6th~early 8th century Yokoana Catacombs of Japan

Yoshimi Hyakketsu Yokoana Kofun, Saitama Prefecture Photo: Saitama Prefectural Library

Yoshimi Hyakketsu Yokoana Kofun, Saitama Prefecture Photo courtesy: Saitama Prefectural Libraries

While Early and Middle Kofun burial mounds were mostly stone-lined chambers placed into the top of the mounds, and usually entered from the top, the Late Kofun chambers were set on the ground under or in the barrow mound (see the Chibusan Kofun) and entered from the side through a tunnel-like passageway called yokoana chambers (lit. “horizontal” or “sideways” -“hole”).

Some of these yokoana chambers were set in the mound, while others were cut into hillsides or set into rockcaves or catacombs, like the Yoshimi Yokoana Kofun 吉見百穴pictured at the top of this page or the Ichigao Yokoana Kofun immediately below.

Ichigao yokoana kofun, Kanagawa

Yokoana catatombs cut into hillsides, Ichigao Yokoana Kofun, Kanagawa Prefecture Photo: Heritage of Japan

The majority of the Late Kofun (mainly apparently pre-Buddhist) rock-cut tunnel tombs of the 6th and 7th centuries were either simply cut into the soft hillside rock, as in Kumamoto, or dug into the hard loam, as on the Kantō Plain.

Their interiors tend to be, for the most part, austere and simple, probably in keeping with the warrior sensibilities of the interred, especially those of the Kanto Musashino region.

Nabeta Yokoana Kofun, Kumamoto Prefecture

Nabeta Yokoana Kofun, Kumamoto Prefecture

However, there are a few yokoana that possess modest but still enigmatic and intriguing carvings around the entrances or painting or wall incisions in their interiors, such as those of the Chibusan and Nabeta Yokoana Kofun pictured below.

Chibusan Kofun, Kumamoto

Chibusan Kofun, Kumamoto Photo: Japan Geographic

Relief etchings by the entrance of the Nabeta Yokoana Kofun in Kumamoto Prefecture

Relief etchings by the entrance of the Nabeta Yokoana Kofun in Kumamoto Prefecture

These, are reminiscent of the more splendid decorated tumuli that have captured the public’s imagination.

Asuka Bijin, Takamatsuzuka Kofun

Asuka Bijin, Takamatsuzuka Kofun

The most famous of the decorated yokoana kofun are the Takamatsuzuka Kofun near Nara, or the Kitora Kofun in the same area —  with wall mural paintings on the chamber walls.

White Tiger (Provided by the Cultural Affairs Agency)Black Tortoise (Provided by the Cultural Affairs Agency)Vermilion Bird (Provided by the Cultural Affairs Agency)

Above: Murals found in the Kitora Kofun

Both these tombs are thought to date to the very end of the 7th century, and its murals are considered to be the finest examples of the some 300 decorated horizontal tomb murals, along with the ‘Ōzuka’ (the King’s grave) Kofun in Kyushu which is however, a keyhole tumulus.

Below are details and descriptions of several yokoana tomb clusters:

— In Kanagawa Prefecture, the Ichigao Cave Tomb Cluster 市ヶ尾横穴古墳群(Ichigao ōketsu kofun-gun)— is a group of 9 catacombs with 19 graves said to have belonged to wealthy farmers of the Kofun Period.

A look within one of the yokoana tombs Photo: Heritage of Japan

A look within one of the Yokoana tombs Photo: Heritage of Japan

The 19 graves are located in the hills where the Tsurumi River begins. These yokoana can be grouped into several types by their interior design. 
In 1933 and in 1956, things such as arms, accessories and pottery were discovered in the yokoana. From the context of the many other ruins discovered around Ichigao and Eda, it is thought that the area was a center of the ancient Tsuzuki country. See this page for access information. Below are diagrams (Photos: Heritage of Japan) showing interment burial position and grave goods found in among the yokoana catacombs.


