Asuka (south of Nara, 45 minutes by train from Osaka) is a wonderful historical area with ancient tombs, Kofun burial mounds, mysterious carved stones, remains of imperial palaces, and temple and shrines, which commemorate important sites. Palaces includes Toyoura no Miya, the residence of Empress-regnant Suiko, used between 592 and 603, and Asuka Kiyomihara no Miya, the residence of Emperor Tenmu and Empress-regent Jito from 672 to 694.

The Asuka-Fujiwara area of Nara Prefecture is believed to be the starting point of Japan as a law-governed nation. Designated as a World Heritage Site, it stretches through a village and two cites — Asuka-mura, Kashihara and Sakurai — and covers an area of 24 square kilometers.

Asukamura village covers 2,400 hectares and embraces the historic sites of Ishibutal, Takamatsuzuka and the Kitora ancient tombs. The main village in the Asuka area, it was the capitalis of ancient Japan from A.D. 592 to 710. During this period eight emperors, starting with the Empress Suiko, ran the state until the capital was moved to Heijokyo (Nara).

Websites: Yamato Period Wikipedia article on the Yamato period Wikipedia article ; Kojiki, Nihongi and Sacred Shinto Texts ; Imperial Household Agency of Emperors of Japan ; Buddhism and Prince Shotoku ; Essay on the Japanese Missions to Tang China . 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 Historical Museum ; UNESCO World Heritage sites ; Early Japanese History Websites: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website,; Essay on Early Japan ; Japanese Archeology ; Ancient Japan Links on Archeolink ; Good Japanese History Websites: ; Wikipedia article on History of Japan Wikipedia ; Samurai Archives ; National Museum of Japanese History ; English Translations of Important Historical Documents

History of Asuka

The Asuka Period (A.D. 592-700), a little-understood period when Japanese culture was developing and defining itself and the first powerful centralized Japanese state was established. Asuka is the name of ancient city (near Nara), where the kingdom was centered. The capital of Japan from 694 to 710 was nearby in Fujiwarakyu, in Kashihara, Nara.

The Asuka Period began with accession of Empress Suiko to the Japanese throne in 592 and the establishment of Toyura Palace. The most important Asuka ruler was Shotoku Taishi (born in 574, ruled 593-622). Regarded as the "father of Japanese Buddhism," he made Buddhism the state religion by constructing major Buddhist temples such as Horyu-ji near Nara. His was goal was to create a harmonious society.


Shotoku Taishi (Prince Shotoku) also dispatched an official diplomatic delegation to China, established the Seventeen Article Constitution in A.D. 592 and brought together the priest-chiefs of the major clans into a somewhat centralized government based on the Chinese model. He began asserting Japan’s power, and once wrote a letter to the Emperor of China, addressing to "from the Emperor of the Rising Sun to the Emperor of the Setting Sun." Under Shotoku Buddhism became the state religion, scriptures, art and craftsmen were brought in from Korea and Japanese monks were sent abroad to study. Temples were founded, monks were ordained and ceremonies were held publically.

Mahayana (Greater Vehicle) Buddhism was introduced in the Asuka period. Mahayana religious themes would endure for over 500 years. The introduction of Mahayana Buddhism marked the beginning of the development of Japanese fine arts. At this time artisans turned their attention from ceramics and metalworks to Buddhist images, namely sculptures.

The oldest minted coins found in Japan were unearthed at the ancient site of Fujiwarakyu, the ancient capital from 694 to 710, in Kashihara, Nara. The Nihon Shoki — an ancient historical text — contains reference to the of coins in A.D. 683. Among the important cultural legacies of the Asuka period is Manyoshu, a literary treasure containing more than 4,500 poems which provide much evidence on how people lived at that time.

A large Asuka period pond, covering 5,000 square meters, found at Asukamura, Nara Prefecture, and believed to belong to palace of Emperor Temmu, is similar to Silla dynasty ponds found in South Korea in the 7th and 8th centuries. Seventh and 8th century tombs in Asuka have revealed images of creatures associated with the points of the Chinese and Korean compass: a blue dragon for east, a white tiger for west, an imaginary Chinese bird for south, and a turtle and snake for north.

Many historian believe these tombs provide proof that rulers in the Asuka, and possibly Yamato, periods were either Koreans or Chinese or strongly influenced by Korean or Chinese culture. Many Koreans believe they offer proof that Japanese Imperial family was founded by a Korean clan, something that Japanese nationalists vehemently deny is possible.

The earliest works of sculpture were created by Korean artisans. Example of their work remain at Horyuji Temple in Nara and Koryuji Temple in Kyoto. In 1972, archaeologists discovered well-preserved murals inside the Takamatsu tomb at the Asuka archeological site. Dated to the end of the seventh century, the murals contained images of tigers, dragons, and star constellations like those found in Korean and Chinese tombs. The people in some of the murals are wearing Korean-style clothes.

