4. Towering tumuli of the Kofun era

The Kofun era lasted from AD 250 – 538. This era is marked by the feverish fad of tumuli-building activity that began in Japan from around late 3rd century which did not end till AD 710. 

Inariyama burial mound (120 meters), mid late 5th century, Saitama Prefecture (above:plane view; below:aerial view)

Large to very large tumuli known as kofun in Japanese, were built for prominent deceased elite rulers and kings. There are about 30,000 known  Kofun tomb mounds. Over 5,000 of these can still be visited in Japan today.

OZlab: Map of kofun larger than 100 meters in Japan

Along with the tumuli today has been uncovered evidence of an amazing culture of the kofun mound-builders. The irrigation techniques of the day were extremely advanced; the construction techniques for building the tombs were mind-blowing; and as the tombs got more massive and monumental in size, so did the treasures within them – the technology for all these achievements is attributed to influences from the Asian continent.

The period is protohistoric, which means that while Japan didn’t yet have its own written language, there were historical records and chronicles by neighboring peoples on the Chinese continent and the Korean peninsula, snatches of which, described events and happenings of the Kofun period.

Sometime during the Kofun period, emerged the first state in Japan – Yamato, though experts argue among themselves over exactly when Yamato became a centralized state.

The last two centuries of the Kofun period is known as the Asuka period when Buddhism teachings and art arrived and proliferated throughout the land, with Asuka city as the center of Buddhist enlightenment. Buddhism along with a new administrative and bureaucratic system were introduced by large numbers of incoming toraijin  immigrants mainly from the Korean peninsula most of whom came to stay on and integrated with the Yamato society.

However, the spread of the Buddhist religion and the ensuing temple-building activities requisitioned all he labour and efforts previously expended on building large tumuli so the Kofun culture came to an end.




Early Kofun


no Chinese documents on events in Japan


mound tombs common in Kinki and coastal Seto Naikai


Wa defeats Paekche and Silla, and battles with Koguryo

Middle Kofun


the “mysterious” five kings of Wa — San, Chin, Sei, Kou and Bu — send regular emissaries to China


massive kofun being built everywhere


writing on iron sword in the Inariyama Kofun in Saitama Pref., saying that the nation was already unified


groups of small kofun appear in Kinki

Late Kofun


the first register of immigrants was made




43 responses to “4. Towering tumuli of the Kofun era

  1. I am extremely interested in Kofun and the entire era, and earlier.

    I tavel to Japan, but few Japanese know anything about the very kofun which are located all around them.

    I hope to see the kofun in Okayama, and Sakai-City in May of 2009, and hopefully I can also go to Saitobaru in Kyushu then, or in the Fall.

    Happy to hear from any interested in Japanm, ancient or modern.

    Kerry Drew (Ika-Taro) kerryika@gmail.com

    Kerry Drew, Berkeley, CA

  2. Nice to meet you here, Kerry. I’m CharlyPanda. All of Japanese tumuli have their roots in Buryatia. Fancy Square Platform Burial, or Corner Ramped Platform Burial to the north of Okayama, Izumo, has its root in Angarariver region of Buryatia and others have their roots in Transbaikal Palace Burial, and both of them belong to Slabstone (Menhir fenced cemetry) Culture of Buryatia, paralell to Xiajiandian Lower Culture.

    • Correct to: parallel to Xiajiadian Upper Culture.
      Sorry for misstyping.

    • I have an information that Irkutsk researchers discovered “Tevsh Culture” with Fancy Square Grave around Mt. Tevsh in Gobi Altai, birthplace of famous Sumo wrestler Harumafuji.

      • More exactly, it was in the middle of these wreslers’ birthplaces and closer to Upper Xiajiadian Culture, in time scale as well,
        Mt. Tevsh Uul;

      • According to this website Archaeology and Landscape in the Altai mountains of Mongolia, one gallery of images http://img.uoregon.edu/mongolian/arch_mounds.php shows two clearly keyhole mounds from the Bronze Age at Tsagaan Salaa and at Tsagaan Asgat … which has possible fascinating implications … although these are nowhere near the size or sophistication of kofun structures in Japan. Some of the standing stones and stone circles also resemble the ones in Japan though those seem to have been made at a later time than the ones in Japan.