— In Kumamoto Prefecture, is the Ōmura yokoana-gun or Omura Cave Tomb Cluster 大村横穴群 (Hitoyoshi city)

Omura yokoana cave tomb cluster

Omura yokoana cave tomb cluster Source: Wikimedia Commons

At the 24 Ōmura (or Jōhon) yokoana tombs on the outskirts of Hitoyoshi city, a flat carving of five horses and three bells is visible in tombs 7 and 8. One horse is saddled and another resembles a foal. Zigzags, perhaps representing a gable, mark the lintel over Tomb 8, with a triangle and quiver to one side. Quivers are often proportionately larger than surrounding imagery, probably symbolizing status.

— Also in Kumamoto Prefecture, are the Nabeta yokoana tombs:

Nabeta kofun

Nabeta rockcut kofun tombs

Lined up along the face of the cliff, are 54 tunnel tombs, the entrance of the largest of which, contains a sunken relief about 2.5 m wide. The roughly hewn outlines depict a warrior and his weapons, a man holding a bow backwards, with a tomo (wrist guard), a large and a small quiver, a knife and shield; underneath, in the centre, is a quadruped, presumably a horse.

Nabeta Kofun

Nabeta Yokoana Kofun

— In Miyagi Prefecture, are Oido Yokoana History Park of Wakuya Town:

Oido yokoana tombs

The Oido yokoana tombs Photo: NIPPON-KICHI

There are several hundred “yokoana” carved into the southern side of Nonodake Hill from Oido to Nakano. These are the ruins of tombs built from the late 7th to the early 8th centuries. The site is designated as a historic site by the municipal government. The area including 9 of the caves is arranged into Oido Yokoana History Park and open to the public.

The largest tomb is 9 meters in total length. A house-shaped chamber, with three platforms to place coffins on is found at the end of the tomb. The walls of another cave are decorated with chisel carvings and painted red with bengara (iron rust). Pieces of beads made of glass, jade, agate and amber have been excavated, from which it is inferred that those are the tombs of a local ruling family.

— In Fukushima Prefecture, the Izumizaki Cave Tumulus or Yokoana Kofun 泉崎横穴, is cut into the tuff cliff in Izumizaki village.

It is an ornamental tumulus of the Late Kofun Age (early 7th century).  On the ceiling and the walls of the coffin-room (depth: 2.2m, width: 2m, height: 1.2m), are depictions of men, animals, horses and eddy patterns, painted in single red color. The tumulus was found and excavated in 1933 as the first found ornamental tumulus in Tohoku area of Japan (p. 17 of Case Studies in the Conservation of Wall Paintings)

Izumizaki Yokoana Kofun murals

Izumizaki Yokoana Kofun murals, Photos: Izumizaki Historical Museum

The tomb culture and images above are similar and appear related to those of the Kiyotosaku 清戸迫横穴 76 rockcut tomb (pictured below Photo courtesy: Fukushima Prefecture Education Board) also belonging to the Kofun culture dating between 300 AD and 700 AD (exact date unknown).

The yokoana with its mural art and solar and pastoral motifs, displayed at the Futaba-Machi’s History and Folklore Museum, a couple of hours north of Tokyo via the coastal railway line between Iwaki and Sendai. (The above yokoana’s  location is near the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear zone.)

— Also in Fukushima Prefecture, is another yokoana with striking murals, the Nakada Yokoana Kofun 中田横穴 in Iwaki City

Nakada Yokoana Kofun

6th century Nakada Yokoana Kofun, Iwaki city, Fukushima  Photos: Izumizaki Historical Museum

— In Ishikawa Prefecture, are two very large Hokuriku yokoana tomb clusters 北陸の横穴墓 and Hoozanozuka Yokoana Kofun 法皇山横穴古墳,  and Suzunai Yokoana Kofun 鈴内横穴古墳群

What are the origins of this rockcut tomb technology and who were the yokoana catacomb builders?