Asuka as a City

Aileen Kawagoe wrote in Heritage of Japan: “Asuka was the first of the Imperial capitals of Japan to be built at the very beginning of the ancient state of Japan during the Asuka period (538 A.D. – 710 A.D.). The capital city in its heyday, with its burgeoning construction work of palaces, temples and administrative offices, where people gathered to live and work, must have been an exciting time. Imagine Asuka capital city’s state-of-the-art urban spaces centring around the palace and temples. The pagoda tower, rising to the sky at the centre of temple, was the landmark of the urban city…symbol of unity iand sacred authority. Peoples came to be united under the ruler through the Buddhist services held at temples. [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, ]

“The style of city planning, centring on the Buddhism, was also adopted in Naniwa, the capital after the Taika Restoration, as well as Otsu, established at the lakeside of the Biwa-ko Lake. Some of the cities in Kyushu and Tohoku had also introduced the city planning tightly connected with the Buddhism.

“In the days when the Soga clan’s power and influence peaked, Asuka bustled with temple-building activity and after the Taika coup of 645, the new rulers expanded both the cities of Asuka and Naniwa with major palace building projects. Emperor Tenmu ordered the building of the Kiyomihara Palace complete with satellite temples at Asuka. In the 670s, he launched plans to build expand his headquarters at Asuka as well as at Naniwa, and in 683 for a third capital to serve as the Eastern Capital in the mountainous Shinano region. He died before his plans could be put into reality, but Empress Jito revived his expansion projects for new grand headquarters planned for Asuka. The headquarters at the newly expanded capital realized by Jito are collectively known as Fujiwara-kyo.”


Fujiwara: Capital of Asuka from 694-710

Fujiwara-kyo (also known as Fujiwara no miyako in Japanese), was the Imperial capital of Japan between 694 and 710. The ruins of the city, where Empress Jito moved the capital from the Asuka area, are located in Kashihara, Nara. Fujiwara was Japan’s first capital to have its streets laid out in a grid pattern on the model of Chinese capital system jobo-sei). Japan’s first national law, Taiho Ritsuryo, was established in 701 in Fujiwara. Kashihara is home to three “mountains” known as Yamato SanzanNebiyama, Miminashiyama and Amenokaguyama. Though these “mountains” are less than 200 metes high there were mentioned in many poems in the Manyoshu, Japan’s oldest anthology of poems.

Fujiwara was the large but short-lived Japan. It was displaced after 16 years by a new capital — and new era — in Nara. For the operation of the Ritsuryo state, a center was needed to house the central government and its offices, the bureaucrats who worked there and their dwellings, and the commercial activity necessary to support all of these. This meant the construction of permanent capital. Fujiwara was the first capital built as a Chinese-style city which came close to completing this formula. A palace was built at the center, housing the structures where the Emperor lived, together with the offices of central government. [Source: Nara National Research Institute for Cultural Properties ]

As would befit the head city of the ritsuryo nation-state, Fujiwara Capital City (Fujiwara-kyo) was patterned after the Chinese capitals. Here, for the first time in Japan, city streets were constructed in a checkerboard arrangement. The exact area of the capital city is not known, but it is thought to have extended approximately 2 kilometers from east to west and 3 kilometers from north to south, bounded on the east, west and north, respectively, by the Nakatsumichi, Shimotsumichi, and Yoko-oji, all three of which were important trunk roads of the time. [Source: Asuka Historical Museum]

The locality seems originally to have been called Fujiigahara, or "plain of the wisteria well." Later taking the simpler name of Fujiwara, or "wisteria plain." The custom of calling the eastern half of the capital the "left capital" (sakyo) and the western half the "right capital"(ukyo) was in Japan first practiced at Fujiwara-kyo. City blocks, delineated by streets (oji), seem,in contrast to Nara-'kyo (Nara) and Heian-kyo (Kyoto), not to have been designated by numerical combinations of jo (north-south subdivisions) and bo (east-west subdivisions), but rather by proper names such as Ohari-machi or Hayashi-mach.

Excavations at the site revealed the city was already being prepared from as early as 682, close to the end of Emperor Temmu era. With an interim halt on Emperor Temmu’s death, the construction has resumed under the reign of Empress Jito, who has officially moved the capital in 694. The town had previously been the domain of the Nakatomi clan, who oversaw on behalf of the imperial court the observation of Shinto rituals and ceremonies. Fujiwara-kyo further served as capital for the reigns of Emperor Mommu, and Empress Gemmei, and the subsequent capital move in 710, to the Heijo Palace in Nara, marked the beginning of the Nara period. The city burnt down in 711, one year after the move to Nara, and was not rebuilt. In the Nihonshiki, the name Fujiwara-kyo had never been used. During those times it was recorded as Aramashi-kyo. [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website,]

Ruins of Fujiwara city

Fujiwara as a City

Excavations of 2006 showed that the city was already being prepared from as early as 682 at the end of Emperor Temmu era but construction was continued by Empress Jito after his death at site of the new capital Nara. Fujiwara-kyo was recorded as Aramashi-kyo during the period. [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, ]

Kawagoe wrote: “ Recent excavations have found that Fujiwara-kyo’s central government compound had been built on a grandiose scale that equaled that of the later capitals Heijo-kyo and Heian-kyo. The first capital city to have a geometrically-arranged grid layout, the city (five by five kilometers) covered 50 times the area of Emperor Temmu’s Kiyomihara Palace complex. The capital city had great gates and a grand audience hall the Daigokuden built in the continental style and the palace occupied an area measuring about 1 square km. These were the first palace structures in Japan to have a tile roof in the Chinese style. The palace and other government office buildings were encircled by great earthen walls and a moat. Each of the four walls had three gates; Suzakumon , Suzaku-mon), the main gate, stood at the center of the south wall.

