The role of power and warfare in emerging statehood

The Kofun period dates from the middle of the 3rd century to the 7th century, and is characterized by the formation of the Japanese state. The number of kofun built thoughout the archipelago during this period reached a total of roughly 80,000.

Megalithic tombs were constructed on a monumental scale during the 5th c., and the large cache of military weapons found in them imply military power, and other goods interred with the buried are evidence of considerable economic power of the elite families who were able to amass such a show of wealth.

Large-scale kofun built in the central Kinki region (modified from a diagram originally drawn by Dr. Shiraishi Taichirō)

“Built on the Osaka Plain, The Mozu-Furuichi Tomb Clusters are among the largest tomb groups in Japan. Over 220 tombs of varying sizes were constructed between the two clusters. They represent a valuable legacy of Japan’s tumulus culture, housing two of the world’s largest tombs:  the colossal zenpō-kōen-fun of Daisen Kofun (traditionally assigned to King Nintoku) and Konda-gobyōyama Kofun (traditionally assigned to King Ōjin).

Forming a part of the Furuichi Tomb Cluster, Nonaka Kofun was built near Hakayama Kofun, the fifth largest in scale among that cluster, and is often referred to as a baichō (satellite tomb), meaning a small kofun subordinate to a larger tomb.

Although small in scale, Nonaka Kofun is one of the few kofun that has been investigated among tombs of the Furuichi Tomb Cluster. While the identity of the interred is still shrouded in mystery, the presence of technologically advanced weapons and armor imply military power, the wide range of tools and farming implements suggest productive and technological strength, and a truly enormous amount of highly prized iron goods reveals economic power. Nonaka Kofun can thus be interpreted as the epitome of the elements that made possible the construction of the Furuichi Tomb Cluster.” – Source: Nonaka Kofun Project for the Preservation and Utilization of Artifacts of the Nonaka Kofun

Kofun period

Below are excerpts of writings by Fujita K. and Sasaki K. on the role of power and warfare and central control in the early state of Yamato.

“[K.] Fujita’s recent study (2006) focuses on royal power and warfare. The abundance of weapons and armour is a hallmark of the Middle Kofun period (roughly fifth century). Fujita undertook a comparative study of the distribution of armour and weapons in Tomb Period sites throughout Japan, tabulating data on 239 cases, and seriating cuirasses and helmets as well as their earthenware haniwa representations. He concluded that in the fifth century there was a system of local military administrative centres with burials containing sets of cuirass and helmet, controlled by the Kawachi region, and that arms were distributed through this centre. Fujita linked his study of weapons to the satellite burial mounds (baicho) which are only found in Middle Kofun Kawachi. The Nonaka tomb of the Furuichi tomb group contained a large wooden box and a line of 10 sets of cuirass and helmet. He concluded that the person buried in the Nonaka tomb was an administrator of weapons and armour, an official attached to the occupant of the adjacent, huge, unexcavated Hakayama tomb, who was buried some years after the ruler’s death. Fujita found that the Nonaka pattern was adapted by local elites. He postulates that another satellite mound, the Katonboyama mound, of Mozu, is the tomb of an official who was in charge of ritual activities. Its grave goods included 360 miniature soapstone swords and 725 soapstone magatama (comma-shaped pendants).

In addition to the burial mounds, excavations have revealed a substantial amount of information concerning the economy of the region. A palace area at Naniwa and warehouses at nearby Hoenzaka have been located on the low-lying spit areas near the centre of modern Osaka. At the Narutaki site, located in the narrow area where Osaka Bay opens into the Pacific, seven large warehouses have also been excavated. Furthermore, salt making sites have been found in a l0km zone along the old shoreline of Osaka Bay (Tanaka 2001: 434-39) and roads linking Kawachi with Osaka and the Nara region have been traced (Izumori 2006; Morimura 2006). Travellers approaching the area by sea would have seen the three huge tombs of rulers, Nintoku, Hanzei and Richu, lined up along Osaka Bay and would have passed by them on the Otsudo and Tajikido roads to Naniwa. Their great height (the rear mound of Nintoku’s tomb is 35m high), and fresh stone facing would have been very impressive.

