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Japan’s royal tombs

5 mins read

Burial mounds and Korean connections in the 3rd-8th centuries AD

Japanese burial mounds can be stunning in scale, while the decorated tomb chambers and grave goods sometimes found within have the power to astonish. In the first of a two-part series examining these tombs, Simon Kaner introduces the archaeology of burials mounds from the 3rd-8th centuries AD.

The tomb clusters at Mozu and Furuichi, on the Osaka Plain, include huge keyhole-shaped mounds. Two of these tombs are associated with the semi-legendary emperors Nintoku (top right) and Ojin (bottom left). [All images: courtesy of Simon Kaner, unless otherwise stated]

It is estimated that some 160,000 burial mounds (kofun in Japanese, meaning ‘old mound’) were constructed between the middle of the 3rd century AD and the early 8th century. These tombs were the final resting places of Japan’s ancient elites, and form part of a broader East Asian funerary tradition, aspects of which they emulate. Such burial mounds are so distinctive a feature of the archaeology that the era from AD 250-710 is known as the Kofun period. The construction of burial mounds was not restricted to these centuries, though, as important people were being interred within them from the preceding Yayoi period (which spans the Neolithic to the early Iron Age) onwards. Most recently, in 1989, even the Showa Emperor Hirohito was buried beneath a mound with some personal grave goods, unlike the great majority of the population of contemporary Japan who are cremated.

Naming tombs

In the late 19th century, following the restoration of imperial power in 1868, the Japanese government assigned many tombs to personages mentioned in ancient chronicles, specifically the Kojiki (‘Records of Ancient Matters’) dating to 712 and the Nihon Shoki (‘Chronicles of Japan’) drawn up in 720. As the emperor was regarded as divine, these tombs took on special sacred significance. Following Japan’s defeat in 1945, and the Showa Emperor’s renunciation of his divinity, the 900 or so tombs attributed to imperial ancestors came into the guardianship of the Imperial Household Agency as private graves. Access to them continued to be forbidden, a decision around which controversy has swirled. Many questions remain, such as who was buried within? Do the tombs contain proof that the Japanese imperial family was in fact of Korean descent? Why not permit normal archaeological investigations now that they are no longer sacred places? In 2019, two large tomb clusters on the Osaka plain, at Mozu and Furuichi, which include massive ‘keyhole-shaped’ mounds attributed to the semi-legendary emperors Nintoku and Ojin, were inscribed as UNESCO World Heritage sites. At 486m long, the mound attributed to Nintoku is one of the largest burial monuments of the ancient world. The nomination dossier submitted to UNESCO used both the names of the people purportedly interred within, as well as the local topographical names preferred by archaeologists (in the case of Nintoku’s tomb, Daisen, and in the case of Ojin’s tomb, Konda Gobyoyama) – although precedence throughout the dossier was given to the former. Despite recent official statements suggesting some change in policy, access continues to be largely denied to anyone beyond the Imperial Household Agency.

The two clusters of kofun at Mozu and Furuichi comprise a total of 49 tombs. The huge mounds are considered to be a clear expression of the kingly power that emerged in this part of Japan from the 5th to 6th centuries AD. It was from here that the Yamato clan went on to establish hegemony over the other regional polities that developed during the later part of the Yayoi period, to create the first state-level society in Japan, with capitals in Asuka, Naniwa (Osaka), and Heijo (modern-day Nara). The kofun elites knew of their continental counterparts, and the geopolitics of the period linked the Yamato clan with the kingdoms of Paekche, Shilla, and Goguryeo on the Korean peninsula, as well as the succession of dynasties that ruled China between the fall of the Han and the establishment of the Tang. Korean and Japanese rulers emulated the Chinese court, adopting Chinese writing and legal systems, as well as – from the middle of the 6th century – Buddhism, palace architecture, and more. Japanese elites were buried with elaborate grave goods that would have been instantly recognised in Korea: bronze mirrors, prestigious accessories, and – from the 5th century in particular – large quantities of iron armour, weaponry, and horse trappings. The result is a display of conspicuous consumption on a huge scale for a country that was largely dependent on importing iron ingots from the Korean peninsula.

The kofun range in scale from the immense keyhole-shaped mounds that are still a major feature in the landscape of many parts of Japan, to much more modest structures, including those created for paramount rulers towards the end of the mound-building period. Long regarded as a distinctive Japanese burial form, in recent years examples of keyhole-shaped mounds have been found on the Korean peninsula. In earlier examples, the primary inhumation was set in the summit of the mound, with the flaring portion of the ‘keyhole’ regarded as a platform for various ceremonies. Many other mounds contained substantial burial chambers, often megalithic in nature, entered through passageways cut into the side of the mound. In China, the burial of rulers was often accompanied by large numbers of human sacrifices. There is no archaeological evidence for such practices in Japan, but references in the ancient chronicles suggest that it occurred until the legendary 11th Emperor Suinin replaced it with the setting up of large numbers of terracotta tomb figures known as haniwa. The kofun presented monumental statements of power in the landscape. Surrounded by wide moats and with their surfaces covered by gleaming stones, they would have been visible from afar. One huge mound, Goshikizuka in the western suburbs of the modern city of Kobe, has been reconstructed to look as it did in the 5th century, dominating the approaches through the Inland Sea to the port of Naniwa. Across Japan, large tombs were built by regional leaders.

The mound at Goshikizuka lies in the outskirts of Kobe and has been reconstructed to look as it did in the 5th century AD [ABOVE]. It dominates the maritime approaches to the port at Naniwa. It was associated with a large quantity of terracotta objects known as haniwa [BELOW]. [Images: Kobe City Board of Education]

Inside the kofun

Excavations of kofun generate considerable public interest. One of the most sensational was at Fujinoki in Nara, near the World Heritage site of Horyuji temple. From the outside, this relatively unprepossessing tomb, originally some 48m in diameter and 9m in height, seemed unpromising, as it is dwarfed by the massive keyhole-shaped tombs that are found in such numbers in Nara and Osaka. However, investigation of Fujinoki in the mid-1980s determined that unlike so many other tombs, it had not been robbed in antiquity. Inside, a 6m-long megalithic stone burial chamber stood a so-called house-shaped stone sarcophagus. Initial exploration, involving the insertion of fibre-optic cables to avoid speeding up the decomposition of any contents by opening the sarcophagus, confirmed that the tomb was untouched. Thousands of fragments of gilt-bronze objects were recovered, along with pieces of silk brocade, and the remains of at least two individuals. Conserved and restored, the assemblage of burial goods included grey stoneware Sue pottery and red, lower-fired Haji ware, mirrors, beads, and exceptionally stunning gilt-bronze items. These featured sets of horse trappings with harnesses and a saddle decorated with fish, elephants, phoenixes, rabbits, and more – comparable in style to artefacts found in the Northern Yan kingdom of north-eastern China, but never found before in Japan or Korea – as well as oversized funerary shoes and a crown. The incumbents were most likely imperial princes, one possibly assassinated during a notorious purge in June 587.

Investigation of the relatively modest funerary mound at Fujinoki revealed an undisturbed burial chamber, which most likely contained imperial princes.

This is an extract of an article that appeared in CWA 123. Read on in the magazine (Click here to subscribe) or on our new website, The Past, which offers all of the magazine’s content digitally. At The Past you will be able to read each article in full as well as the content of our other magazines, Current ArchaeologyMinerva, and Military History Matters.

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