“Outside the moats, were avenues and cross streets of the surrounding city with aristocratic compounds, temples, market places and residential areas for commoners (labourers, provisioners, craftsmen, servants, etc.). Imperial visitors to the court would arrive via the avenues that converged on a great boulevard going through the center of the capital city via the two-story gates, past government office buildings and northward to the imperial palace.

Recent discoveries in the area include: 1) the ruins of Emperor Tenmu’s palace, Asuka Kiyomihara no miya; 2) the palace ruins of Empress Kougyoku (denitabuki no miya ato); and 3) Japan’s First Water Clock (Mizuochi ruins), a 6th century invention said to have reached Japan by way of Korea around 554. 4) The Devil’s Privy and the Devil’s Cutting Board are some stone slab ruins located on the north side of a small hill near Emperor Kinmei’s mausoleum. The Devil’s Cutting Board is a granite slab 1 meter thick, and is thought to have been the base portion of the a destroyed tomb. The Devil’s Privy is so-called because it looks like an upright latrine. A privy is a toilet.

The Sakafuneishi ruins embrace an excavated stone sluiceway. Sakafuneishi (literally meaning “liquor ship stone”) is thought to have been an astronomical sunset observing platform for observing winter and summer solstices. To the west, is considered to be another possible astronomical device – the Matsuda Iwafune, is a location from which one can determine the exact dating of the “Spring Doyou Entry”. The day is when the agricultural season begins and the event was celebrated with imperial ceremony.

Some famous stone sculptures and structures, some of which are thought to be part of an outdoor garden or connected to irrigation projects. Some of the more famous and interesting ones are the kameishi “tortoise stone”, kamegatasekizoubutsu “tortoise shaped stone structure”, sakahuneishi “liquor ship stone”, the saruishi “monkey stone” as well as several other totem-like sculptures.

All in all, Asuka-Fujiwara-kyo was already a grand capital by the end of the era but the time was not ripe yet for a permanent capital. The tradition of constantly renewing capitals remained as ritual ideas of purification from the pollution that takes place with the death of a ruler persisted. After Empress Jito death, despite Empress Gemmei’s reluctance to move due to the imperial coffers being drained by the costs of Fujiwara-kyo’s construction, she had the buildings at Fujiwara-kyo disassembled and the timber and other materials moved for the building of the new capital at Heijyo-kyo in Nara.

Replica of Heijo (Fujiwara) Palace

Fujiwara-no-Miya (Fujiwara Palace)

The Fujiwara-no-miya was a full-fledged Chinese-style palace constructed by Empress Jito as the capital of Japan’s ritsuryo-administered nation-state. Centered on the present-day Takadono district of Kashihara-shi and surrounded on three sides by the "three Yamato mountains," the palace covered an area of approximately one kilometer per side. In the center was the dairi (sovereign’s residential quarters) and the chodoin,an area with ministerial offices arrayed on either side of a central courtyard used for ceremonial activities. The outer perimeter of the palace was ringed with a tail wooden fence and a moat. On the present site of the former daigokuden (main audience hall, the most important building within the chodoin), vestiges of an elevated platform. in local parlance known as the"omiya dodan" ("earth platform of the great palace"), rise above the surrounding rice fields.

The palace was surrounded by walls roughly five meters high. Each of the four walls had three gates; Suzakumon, Suzaku-mon), the main gate, stood at the center of the south wall. The Daigokuden and other palace buildings were the first palace structures in Japan to have a tile roof in the Chinese style.

Excavations at Fujiwara Palace

Archeological excavations began in 1934, and some portions of the palace were reconstructed. Close to 10,000 wooden tablets, known as mokkan , were found, inscribed with Chinese characters. Excavation of the interior of the palace district continues every year, and the remains of various offices have been discovered , in addition to those of the Imperial Audience hall and the Halls of State Compound. it is worth noting that the Fujiwara capital was much larger in area than previously presumed, rivaling the Nara capital in size, and also that it was built on a different architectural concept than the latter. But it is necessary to ask again why a capital of such great size was abandoned after such a short duration of only sixteen years, and the seat of government moved from Fujiwara to the Nara capital.

In the excavations conducted in 2001, several thousand mokkan were unearthed from the city street sector lying southeast of Suzaku gate. From their contents it is possible to glimpse the tension, just after the enactment (in 701) of the Taiho Ritsuryo codes, of officials performing their duties in accordance with the new laws. The legal order that was brought near to completion with the Taiho codes, and the outlines of the state polity founded upon them, are in many ways the starting point of the social order in which the Japanese people are integrated today.