Vast numbers of kilns which produced a new kind of luxury and ritual stoneware have been recovered. A recent general description of the Suemura Kiln Site group was published by Hiroshi Nakamura in 2006 (Nakamura 2006). This group of at least 500 kilns in six zones lies in the Senboku Hills c.5-10km south of the Mozu tomb group. A large area of rural upland was transformed into a city in the past few decades, and nearby hills were levelled. These kilns were the first area of production of grey stoneware (sueki) in Japan. It is assumed that the rulers buried in the Furuichi and Mozu burial grounds had some sort of control over the production and distribution of wares from these kilns. The author concluded that sueki production began in the latter half of the Kofun period, since there appear to be no sueki vessels in the earlier tombs of at least the Mozu group. Production continued until the tenth century. Pollen studies show that by the sixth century a substantial portion of the fuel for the kilns came from secondary forest. Adjacent villages left by potters, some yielding substantial quantities of pottery from the Korean peninsula, were found. Low lying sites, too wet for human habitation, may have been loading points for water transport.”

Source: The above is an excerpt from a review article by Richard Pearson Fifth-century rulers of the Kawachi Plain, Osaka, and early state formation in Japan: some recent publications (Antiquity Vol 083 Issue 20, June 2009)


FUJITA, K. 2006. Kofun jidai no oken to gunji (Royal power of the Kofun period and warfare). Tokyo: Gakuseisha

IZUMORI, K. 2006. Kawachi no kodo to kofun o manabu hito no tame ni (For those who would learn about Kawachi roads and tombs) . Kyoto: Sekai Shisosha.

MORIMURA, K. 2006. Sakai: kodai doro no midokoro (Sakai: highlights of the ancient road network), in Kodai (ed.) Takenouchi Kaido o aruko (Let’s walk along the Takeuchi Highway): 1-2. Osaka: Kodai.

NAKAMURA, H. 2006. Senboku kyuryo ni hirogaru sueki yo: Suemura iseki gun (Sueki kilns along the Senboku slope: the Suemura site group). Tokyo: Shinsensha.

For further insights, read also Keyhole Tombs and Political Structure in Fifth-century Japan by Ken’ichi Sasaki, who noted:

“By the fifth century, the political structure of the central polity grew to be complex to the extent that it maintained a rudimentary form of bureaucracy, which also seems to be reflected in mortuary patterns, most notably the presence of baicho 陪冢, small square and circular tombs surrounding giant keyhole-shaped tombs. Besides the presence of baicho and the giant size of the keyhole-shaped tombs, the central polity located in Kawachi/Yamato distinguished itself from other local polities by various means, such as the use of special stone coffins and the monopoly of iron armor.”

Sasaki also noted that the change in location of the largest keyhole tombs (of paramount chiefs) to southern Kawachi/northern Izumi (present Osaka Prefecture) from Yamato (present Nara) was a result of a change in the lineages of the paramount chiefs from Yamato to those of southern Kawachi/northern Izumi and that “this change also correlated to a change in the symbol of authority, from bronze mirrors to iron armor“. [In the 4th century, for example, bronze mirrors imported from China were symbols of power held by influential figures, as observed through the mirrors unearthed from Komagatanikita]

Secondly, Sasaki concluded importantly that “The central polity was a confederacy of different elite lineages located in Yamato, Kawachi, Izumi, and other regions of Kinai, which took turns occupying the position of a paramount chief. The central polity was always located in Yamato, because rituals continued taking place on the Miwa Hill of Yamato throughout the fifth century (Shiraishi Taichiro).”

Thirdly, Sasaki evinced from the satellite arrangement of tombs and funerary goods, the existence of rotating regional elite paramount chiefs who were assisted by military administrators or bureaucrats specializing in particular roles, as he noted the following:

“The inscription on an iron sword discovered at the Sakitama-Inariyama Tomb mentions the title “Chief of the Swordsmen”「杖刀人首」

Nonaka tomb as good evidence for an early bureaucracy: the discovery of 11 sets of iron armor and 373 iron arrowheads there suggests that whoever was buried in the tomb was a warrior or someone in charge of military administration. This is better evidence, qualitatively and quantitatively, than in the case of Otsukayama of the Mozu tomb group, a 150m-class keyhole tomb. Furthermore, the discovery of 81 jasper model of daggers for ritual purposes at Nonaka indicates that the interred also had a priestly role.

Katomboyama カトンボ山 tomb in the Mozu group: it is a satellite tomb for Gobyoyama, and finds there included 360 jasper daggers, 725 jasper beads, two bronze mirrors, all suggesting management of rituals (i.e. a priestly function), while 20 functional iron arrowheads suggest a military role as well.”

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