      • Do you have a more specific reference and more details? In volume 7 of Silk Road, there are good sections with detailed drawings and photos of Xiongnu culture’s Shombuuziin-belchir cemetery and 1st century Noyon uul cemetery complex of burial graves, the coffins and burial goods. The slab graves and coffin techniques, and ear-rings do look similar to some of those found in Japan, but the bronze bells differ considerably in shape, size and material. I also need to compare the patterns on the coffins / bronze mirror / and bows with those in the photos in my possession to know what to make of those though. Another resource on slab grave culture is Slab graves

  3. The ancestors to Slabstone culture, Glazkov Culture shows a unique burial of putting coffins along the riverside. The Yayoi immigrants Doigahama people also buried deceased along waterfront of Sea of Japan, at westernmost Honshu. They were archaic and pulled certain tooth off for ritual. There are many ancient deer worship shrines and some poem dedicated to deer queen-godess nearby Northern Kyushu as well, the cult of deer is a typical feature of Buryats.

  4. In Angara river region of Buryatia, archaeologists found ancient necklace of female Siberian deer teeth, implying exsistence of Quenn Deer Cult which is also mentionedc in ancient Japanese poem. Teeth extraction practice might be connected to this cult.

  5. http://www.gambo-ad.com/miyajima/sanpo/info3.htm
    Queen deer, now regarded as a cony, see bottom right, is painted red, meaning it was Sun Goddess. Apparently this heritage is in danger.

  6. Toponym Kudara in Buryat means “sneakingly”, “stealingly” and near to “retreat”, “hiding place”, however, in Japanese it means Baekje;
    This is a telltale where they hid themselves and who they feared when you localise followings
    by Google or Yahoo map;
    Kudara-Somon (Кудара-Сомон) has an area of 1.0 km2 and an estimated population of 1 500.
    Kudara (Кудара) has an area of 1.2 km2 and an estimated population of 1 500.
    Kudara RS STM 51.8333333 119.9666667
    Kudara RS PPL 50.1988889 107.0430556
    Kudara RS PPL 50.1547222 107.4013889
    Kudara RS STM 50.1938889 107.0366667
    Kudara RS PPL 52.2202778 106.6566667
    Apparently they were running out of Hun’s chase. In Japan, Shinano province, peref. Nagano, means hiding place/retreat and emigrant Baekje royal families sought assylum there.

  7. And now you know the rest of the story, the fate of the glorius deer herders of Transbaikal:

  8. Whereas this Deer Hunter Clan was Tungusic, Jomon and this Tungusic Cultures were changed to Altaic language with Himiko coming to the throne of Yamatai, head chifdom of Wa confederation with bronze mirrors as main fetish, pushing aboriginese and Tungusic away to further east. Where Himiko mastered the devilish dao, as Wei chronicle describe it, is a big pozzle. But now we got an information from Munisinsk Basin of finding of hundreds of bronze mirrors and, as I noticed, of same kind of shri yantra and god-beast figures on the back ot the mirrors, strongly associated with warrior-priestess of Shang Fuhao and Scythian ones.

  9. Yet one thing to consider is;
    Eastward spread of Mountain Fort sites (like Sve in Okunev Culture) a culture typical for Altai/Koguryo