Fujiwara Palace Shibi (roof ornament)

A poem on Fujiwara-no-miya goes:
Our sovereign who rules in peace
Child of a high and shining sun
Gave beginning to a great palace
On the Fuji-well plain (1)
And standing on the Haniyasu embankment
She looked and saw
Green Kaguyama of Yamato
Spring hill standing luxuriant
Before the eastern gate;
Miminashi. green and pure, seen to stand
Well-proportioned, divine,
Behind the gate at the rear;
And the celebrated hills of Yoshino
Far away at the very seat of the clouds
In the direction of the front gate.
Water from this high-ruling place,
Shelter from the sky
A nd possessed of the heaven-knowing
Radiance of the sun
May it be everlasting
This fine clear water of the palace well.
--- Man’yoshu 52

(accompanying tanka) How indeed one may be envious
Of those court maidens
Born successively to serve
At the great palace of Fujiwara.
--- Man’yoshu 53

Dazaifu and Asuka-Era Military Activity in Kyushu

Kawagoe wrote: “Dazaifu was a very important military center during the Yamato years from the Kofun age. Armies sent to defend Japan’s Korean kingdom of Mimana were launched from here against troops from the Korean kingdom of Silla and Tang dynasty China. An important branch of the Yamato imperial court was established in Dazaifu from 663 AD (after having moved from present-day Fukuoka). A government office was built in the late 7th century. Ruins of the government office may still be seen today in Dazaifu city. Dazaifu was a particularly important administrative center in the later Nara period. The city served an important function for conducting trade and diplomatic contacts with China and other Asian countries. Dazaifu hosted foreign embassies from China and Korea. Korokan, a guesthouse for foreign embassies, was established. [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website,]

“In 650, Tang dynasty China had allied itself with Silla. This move threatened Japan which was frightened that China might expand into the Korean peninsula and Japan as well. In 66o, 100,000 men were sent by the Tang court supported by Silla troops to attack the king — supposedly to punish Paekche for their invasions of Silla territory. At the same time, Silla attacked from the East with troops of 50,000 men. The king of Paekche surrendered and the state of Paekche disappeared.

“In the same year, a movement within Paekche to try to restore the kingdom sought help from Japan and to enthrone its prince (sent to Japan as hostage in 631) as king of new Paekche. In Japan, Prince Naka no Oe, now enthroned as Emperor Tenji decided to send a military expedition in support (thousands of troops, considerable supplies and a fleet of 170 ships), and Paekche rebels regained control of the old Paekche capital. However, in 663, the year that Dazaifu was established, the armies of Silla and Tang China attacked the Korean kingdom of Paekche which had sought Japanese military support in recent years before. Japan lost four hundred battle ships at the mouth of Kum River, sunk by Silla troops that had joined forces with the Tang army. With that defeat, Paekche was crushed and Japan lost its foothold in the Korea totally and was completely isolated from the Korean continent.

“Following the years of defeat, a wave of Korean refugees entered Japan, according to Nihon shoki, an influx of Korean artisans, builders, administators, various specialists whose knowledge and services were used to strengthen the Yamato state, increase its revenues and tighten its control. Despite the Chinese victory in 665, the Chinese from Tang-controlled Paekche offered a olive branch by sending a mission to the Japanese court. After that, Japan opened relations with the Tang court in China, and within two short years Japan was able to reestablish friendly relations with Tang China, Paekche and Silla as well.

“Olive branch notwithstanding, the Yamato regime continued to build massive defense facilities anticipating attacks by Tang China and Silla Kingdom. The terrible defeat of Japan’s naval forces threw the Yamato government into feverish defense projects to build forts on Tsushima and Iki island and on strategic locations in northeastern Kyushu.”

“Water Fortress” at Dazaifu

Dazaifu castle ruins

Kawagoe wrote: Along a fortified line of defense the Yamato regime installed watertowers by which information on enemy movements could bequickly transmitted. One of these locations was Dazaifu city — the new military headquarters for the Yamato state, situated high in the mountains behind Hakata Bay. Dazaifu was protected by forts constructed by on peaks to the north and the south, as well as by what was called a “water fortress” (mizuki) built along the Mikasa River that flowed from Dazaifu to Hakata Bay. [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website,]

“Called the “Mizuki (Water Fortress)” it was a fortress on a mound, 1.2km long and 14m high, surrounded by a bulwark. It had a moat with a width of 60 meters and a depth of 4 meters was dug and was filled with water on the sea facing the sea, hence the name, “Water Fortress”. Nihon shoki mentions that the water fortress was constructed in 664 and had high embankments for storage of water. Excavations of remains of eastern and western gates reveal the fortress’ original size and location. They also revealed that techniques used for the defense projects were similar to Korean ones, suggesting that at the helm of the engineering projects were skilled refugees from Paekche.

“Some historians believe the water that the fortress stored could be released against approaching enemy soldiers, which was a military defense strategy known at the time. Following the completion of the mizuki, Onojo castle was built in 665 performing a formidable defense role as the north fort in Dazaifu. These defense projects were usually built not only for their defense value, but to impress as well. Dazaifu remained an important military and administrative center for the Yamato government through the Heian and Nara periods and until the Kamakura period. Then Dazaifu’s influence declined and vanished by the late Heian period becoming known only as a location for high ranking exiled courtiers.

