Terano Higashi site in Tochigi Prefecture, Japan, contains a horseshoe-shaped earthen baulk 165 meters in diameter and 5 meters in height, dating between 3800-2800 B.C. In the open centre is an oval stone platform 14 x 18 meters and 1.1 meters high. On the rim of the baulk is an earthen mound 20 meters in diameter and 1 meters in height. Prof. Tatsuo Kobayashi, of Kokugakuin University, has determined that the centres of the mound and the pavement are in alignment with the saddle of twin-peaked Mt. Tsukuba where the sun rises at the winter solstice.” [Source: Society for East Asian Archaeology (SEAA) – EAANnouncements 15, Spring 1995, Yomiuri Shinbun, May 28, 1994]

Cave Art in Hokkaido from the Epi-Jomon Period

Mark Hudson wrote in the Japan Times: In Japan “evidence of early prehistoric art is sparse. This is despite the fact that more than 5,000 paleolithic sites have been found to date in Japan — a huge number compared with many other parts of the world...While masterpieces of Jomon pottery can be seen in any local museum, there are also two places in Japan where it is possible to see cave art from a part of present-day Japan that was still prehistoric even just 2,000 years ago. These are the Temiya and Fugoppe caves in Otaru and Yoichi, southwest Hokkaido. [Source: Mark Hudson, Japan Times, August 17, 2003. Hudson is an Adjunct Professor of Anthropology at Sapporo Gakuin University and the author of “Ruins of Identity: Ethnogenesis in the Japanese Islands” (Hawaii, 1999) ]

“Like several of the main cave sites in France, Fugoppe was discovered by accident, in this case in 1950 by a schoolboy on a summer swimming trip from Sapporo. Temiya had been known from much earlier. John Milne, a British engineer employed by the Meiji government, visited the cave in 1879 and published a short note on its engravings the following year in the “Transactions of the Asiatic Society of Japan.”

“Although the Temiya and Fugoppe caves are quite small — the former only 3 meters deep, with about 2.4 sq. meters of wall area covered by engravings; the latter around 7 meters deep and 7 meters high — both have a series of highly mysterious engravings carved into the soft rock of their walls.

“At Temiya there are some 34 separate carved symbols, which were once thought to be a sort of runelike writing, but are now seen as simplified figures. Fugoppe has around 200 engravings that include people, boats and animals, as well as shamanistic figures with wings and feathers. The idea that the Temiya engravings could be fakes was entertained as early as the 19th century. Although he himself suggested that they were made by the Ainu, Milne did not rule out the possibility that the engravings were “the handicraft of some gentleman desirous of imposing upon the credulity of wandering archaeologists.” Recent excavations, however, have shown that both Temiya and Fugoppe date from the Epi-Jomon Period of the early centuries A.D.

“On the main islands of Japan, the Yayoi Period saw the beginning of full-scale rice farming from about 400 B.C. This agriculture did not spread to Hokkaido until the 19th century, and the Epi-Jomon inhabitants of Hokkaido continued to hunt and gather while increasingly becoming involved in trade with the mainland Japanese. Though relatively little-known, the Epi-Jomon culture of Hokkaido is a complex and fascinating phase of Japanese history. As well as influences from Japan to the south, Hokkaido was then strongly influenced by the present-day Russian Far East, and perhaps in consequence, the engravings at Temiya and Fugoppe are certainly very different from anything known from the Jomon Period.

“In fact, the Hokkaido motifs are also different from many rock carvings known from eastern Siberia, making it difficult to discern any direct influence. So what are the roots of the Hokkaido cave engravings? One possibility is suggested by the large engraving of a boat and whale in the Fugoppe cave. Archaeologist Kiyoshi Yamaura of St. Paul’s University in Tokyo has proposed a link between these engravings and similar motifs of boats and whales found at two cave sites in South Korea. The sea between Japan and Korea was known as a good whaling ground in historic times, and it may be that whale-hunters from the Korean Peninsula reached Hokkaido at this time.

“Along with the engravings, however, both caves have yielded evidence of occupation, including pots, stone tools and harpoon heads. These artifacts clearly belong to the Epi-Jomon culture, and it seems likely the engravings were made by the Epi-Jomon ancestors of the Ainu — perhaps with some influence from the art styles of the Korean Peninsula.

“Both Temiya and Fugoppe are nationally listed sites, and have been preserved as small site museums, which are easily visited from Sapporo. Fugoppe is closes sometimes but photographs of the engravings can be seen at the Yoichi Suisan Museum. Temiya Cave museum is in central Otaru City; tel. (0134) 24-1092. Fugoppe Cave (tel. [0135] 22-6170) is down the coast in Yoichi. Both museums close Monday. To contact Yoichi Suisan Museum, call (0135) 22-6187.”

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

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 September 2016

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