  10. I think that an ancient Yenisei tribe Kamo landed beach near p. Sakaiminato and settled at Izumu along the river Hi (name so after river Biya river http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biya_River in Altai) because there are so many Ice River Shrines (Hikawa Jinja) in Tokyo and its vicinities with a head shrine in Saitama city which has legend of coming from Izumo province. There is a 10 Kings Sutra in Japan, a pseudo-sutra (non-orthodox buddhist sutra)
    in which sinful dead souls are to be ground to pieces in a “ice river” by verdict of Yama. Every shrine in Japan is guarded by 2 dogs as Rigveda says the way to paradise is guarded by 2 dogs.
    The biggest hoard of bronze swords, knives, bells, guarded by shrines Suwa (similar to Sve in Okunev Culture of Khakasia) was unearthed near this Hi river in Izumo.
    This Kamo Tribe (Duck Tribe) moved further east to Yamatai where they built Upper Duck Shrine in Kongo Mountain.
    http://maps.yahoo.com/broadband/#mvt=h&lat=34.408056&lon=135.7075&mag=6& zoom=11
    Finally in accordance with the move of Yamato court, they settled in Kyoto, where they built Parent Duck Shrine, Lower Duck shrine and Upper Duck Srine.
    Apparently their background paradigm is from the following Sayano-Altai turkolinguistic mythology:
    Mifologii sajano-altajskih tjurkojazychnyh narodov.
    Nesmotrja na to, chto sredi altajcev, hakasov i shorcev rasprostranjalos’ hristianstvo, a sredi tuvincev — lamaizm, u nih sohranjalas’ prezhnjaja ≪jazycheskaja≫ mifologija. Naibolee znachitel’nuju gruppu sostavljajut kosmogonicheskie mify. Vselennaja sostoit iz trjoh sfer: verhnego (neba), srednego (zemli) i nizhnego (podzemnogo) mirov (inogda govoritsja ob osobyh mirah ili zemljah, so svoimi nebesami ili bez nih, morjami, rekami i podzemnym mirom, gde tusklo svetjat luna i solnce). Nebo v vide kupola prikryvaet zemlju, to i delo soprikasajas’ s nej krajami. Podobnye predstavlenija otmecheny v jakutskom jepose (≪kraja neba i zemli stukajutsja drug o druga≫) i u mongolov. Vhod v podzemnyj mir nahoditsja gde-to na zapade. V razlichnyh mifah tri sfery vselennoj svjazyvaet libo drevo mirovoe (paj kajyng, ≪bogataja berjoza≫, ili temir-terek, ≪zheleznyj topol’≫, na vetvjah kotorogo nahodjatsja zarodyshi detej i skota), libo gora, upirajuwajasja vershinoj v nebesa. Sohranilos’ neskol’ko variantov mifa o proishozhdenii mira, mnogie iz kotoryh podverglis’ sil’nomu vlijaniju hristianskih i buddijskih predstavlenij. Soglasno odnomu iz variantov, v iznachal’no suwestvovavshem ogromnom vodnom prostranstve plavali dve utki. Odna iz nih reshila sotvorit’ zemlju iz ila. Vtoraja nyrnula i so dna prinesla il v kljuve. Pervaja utka stala razbrasyvat’ ego po vode, i pojavilas’ zemlja. Vtoraja utka, vyjdja na sushu, stala razbrasyvat’ kameshki, i pojavilis’ gory (obraz pticy-demiurga shiroko rasprostranjon u sibirskih narodov).

    • The Altai connection to the duck totem is very strong on the Eurasian continent, and in Korea. In Japan, the duck motif shows up a few times during the Yayoi, but much more in haniwa during the Kofun, so the Altaic lineage very likely penetrated the elite founding kings of the Kofun period. Here is an interesting paper “Human Sacrifices in the Altay-Sayan Area: the Duck and its People” on the significance of the duck symbol as related to human sacrifice. https://www.academia.edu/3635864/Human_Sacrifices_in_the_Altay-Sayan_Area_the_Duck_and_its_People MtDNA D haplogroup found in central and northeastern Asian populations – I think it most likely that the duck (and maybe the deer totems and beliefs were commonly held throughout central and northeast Asia correlating to the spread of mtDNA D4 peoples who were expanding “nomadic warrior” migrating groups filtering into Japanese populations.

      • Excuse me, I’m afraid, if so, you might be messing together Male sspecific Y chromosome DNA haplogroup and Female specific mtDNA haplogroup. If this is the case, please explain once more in discrete term of each separate haplogroup. Thank you in advance.