Asuka Stone Technology

Masuda no Iwafune (7th century Kashihara-shi, Mise-cho) is a large stone structure approximately 11 meters in length, 8 meters in width, and 4.7 meters In height. The upper surface is flat, with a shallow trough and two square holes. Attempted explanations are various for example, that it was a monument to commemorate the missionary and social activist Kobo Daishi who undertook the work of constructing the Masuda Pond; that it was an ancient tomb; or that it was a platform for star divination but its actual purpose remains a mystery. At present, the stone bears lattice-shaped indentations around its base which testify to the process used in flattening the outer surfaces.

Shumisen-seki (Height 2.3 meters 7th century, unearthed at Asuka-mura, Ishigami) together with the anthropomorphic stone carving exhibited in the museum lobby, was unearthed at Ishigami in the Meiji period. It is called the Shumisen-seki ("Mount Sumeru stone") because of its overall shape and also the mountain patterns carved in relief on part of its outer surface. It was a garden accessory used as a fountain, and a drainage trench and stone pavements have been found in the same vicinity. The Shumisen (Japanese pronunciation of the Mount Sumeru of Buddhist mythology) mentioned in historical records as having been built to the west of the Asukadera and in the Kawara district to the east of Amakashi-no-oka in connection with entertainments provided for Emishi (an ethnic group possibly related to the Ainu) and persons of "southern" origin in the reign of the Empress Saimei (655-661)were probably something of this kind. [Source: Asuka Historical Museum]

Each of the three stones has an inner cavity. Water was drawn up through the bottom, stored inside the lower stone. and made to spurt out on four sides from miniature holes. The center stone is not directly connected with the lower one. and [t appears that there was originally another stone between them. Also, from the structure of the bottom surface of the lowers stone. we can surmise that it originally had another stone beneath it.

Sakafune-ishi Sluiceway

Sakafune-ishi (Length 5.3 meters, 7th century Asuka-mura, Asuka-oaza) is an ancient stone sluiceway which includes a turtle-shaped stone basin that has been excavated from among the Sakafuneishi ruins in Asuka. It features an upper surface with circular and oval indentations connected by narrow channels. In the Edo Period it was called "the sake trough of an old-time chieftain." It is indeed thought by some to have been a sort of trough for squeezing the moisture out of sake lees, while it is thought by others to have been used in the preparation of oil or medicine. However, there is also a theory that the stone was related to some sort of garden fixture. In any case it appears that water was carried to the stone by stone conduits and clay pipes, remains of which have been discovered at a somewhat higher elevation 40 meters to the east. Some 400 meters to the southwest, on the east bank of the Asuka River, researchers excavated two stones which, as a set, were designed to channel the flow of water. I n imitation of the name given the above-mentioned stone, these are also called sakafune-ishi. They are presently in Kyoto. [Source: Asuka Historical Museum]

Kawagoe wrote: The sluiceway was situated 2.5 meters to the south of the oval- and turtle-shaped basins. Archaeologists believe that the ancient stone sluiceway channeled water from a spring (that still flows today) to the turtle-shaped basin. Various sculpted stone relics believed to be evidence of the existence of a water source near the ruins of the seventh-century Asukakyo palace had also already been unearthed at the site. The opening of a square shaft in the direction of the spring measuring 1.8 meters x 2.4 meters was surrounded by stone blocks. At the center of the shaft was a tower 1.3 meters high. The discovery of the sluiceway is thought to support the view that the Sakafuneishi ruins were used by Empress Saimei (594-661) for religious services using water from these channels. These findings were the first time archaeologists succeeded in tracking down a water source and the path that water would have taken. [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website, ]

Asuka Kofun and Tombs

Itabuki Palace
Asuka boasts a number of impressive burial mounds. The lay-out of the major tombs in the Asuka area seem in accordance with principles of feng shui (Chinese geomacy). It was only after the beginning of the 6th century, when the Soga clan became powerful, that burial tumult began to be built in the Asuka region, which fell within the sphere of Soga influence. In the 7th century tumult were built here by numerous powerful persons including emperors and others of the imperial clan. [Source:Asuka Historical Museum]

The burial tumuli in the Asuka region are noteworthy for their use of quarried granite and also for their elaborately constructed stone chambers with lateral entrance passage' ways, a characteristic construction found also in the burial tumult of the Kawachi-Asuka region, an area also known as "Nearer Asuka" (chika-tsu-Asuka) within the ancient province of Kawachi and including such areas of present-day Osaka-fu as Habikino-shi and Fuijidera-shi, but offering few other examples in the country as a whole. Influences from Korean burial tumult are strikingly evident, testifying to the strong connections with newcomers from the continent.

Ishibutai is regarded as the symbol of the Asuka area and is the largest square-shaped tomb in Japan. Its name literally means “stone stage tomb,” a named believed to have been derived from its shape. People can walk inside the tomb which is made of 2,300 tons of stone. One slab on the northen side of the roof weighs about 64 tons and one on the southern side is about 77 tons. The slabs were once part of the tomb itself and were exposed as soil eroded away. Ishibutai is believed to have been built in the early 7th century for a powerful politician. The burial chamber is 7.8 meters long, 3.4 meters wide and 4.8 meter high. According to legend a fox transformed itself into a woman and performed dance on the tomb. Others claim that traveling performers used it as an impromptu stage.