Their origins are shrouded in mystery and the migratory tracks of the bringers of the catacomb culture erased by the passing of some 1,400 years. We can, however, consider and deduce a number of things about the catacomb culture by comparing yokoana culture with Catacomb culture found elsewhere:

The earliest rockcut grottoes in Central Asia appeared between 357 A.D. and 384 the caves of Loulan, the caves of Kirzil, the caves of Longmen (near Loyang), those of Yun Kang and the famous Dun-huang in West Gansu (Issner, Ivar Silent Past – Mysterious and Forgotten Cultures of the World, see p. 224). These rockcut caves bore mostly Buddhist cultural artefacts and mural iconography, that, however, do not resemble those found in the Japanese catacombs, despite the fact that Buddhism was filtering into the Japanese islands around this time.

Instead, we find that the Yokoana catacombs of Japan appear closest to those of the Transcaucasian Bronze Age culture called the Kura-Araxes culture (of the Ancient Near East and West Eurasian steppes – see map below) or the catacomb culture  thought to belong to the tribes of the North Caucasus or the descendants of the Proto-Indo-Iranians who are thought to have expanded from the Proto-Indo-European homeland north of the Caspian sea south to the CaucasusCentral Asia, the Iranian plateau, and Northern India.

We are told in The Genesis of North Caucasus Culture … that:

“The cave construction technique has not changed considerably for dozens of millennia. This knowhow reached the greatest perfection in the Caucasus and the Crimea due to their relief and climate.

Since times immemorial, caves were used as sanctuaries, especially connected with the underworld cults. Priests and wizards hearkened to the voice of earth as they performed cave rites. The magic power of the earth’s entrails was believed to penetrate and invigorate them. Indicatively, caves and grottos were ordinary seats of the oracles. As he struggled into the earth’s depths, man was overawed—hence the cults of caves and subterranean demons. Thus, the rock and cave structures of Urartu had their protector deity, Airiani[1].

Caves also served as burial grounds—antecedents of the later catacombs and vaults. This burial culture developed for several thousand years in the oldest areas of Nakh tribal settlement in Chechnya and throughout the Caucasus. For instance, cave burial grounds have been found in many places of the Chechen highlands—in particular, in the vicinity of the Guchan-Kale, Tuskharoi and Bamut villages, while vaults built into rock niches are frequently met in the principal necropolises. … Stone vaults are undersize replicas of dwellings. Dolmens, which preceded them in the Caucasus and were of almost the same shape, were made of cyclopean stone slabs at the time when man began to build dwellings of huge stones.

These parallels between the abodes of the living and the dead are observed in many nations and millennia.”

Thus the Kofun culture may have been derived from one or more of the migrating nomadic-warrior lineages from the Caucasian region, who interacted and intermarried with the East Asian and Hunnic/Xiongnu-Mongolic tribes as they made their way from the Caucasus through Mongolia or North China and down the Korean peninsula and/or with Indo-Iranian migrants via the alternative southern Silk Route through Southeast Asia.

In Eastern Anatolia, the Urartian kings of land of Urartu (also equated with Ararat and the Land of Van) were buried in rock-cut tombs overlooking Lake Van and Urartians were thought to be the Hurri people (the Hoori hero of Japanese royal myths?) a.k.a. Hurrians, and to have spoken the Hurrian language (See Bishop’s “Urartu – Lost Kingdom of Van“). During the 9th century BC, the Urartian State expanded north into the Caucasus and also eastwards across the Zagros Mountains into northwestern Iran, where many rock-cut texts evidence their conquests, influence and presence in the neighboring lands (Urartu, Metropolitan Museum of Art). [Note that Urartian art included the (prototype?) motifs of the triangle rim edgings and the iconic bronze bell that are also features of the Kofun culture.]

The Urartians were also known as the Vanites, and from which we speculate the spread and diffusion of the word Van and associated etymologies  — from the Indo-European and Indo-Aryan usages of Van (Urartian-Hurrian):  Vani(Colchi-Georgian) or Vani-Wani(Pakistani), Vanir(Norse from PIE), Varna (Black Sea-Bulgarian as well as Indian Sanskrit); VarunVaruna-Waruna (as they variously became known to India, and from which may have derived the Wani clan of Japan, whose totem is the same as the Indian Waruna’s crocodile mount?). Wani is also an Indian caste of Maharashtra, and a sir-name of the Kashmir valley). Varna becomes Vana (of the Swede’s Vanaland) and Vani is anglicized as Wanes, Waynes or Wain. The root of the word “Wain” appears to be associated with PIE metalworking cultures and “waggon”-building or cart-chariot-building, which originated from the Don River or Caucasian region.