      • Sophia Lorens, Silvana Manganas, however good they may plant rice in paddy, could hardly have brought wet rice culture into Japan. I think we must first look into YDNA haplogroups.

    • There is a Big Yenisei “Piy Hem” in Tuva;
      Hi-kawa may be after this. However, Katuragi Royals may be from Katun, Altai.

    • Are you sure about the Kamo Tribe connections to the duck tribe? The central story of the Kamo clan isn’t the duck but the three-legged crow and they still have the central ritual ceremonies – but see this alternative history to yours on the Kamo clan at A detailed background history of Kamigamojinja or Kamo Shrine is at http://books.google.com/books?id=SPchlKNrj0UC&pg=PA92&dq=kamo+clan&client=firefox-a#v=onepage&q=kamo%20clan&f=false which also says that the Kamo clan was a subset of the Hata clan – the book link also gives the history behind the name and the move of the original shrine to Kyoto. The Kamo name is identified with the “sky-god” grandfather who turned into the crow that led Jimmu. While Kamo may mean duck in modern Japanese today, the clan name isn’t written that way. Also it is suggested in the aforesaid linked source that the name Kamo has other origins. While I really “like” your duck theory, there are no equivalent duck myth Russian/Siberian versions remaining in Japan. The duck that comes to them is the Yayoi version of the bird of fertility or the one that the shaman sends to invite the spirits or send the spirits to that other world. Nice theory really, I should like see more solid evidence to tie it all together. Of course, I could be wrong …

    • This other history on the Kamo Shrine is at http://books.google.com/books?id=SPchlKNrj0UC&pg=PA92&dq=kamo+clan&client=firefox-a#v=onepage&q=kamo%20clan&f=false says the Kamo clan was probably a subset of the Hata clan, originating from Korea.

      • It seems that there are no Ural duck myth left in Mongolia, Korea and Japan. Archaeologically mountain fortification sites are observable in Khakasia of Okunev Culture (Lower Xiajiadian, Xia) and in 1st CE Japan. It may be because that they had been hiding behind the scene and, if this is the case, Shushen in middle stream of Amur would be a good candidate for mountain fortification sites of Japan, in Japanese myth, Sada or Sarutahiko God.

  11. The Sayano-Altay Turkolingustic mythology says: as one of their variations,
    In the begining there existed a vast water where 2 ducks were swimming. One duck made mind to creat a land from mud.2nd duck plunged to bottom and held mud in beak. 1st duck sprayed mud over water surface and land appeared at all. 2nd duck, noted the land and commence spraying pebles over the land and there appeared montains.

    • In light of the duck haniwa that I have seen in kofun artefacts, it IS very tempting to believe the associations with the Altai myth – the thing is, if the duck mythology was such a central creation myth to the Kofun culture, why weren’t they part of the Kojiki and Nihongi chronicles’ creation myths – we see the celestial archer incorporated – the crow – the sky mountain – the deer – many Altai iconic elements grew stronger from the 5th century, arguably beyond through Asuka, Nara period because of the Paekche sector of royalty and elite bloodlines. Very grave oversight of the chroniclers…even the Izumo myth cycles are intact.

      • Duck Myth is the backbone that supported this greatest ever in human history migration that crossed Tsushima strait in early first millenium.
        Tuvan Professor Abaev is contending that Highland Uryanhai, Tannu-Uryanhai is the same as Highland Guryo, Ko-guryo and Uryanhai is the same as Guryo. By this gene map hereunder, Uryanhai has YDNA haplogroup O2b, which is shared by Manchus, Koreans and Japanese, which in turn have in addition mutated O2b1. Marked Uryanhai is where Tevsh Culture with Fancy Square Graves were unearthed in Gobi Altai.
        Mainstream Yayoi immigrants from the continent, carriers of O2b/O2b1 landed Japan mainland at Izumo and commenced construction of mountain fortfication sites in 1st century AD and fancy square grave in 2nd century AD and in early 3rd century AD, they started building royal scalop shell tumuli in Kibi (present pref. Okayama). Eventually, they built a royal tumulus for Himiko, Hashihaka.