Asuka Kofun, Tombs and Burial Practices

Kofun burial jar
Emperors and members of prominent clans continued to be buried in traditional-style kofun into the 7th century. However, together with Buddhism the practice of cremation was introduced, and in time the custom of cremating bodily remains came to be adopted by all,from the Emperor the nobility downward. The earliest written record of cremation in Japan refers to the priest Dosho (d. 700. or the 4th year of the reign of Emperor Monmu).Already by that time large kofun (tumulus graves in the old style) were no longer being built, and the adoption of cremation further hastened the end of all tumulus building. Certain kofun exhibit a transitional character. as for ex-ample the Nakaoyama Kofun (Asuka-mura, Hirata) , which was designed with an octagonal mound and a minutely worked stone crypt for the deposition of cremated bones. [Source: Asuka Historical Museum]

Kawagoe wrote: “ Emperors and members of prominent clans were at first buried in traditional-style kofun well into the 7th century, following the practices of the earlier Kofun period. Along with Buddhism however, the practice of cremation was introduced. In time the custom of cremating bodily remains came to be adopted by all, from the Emperor, the nobility and downward to the commoners. It is likely that as resources were diverted from the building of large tomb mounds (kofun) to temple building, cremation made more sense as resources could be conserved. The earliest written record of cremation in Japan refers to the priest Dosho (d. 700. or the 4th year of the reign of Emperor Monmu). Certain kofun exhibit a transitional character. For example, the Nakaoyama Kofun (Asuka-mura, Hirata) , which was designed with an octagonal mound and a minutely worked stone crypt for the deposition of cremated bones. [Source: Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website,]

A piece of “cursed” earthenware was found at Asuka. The Archaeological Institute of Kashihara, which is located near Asuka in Kashihara City, said the unique piece of earthenware had a “curse engraved on it.” Preston Phro wrote in RocketNews: “While the seriousness of the message is clearly debatable, it does, apparently, make the earthenware a bit of an oddity. Researchers have told media that it’s rather rare to find inscriptions on dishes like this. In fact, the earthenware could actually be of serious historical significance. While not all of the characters were legible, the inscription makes mention that dish was property of Kawara Temple, a Buddhist temple in the area that was of considerable political importance at the time. Though Kawara Temple is now little more than ruins, this inscription could hint at a very close connection between the temple and the political center of the Asuka Period. [Source: Japaaan, 47 News, Mainichi News]

Asuka Kofun

Tomb of Emperor Tenmu and Empress Jito

Asuka Emperors and Tomb Shapes (emperor, dates, tomb shape): 1) Kinmei (539-571), keyhole; 2) Bidatsu (572-585), keyhole; 3) Yomei (585-587), square; 4) Sushun (587-592), square; 5) Suiko* (592-628), square; 6) Jomei (629-641), eight-sided; 7) Kogyoku* (642-645) eight-sided; 8) Kotoku (645-654) unknown; 9) Saimei (655-661, see Kogyoku, emperors Kogyoku and Saimei are the same person); 10) Tenji (662-671) eight-sided; 11) Kobun (671-672) unknown; 12) Temmu (673-686) round; 13) Jito (690-697) round, female emperor; 14) Mommu (697-707) round; 15) Gemmei (707-715) unknown; 16) Gensho (715-724). [Source: Fuchu-shi Kyodo no Mori Hakubutsukan (ed.). 2006. Asuka Jidai no Kofun: Kensho! Fuchu Hakken no Joen Kaho Fun (Mound Tombs of the Asuka Period: Verification! The Round-Top-Square-Bottom Mound Tomb Found in Fuchu). Fuchu-shi Kyodo no Mori Hakubutsukan Bukkuretto 8. Fuchu City, Tokyo: Fuchu-shi Kyodo no Mori Hakubutsukan.

Charles T. 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 [Asuka 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, , The Nihon Shoki is an ancient history record finished in A.D. 720]

Large mid-6th century tombs at Asukamaura in Nara have domes composed of piled up boulders. The largest found there has 400 stone pilled on top of one another and is 4.4 meters in diameter. Maruyama Kofun (6th century, Kashihara-shi, Mise-cho/Gojono-cho) is the largest of the zenpo-hoenfun (keyhole-shaped tumult) in Nara prefecture. Some 318 meters in length, it is the sixth largest kofun in the country as a whole, and is said to be the largest built during the 6th century. It boasts a stone crypt which is longer (26 meters, including the lateral entrance passageway) than any other in Japan. There are two stone coffins. In earlier times it was mistakenly thought to be the jointly occupied mausoleum of Emperor Tenmu and Empress Jito, who reigned at the end of the 7th century. [Source: Asuka Historical Museum]

Mausoleum of Emperor Tenmu and Empress Jito contains the remains of Emperor Tenmu and his wife Empress Jito. Empress Jito (d. 702) was the first sovereign to be cremated, and her cremated remains were buried in the mausoleum of her husband Emperor Tenmu (d. 686). According to records of the Kamakura period, Tenmu’s remains were placed in a dry lacquer casket, while those of Jito lay in a silver vessel serving as cinerary urn.