Since it is in fact, only in the Ukraine and the North Caucasus that we find the probable provenance of the architecture of the gable roof AND chigi and katsuogi forked finial features that form the familiar and distinctive look of Japanese shrines such as seen in Ise Jingu, and that go back even earlier to the form of the clay haniwa houses found in the royal and elite barrow tombs of the Kofun Period… we may surmise an early connection there.  The technology and culture for the dolmens, the V forked shrine roof finials and cyclopean barrow stoneworks and bronze mirrors (Sarmatian mirrors of the Caucasus were also among the earliest mirrors), not to mention, horse and chariot implements, ostensibly all stem and derive from this region. (In fact, pottery ware and mythology too tie early Japanese culture to the Caucasus-CAS area but must be addressed elsewhere.)

Tripolye_hutCucuteni terracotta modelsNaiku_01crop

Extreme left shows a Cucuteni-Tripolye hut model with pole finials for the roof (see Neolithic Romanian architecture), the middle picture shows a Cucuteni terracotta funerary model of residences, while the far right-hand picture is of the distinctive chigi and katsuogi roof of Naiku Shrine, Ise Jingu. The Naiku forked finial roof (chigi) share the forked finialed roof ends of the Cucuteni terracotta temples (see photo immediately below and the Kofun terracotta structure in the photo below it).

Haniwa house from Imashirozuka Tomb, Takatsuki city, Osaka prefecture. Haniwa / 埴輪 are terracotta clay figures which were made for ritual use and buried with the dead as funerary objects during the Kofun period.

Photo image: Neolithic. Art of the Gods

Source readings and references:

追戸横穴墓群 Oido-yokoana-bo-gun Oido Yokoana Tombs (NIPPON-KICHI website)

Chibusan and Obusan Yokoana Kofun, Japan Geographic

Ozuka Kofun, Kyushu (The Megalithic Portal)

Kofun period by Charles T. Keally

Farris, William Wayne Sacred Texts and Burried Treasures: Issues in the Historical Archaeology of Ancient Japan

Mural paintings of the Kitora burial mound ;Tiger-man image found in tomb (Yomiuri Shimbun, Jan 23, 2002); Stone chamber of Kitora mound on  display for one time only (AWSJ, Jun 2013) 

Visitors will have to look through a glass panel to see the stone chamber of the Kitora mound in Asuka, Nara Prefecture, for a limited period in August. (Provided by the Agency for Cultural Affairs)Stone chamber of the Kitora Mound

Lecture abstracts (by the Institute for the Conservation and Restoration of Cultural Properties, Kansai University) of the Nov 13, 2010 International Meeting on Case Studies in the Conservation of Wall Paintings

Izumizaki Historical Museum website

Masafumi, Ito 北陸における横穴墓の諸問題

Kanazuka, Yoshikazu Yoshimi hyakketsu yokoana bogun no kenkyū,  Tōkyō Azekura Shobō 1975

Ichigao Yokoana Kofun

Yoshimi Yokoana Kofun (Youtubev video clip)

Kohl, Philip L. Situating the Kura-Araxes Early Transcaucasian ‘Culture’ within the History of Bronze Age Eurasia  Tel Aviv vol. 36, 2009 241–265

Prehistoric Nagorno-Karabakh, The Kura-Araxes

Catacomb culture (Wikipedia)

R i m a n i s h v i l i, Go d e r d z i na  The Genesis of North Caucasian Material Culture and Chechen Ethnogeny

Trialeti in the 15th and 14th centuries BC

Bishop, R. Troy “Urartu – Lost Kingdom of Van

Urartu” (The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History)


One response to “6th~early 8th century Yokoana Catacombs of Japan

  1. Thank you for the in-depth discussion. You have answered my long time question about the origin of that roof line.

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