      • I can accept the viewpoint from the second para onwards, it looks plausible from archaeological evidence and if we look at tomb structures and their evolution.
        The duck myth as backbone, however, I still find it hard to see. Even if Altaian migrants were subdued from the West Kyushu cultures, there would remain evidence of duck myths in local fudoki, stories, songs and dances, and especially shrine festivals. Many legends from Yayoi, Kofun Period have obviously survived till today – a myth as central as the duck myth – would have made more sense to incorporate into the chronicles since they seemed to have incorporated just about central myth from every corner of the nation – Ama, Izumo, Takachiho, Kumano, etc. All the icons of the Kofun Period and even from the more remote period Yayoi – from haniwa quivers, to swords, sakaki, to magatama, etc – we can find relics in either folklore or ancient texts, poems. Why not the duck myth? Someone had to have hated the duck myth proponents to have erased it so well from the land(s).

      • ” if the duck mythology was such a central creation myth to the Kofun culture, why weren’t they part of the Kojiki and Nihongi chronicles’ creation myths”
        Very important point. This means the earlier Kyushu Jar Burial Culture was not conquered by Altaians at all, rather they subordinated new comers, as Chinese say; “changed bones and took womb” of new culture, which though pasturalist, fitted well to rear snowy and front sunny climatic conditions of Japan.

      • Quite right. It’s from 5th CE, that tumuli were changed into Altaian vault graves.
        The earlier technique was basically Baikal stone heaving, new one is a bit masonary.
        New ones are like Turkish. Old ones are like Tunsusic. Certainly some Baekje and Koguryo royals fled to compatriates.

  12. I think there lies a Caucasus-Altai-Erlitou transhumant highland-lowland pastures governance principle behind this World Duck Myth and it was developed into broad range pasturalist-farmer economies governance strategy, put into Practice in Koguryo, Baekje, Silla and Yamatai. The stone box/dolmen burial are the physical markers of this culture.

  13. Anyway all of these Duck related are tip of an iceberg, even by my modest tentative classifications of immigrants per source
    C1-M8 5.4% Paleolithic
    D2-P37.1* 3.9% Jomon
    D2a-M116.1 16.6% Jomon in Yayoi period
    D2a1-M125* 12.0% Jomon in Yayoi period
    D2a1a-P42 2.3% Jomon in Yayoi period
    O3-M122* 6.6% Jomon Austronesian

    O2b-SRY 7.7% Yayoi Tungusic

    O2a-M95* 1.9% Yayoi Austroasiatic

    Ob21-47z 22.0% Yayoi Okcho
    O3a3-LINE1 3.1% Yayoi Miao

    C3c-M86 1.2% Yayoi Deer Herder Elite
    N1c1-M178 0.4% Yayoi Uralo-Turkic

    N1-LLY22g* 1.2% Kofun Turkic
    NO-M214* 2.3% Kofun Paleo-Qiangic 
    C3-217* 1.9% Kofun Altaian
    O3a3c-M134 10.4% Kofun Chinese Qins 
    Q-P36 0.4% Kofun Kets Q1a1 M120, M265/N14
    R-M207 0.4% Kofun Pajiriks  
    I-P19 0.4% Kofun Tocharians

  14. Donghu called themselves worm, serpent, that is a long wrigling line of warlike race, here in Japan they called themselves Wisteria (now in blossom), Fuji, hence Fujiwara –
    Traibe of Wisteria.Asked what is the heart of Yamatai – we have no words, only

  15. heritageofjapan // May 12, 2010 at 8:40 am
    Amazing. Important is the concept of keyhole, Heaven and Earth.
    Meaningful that this was not from China, but from Mongolia.

    heritageofjapan // May 12, 2010 at 9:03 am
    Irkutsk reseachers seem to connect Tevsh with Shenxi Shang Culture.

    heritageofjapan // May 12, 2010 at 12:36 am
    There are spefic folk who love to eat duck legs in northern Kyushu.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s