Seventh Century Asuka Kofun

Ishibutai Kofun (7th century Asuka-mura, Shimanosho) has an imposing laterally entered crypt built up from massive boulders. In comparison to other examples of ancient tombs which give similar impressions of great size due to the length of their crypts or the height of their ceilings, the Ishibutai crypt is, in overall size, the largest in Japan. The largest of its boulders, the one forming the southern part of the ceiling, is estimated to weigh 75 tons. The lower level of the two-tiered raised earth platform (fudo) on which it rests is of rectangular shape, but since the upper level, together with the tumulus impossible to judge whether the original mound itself, was at some unknown point of time removed, it is l tumulus was round or had square corners. Stones are emplaced around the outer edge of the fudo,which is also surrounded by an empty moat. One theory has it that this was the tomb of Soga-no-Umako.

Iwayayama Kofun (7th century Asuka-mura) is rectangular tumulus constructed in two layers with an exquisitely worked crypt of cut stones. The upper sections of the chamber walls slope inward, so that the ceiling is narrower than the floor. As if in a calculated effort to make the en-trance corridor give an exaggerated appearance of depth, the entrance is relatively high and wide, while the passageway becomes both lower and narrower as one proceeds in-ward. Original plaster remains in the stone interfaces. The walls of the stone crypt are constructed of cut stones neatly emplaced in layers, each showing a different interface alignment. In three places, special pains were taken to give the impression that two stones were used when in reality a single stone was divided in the center by a vertical indentation to give the appearance of an interface. The ceiling is constructed of a single slab of stone, and the inner walls were designed to taper slightly inward toward the top. Influences from Korean kofun are evidenced in the overall structure, the method of stone emplacement and the relatively small difference in height between the burial chamber and entrance corridor. This tomb seems likely to have been built for a prominent personage of the Abe clan.

Ishibutai kofun

Hanayamazuka Kofun (7th century) has a laterally entered crypt constructed of stones which were split in such a way as to re-semble sen (a sort of ceramic brick). Plaster was applied to the walls and ceiling. There is an additional rear chamber at the back of the burial crypt, and the slab of stone at the entrance to this rear.chamber was designed to open and close like a door. Strong influences from Korean kofun are recognized in both the crypt design and the manner of stone emplacement.

Oni No Kawaya and Oni No Manaita (7th century Asuka-mura, Hirata, Noguchi) are respectively, a chamber-like enclosure hollowed out of a granite boulder and a cut stone designed to be laid under it as a sort of foundation and floor. Originally these two stones were, as in the case of the stone crypt of the Goboyama Kofun in Yamato Koriyama-shi, placed together as a set and covered with earth. However, the tumulus was at some time destroyed. and the stone forming the chamber-like section came to rest in an up-turned position. In the course of time it came to be called the Oni no kawaya or Oni no setchin (both meaning "devil’s privy"), while the floor stone came to be called the Oni no manaita ("devil’s chopping board").

Kegoshizuka (Asagaozuka) (octagonal tumulus 7th century Asuka-mura, Koshi, Tsukamae) contains a crypt consisting of two rooms hollowed out of a large block of porous limestone and was designed for the burial of a husband and wife. The floor is equipped with stone platforms on which to place the coffins. There was a double layer of stones blocking the doorway but they now lie overturned in front of the entrance. Of a number of cut stones which were placed around the perimeter of the original tumulus. nine re-main. From their shapes and angles. one may speculate that the tumulus probably had eight sides. These cut stones placed on the tumulus perimeter draw on the same tradition as the goseki ("protective stones") placed around Korean kofun in the area of ancient Silla and elsewhere. Fragments of the two coffins, made of dried lacquer, have been excavated.

Shobuike Kofun (7th century Kashihara-shi,Gojono-cho) has within it burial chamber, two carefully worked stone coffins of unusual shape. The inner surfaces of both sarcophagi are on all sides covered with lacquer-painted cloth. The burial chamber was constructed by juxtaposing natural stones, and was from the first designed to be especially deep in order to accommodate the two coffins set end to end.

Midoro Kofun (7th century Gose-shi. Kose, Midoro) is the name for two tumuli in the same neighborhood which jointly bear the name "Midoro Kofun. " In one of them there is, in addition to a stone coffin in the burial chamber proper, a second stone coffin in the entrance passageway. The latter is ornamented with a lotus flower design. Sixty meters to the north of this tomb is the other Midoro Kofun tumulus. which has a stately burial chamber likewise entered from the side. One theory has it that these two tumuli correspond to the "Imaki no narabihaka" (Imaki paired tombs) mentioned in the .Nihon shoki as having been built by Soga-no-Emishi and his son Iruka.

