People of the Kofun age and from earlier times, had conducted many rituals of worship to the kami spirits of the mountains, sea, rivers and at roads through mountain passes which they thought tended to get blocked by “violent kami”. The many ritual objects found buried in riverbeds or at the feet of mountains are evidence of those customs.
The revolution of rites and the rejection of Yayoi kami
A great and long-lasting famine had spread across the whole of East Asia just before the start of the Kofun Period, from around AD 190 to 220. It was around the time when priestess Queen Himiko had ascended the throne (climatic historians say this was a time of a Little Ice Age). In Japan, people everywhere joined their rulers in imploring for assistance from their kami, using the ritual bronze spearheads, daggers, and bells. But it must have seemed that the kami were deaf to their pleas for the years of famine did not come to an end.
In those days in East Asia, there was a custom of practising regicide which meant that they killed their rulers whom they blamed for the plight they were in. The rulers of the Wa kingdom were probably killed one after another, but when that didn’t stop the famine, the people ended up rejecting the Yayoi kami as well.
The rejection of Yayoi kami is thought to be why over much of Japan, whether in Tsukushi, Kibi or Yamato, ritual objects such as bronze bells and bronze spearheads were being broken and cast into rivers, or discarded inside abandoned houses or dumped or buried.
Since the Yayoi kami had been rejected, the rulers then needed to seek and reveal new kami to their people. It is thought that Queen Himiko had sent diplomatic missions to the Chinese kingdom of Wei and had probably imported new kami along with the gifts of “one hundred bronze mirrors” that symbolized them from the Chinese court. She may have revealed the new kami with the hundred mirrors which she then “displayed to people throughout all the land”.
What new religious beliefs then replaced the Yayoi kami doctrines during the Kofun Period?
The new religion and the Makimuku proto-type shrine
Historians believe that the new religion involved bronze mirrors and the construction of keyhole shaped tombs as religious structures. Queen Himiko’s reign had the effect of unifying many tribal or clan groups, and may also have brought about some common religious system that had the keyhole-shaped tomb as a central symbol.
To accommodate the demands of this new religious system, a new architectural structure came to be built. Remains from the first half of the 3rd century of shrine-like raised buildings were discovered at excavations of the Makimuku site. The remains were examined and declared by shrine carpenters to be the ”prototypes of the shrine architecture“.
The principal hall is gabled and faces directly west; it has a “central pillar” and “ridgepole-beam pillars”. The structure had secondary halls, both having their principal axes aligned in the same direction. The new structure resembled the Ise Shrine that was built centuries later.
Significantly, the Makimuku proto-type shrine was built in a style totally different from that of the Yayoi period and using the Chinese Wei scale of measurement and was the Lu Ban or North Star imperial copper shaku of “an auspicious, slightly longer Wei shaku than the type used in the period 240 to 248″. It had a numerical value of slightly under 32 cm.
Another Early Kofun Period raised-floor building was discovered on a sand dune at Nagase Takahama, in Tottori Prefecture. It was huge with post holes 2m to 3m in diameter, so that it probably supported a tall building over 10 meters high. It was a square building over 5 m long on each side, surrounded by a quadrangular fence 16 m long on each side and at the front was a stairway. It was clear the building was set apart for other than everyday function and it is found with a miniature bronze mirror in it.
Water purification rituals
Aqueduct systems have been found at the Makimuku and Hattori sites. These are thought to have been facilities to provide clean water for offerings to the kami in water purification rituals. These aqueduct systems usually comprising of wooden pipes to channel in sacred pure water, wooden boards and troughs to control the flow of the water, and stoned pavements and a pebbled central area for purification rituals – continued to be constructed and used well into the fifth and sixth centuries.
Some common water rituals involved the placing of miniature clay vessels at water spouts and floating talc ritual objects (placed inside bowls) down irrigation channels.
The Hitachi no kuni fudoki suggests how such a water purification rite might possibly have been conducted: “When couriers and the like were making their first visits to the province, they first rinsed their mouths and hands, then faced east and did reverence to the kami of Kashima, after which they were able to enter”.
Food offerings or communal rituals
Along Makimuku River, various ritual sites showed evidence that rituals involving large numbers of pottery and wooden products were conducted, around or possibly inside raised-floor buildings.
As a large number of rice-cooking as well as eating utensils, pots and clay vessels found at one Makimuku site, it is thought that a ritual was performed in which the people hulled and boiled rice, and heaped the rice in a bowl and partook of a communal meal with the kami. They also brought weaving implements for weaving new garments as kami offerings. Other ritual objects were wooden bird-shaped and wooden boats. This rite and the utensils used are similar to those of the later Niiname harvest festival where joint food offerings of food were made by powerful regional families.
At another site around a giant camphor tree on the bank of the Miyamae River, a large quantity of pottery (1,000 pots out of 2,500 ceremic vessels) from the 3rd century were found. Some of the pottery was not local but from the Kinki, Kibi and San’in areas in the east of Matsuyama, suggesting that food might have been cooked in some kind of celebration for people from other regions – in what was a communal ritual of eating food together with the kami (as suggested by the miniature bowls and cups).
The practice of conducting rituals with pottery vessels containing food offered at the base of sacred trees was probably a common religious ritual practiced in many parts of Japan at the time. According to fragment of the Yamashiro no kuni fudoki text, the tree is considered sacred to which kami descend.
Shrines and swords
Many new shrines were built during the Kofun era.
The most important part of the shrine were the raised buildings set apart from daily uses to function as sanctuaries or storage houses for ritual objects. Many such shrine storehouses were discovered at Makimuku site or at the Nagase Takahama site. A particularly notable and early shrine was the Isonokami Shrine.
Swords appear to have been particularly revered objects deposited at some shrines. According to Nihon shoki, Susano O no Mikoto’s sword used to kill the legendary eight-headed serpent was deposited at Isonokami during the 4th century.
A famous gold-inlaid sword, the shichishito or seven-pronged sword from the 4th century, still stored at the Isonokami shrine today, is thought to be the shichishito sword mentioned in the Jingu chapter of the Nihon shoki that was presented by Paekche king’s grandson along with a seven knobbed mirror and a message to open up relations between the two countries. Experts have determined from the inscription on the sword that the sword was made in Paekche in 369 A.D. and presented by a Paekche king to the Yamato ruler and then placed in the Isonokami storehouse.
Entries made in the 35th year of Suinin’s reign in the Nihon shoki records say that Emperor Suinin’s eldest son had ordered a thousand swords made and stored at Isonokami. The Monobe clan founded by Prince Inishiki became custodians of the Isonokami treasures, thereafter holding military roles and power.
Burial tomb rituals
40,000 mortar-shaped beads and many sword-shaped objects, perforated discs and comma-shaped magatama beads were found in the moat of the Nonaka tomb in Fujiidera City, Osaka. These were likely ritual objects used in burial or ancestral worship rites.
From the third to the fifth centuries, tomb rituals were conducted probably by shamanistic chieftains and clan leaders in conjunction with the idea of quelling evil to confine the soul in the burial chamber and to protect the dead against evil spirits (in which the bronze mirror had a key instrument). From the 6th century, rituals appear to have evolved into ceremonies to properly send off the dead into the netherworld.