Sixth-Century Asuka Step Pyramid

In August 2014, Japanese archeologists announced that a large ancient rectangular tomb in Asuka — Miyakozuka tomb, believed to have been built in the latter half of the sixth century — had a step pyramid shape. Experts at the municipal education board and Kansai University’s Archaeological Research Institute said it was likely a step pyramid made of multiple stone layers. [Source: Jiji Press, August 15, 2014 /*]

Jiji Press reported: “The tomb may have been influenced by ancient tumuli built near the border between China and North Korea given its similar structure, according to the experts. It is thought that Soga no Iname, a Yamato Dynasty leader who died in 570, was buried in the tomb. He is known to have had close links with people from China and the Korean Peninsula who immigrated to Japan. /*\

“After excavating the mound and surrounding areas of the Miyakozuka tomb, the group of archeologists found stair-like architectural remains at three locations. Four layers of stones were found at one location, and one layer was discovered at each of the two other locations. Based on the findings, the group said it believes the tomb had a pyramid-like structure with seven or eight stone layers. The mound is estimated to have been at least 4.5 meters high on the east side and 7 meters high on the west, with each side being more than 40 meters long. /*\

“Soga no Iname is known to have had strong ties to Koguryo as he is believed to have had two wives from the ancient Korean kingdom. Clay pots and ironware were unearthed from the Miyakozuka tomb in a survey started in 1967 by the Kansai University research institute and others. But the size of the mound, its structure and other details remained unknown. /*\

Kazuto Tsukamoto wrote in the Asahi Shimbun, “When researchers with Kansai University investigated the Miyakozuka Tomb in 1967, they noted that it was probably square- or circle-shaped. They have determined that it has more than five stepped levels, each of which is 30 to 60 centimeters high and roughly one meter wide. The steps are made of stones packed with soil. “I have never seen such a unique square tomb like this in Japan. It is undoubtedly the resting place of an influential person of the Soga clan,” said Taichiro Shiraishi, director of the Osaka prefectural Chikatsu Asuka Museum. [Source:Kazuto Tsukamoto, Asahi Shimbun, August 14, 2014]

Possible Tomb of Emperor Jomei Grave Unearthed at School

In January 2015, local archaeologists announced they had unearthed the remnants of a possible mid-seventh century burial mound for an ancient emperor at the Koyamada ruins on the site of a school. “The mound is highly likely the first burial site of Emperor Jomei (593-641), described in the ‘Nihon Shoki’ (The Chronicles of Japan) as the place where his body rested until it was later transferred to another location,” said Fuminori Sugaya, the director of the Archaeological Institute of Kashihara, Nara Prefecture. [Source: Kazuto Tsukamoto, Asahi Shimbun, July 17, 2015]

Kazuto Tsukamoto wrote in the, Asahi Shimbun, “The researchers made the estimate based on the ruin’s location, size and unique construction method. The ancient emperor was the father of two more well-known emperors, Emperor Tenji (626-671) and Emperor Tenmu (?-686).The ruins were excavated during archaeological digging associated with school replacement work on the site. The excavation site contains what is believed to be part of a moat lined with boulders along one of its slopes, according to the researchers. The remnants of the moat measures 48 meters in length and 3.9 to 7 meters in width. While 40-centimeter quartz diorite boulders line the northern slope of the moat, the bottom is covered with stones measuring 15 centimeters to 30 cm.

The southern slope is covered with flagstones made of two-step chlorite schist that are topped with special flagstones known as “Haibara,” a type of rhyolite stone, stacked in a staircase pattern. The total number of steps in some areas is 10. Based on speculation that the ruins are a moat belonging to a burial site, the researchers estimate the mound was square-shaped with each side measuring 50 to 80 meters, far larger in size than the ancient and renowned Ishibutai grave in Asuka, which measures 50 meters by 50 meters. It is rare for chlorite schist and Haibara stones to be laid out around a burial mound. The Dannozuka burial mound in Sakurai, Nara Prefecture, which has been designated as Jomei’s grave by the Imperial Household Agency, was built according to the same design and with the same materials.

Asuka Tomb Suggests Korean Royalty May Have Fled to Japan

An example of the close cultural contact between Korea and Japan is provided by a tomb in Nara Prefecture, discovered in 2005, and made from Baekje-style bricks with earthenware dated to the time when Silla united the Korean Peninsula. Kunihiko Kawakami, a professor of archeology at Kobe Yamate University, said, “It’s highly likely the tomb is that of the Baekje king Changseong, who fled to Japan with his father Seongwang in 631 and died in 674.” Father and son were unable to return because of Baekje’s fall in 660.” [Source:Chosun Ilbo, December 2, 2005 ]

According to the Chosun Ilbo, “An education board in Japan’s Nara Prefecture said Thursday it has discovered a luxurious tomb most likely that of a king from Korea’s ancient Baekje kingdom who went into exile in the island country. The tomb is in the ancient Kazumayama burial grounds, often referred to as “the kings’ ravine,” which house many royal tombs including Takamatsuzuka. It is a stone chamber built with flagstone-like bricks in the Baekje style, and judging from the earthenware excavated from it is likely to have built in 660-670 B.C., the Asukamura Education Board said.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons; Asuka photos Asuka Musuem and Asuka tourist information

Text Sources: Asuka Historical Museum; 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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