Village settlement patterns: the homestead emerges

The Mitsudera residential compound (An artist's impression)

The Mitsudera residential compound (An artist's impression)

While the towering tumuli and tomb treasures of the Kofun ancient burial mound period grab our attention, very little is actually known about the settlements and village life of the period.

What we know of village life and settlement patterns is based on the excavated remains of a few Kofun age settlements: the Mitsudera, Nakada, Ozono, Kobukada, Nokata and Mizokui sites.

However, in Gunma Prefecture on central Honshu island, the eruption of Mt. Haruna in the mid-sixth century that buried the Mitsudera village under the volcanic debris has given archaelogists a remarkable find — akin to that of the discovery of the city of Pompei buried by Mt Vesuvius. The volcanic debris had covered thereby preserving a residential compound at Mitsudera, surrounded by a stone-lined moat, and a farmstead at Kuroimine.

A number of important things can be learned about life in the Kofun age from the excavations of these ruined settlements.

The separate compounds

This arrangement of elite members living in separate enclosures showed that a new social hierarchy had emerged, that there were strict class divisions. Within those separate enclosures, were raised storehouses containing not just grain but weapons and armoury…hence, the storehouses were symbols of military prowess. The socially powerful people (the elite) not only lived in separate quarters but were buried in monumental mounds and entombed with with splendid treasures. The farmers and common folk lived outside and away from these compounds.

A model of residences and storehouses at Mitsudera

A model of separate compounds and storehouses at Mitsudera

Following the appearance of early separate compounds of sites such as Mitsudera, larger and grander residential dwellings were built and ultimately, the early palaces of Yamato emerged in the Kansai region.

The emergence of homesteads

In tandem with the trends seen among the royal family and aristocrats of developing royal estates during the Kofun Age, another development among the farming villagers of fundamental importance to Japanese society was the emergence of yashiki-chi — homesteads or premises for individual households in farm villages. Settlements from Jomon through Yayoi Age consisted only of aggregations of single dwellings, but in the Kofun Age settlements began to be an aggregation of homesteads (yashiki-chi), with the land on which the house stood clearly demarcated. Thus began the prototype of farm villages of the Tokugawa period, and the basis of agricultural society in Ancient and Modern Japan. 

Village life during the ancient burial period (Kazuya Inaba and Shigenobu)

Village life during the ancient burial period (Kazuya Inaba and Shigenobu)

The homestead movement or trend began during the ancient burial mound period and was practiced mainly by people in the upper part of the social stratification. This development was fundamentally important in the social history of Japan in terms of the subsequent development of the Japanese family system.

The emergence of individual homesteads in farming villages during the Kofun Age is highly significant in the following points:

1) First, it implies a greater independence of individual households within a community. Farmers were free to rebuild their dwellings without strict regulation by the community. The prehistorian Iwasaki Takuya noticed a frequent rebuilding within the same premises in the Kanto area during a relatively short time in the Onitaka subperiod of the late Kofun Age.

2) Second, the existence of individual homesteads laid the material foundation for Japanese ancestor worship. As the social anthropologist Muratake Seiichi has pointed out, behind the aspiration for the permanence of an ie lies a deep attachment to and veneration for the homestead (yashiki-chi) inherited from ancestors which is “not merely land for building but also land with a building supported spiritually and magically by supernatural forces”.

These developments provided the foundations for the later Japanese concept of ie that emerged – that was formed as a synthesis of ie, in the sense of family-dwelling, and yake, a chieftain’s residence which included the function of administrating the community. These newly emerged settlement patterns allowed for more stable settlement sites and therefore more permanent homesteads. 

The archaeological evidence is based on:

(A) The Mitsudera ruins in Gunma Prefecture

Archaeologists are able to tell us that residential quarters for the chieftains and elite members were established in compounds separate from the rest of the population. 

At Mitsudera there was a central area with large post structures separated from an area with pit houses by a fence. The latter area is presumed to be the workshops of craft specialists or houses of retainers.

This arrangement of elite members living in separate enclosures showed that a new social hierarchy had emerged, that there were strict class divisions. Within those separate enclosures, were raised storehouses containing not just grain but weapons and armoury…hence, the storehouses were symbols of military prowess. The socially powerful people (the elite) not only lived in separate quarters but were buried in monumental mounds and entombed with with splendid treasures.

Following the appearance of early separate compounds of sites such as Mitsudera, larger and grander residential dwellings were built and ultimately, the early palaces of emerged in the Kansai region.

(B) The Nakada site in Hachioji, Tokyo

The Nakada village during the Kofun Age covers an area of 2.3 hectares, consisting of four or five sections. A tan’i-shudan for agricultural activities, if the group was a section, would have had an area of about 3,000 square meters.

The geographer Kaneda Akihiro observed that a house lot (yachi) of the Nara and Heian Ages usually covered 1,000 to 3,000 square meters (compared to Yayoi’s 1,000 – 2,000 square meters. Thus here in this unit group for agricultural production of the Kofun age – we see the forerunner of the yachi of the Nara and Heian periods —  The size of these yachi continued to remain almost the same through the ages, from 1,000 to 3,000 square meters. (Source:Tsude Hiroshi)

(C) Mizokui site in Osaka Prefecture

The Mizokui site is a complex of sites which lasted from Yayoi through to the Edo Period. Of these, the site belonging to Kofun Period is estimated to be largest.

Mizokui village (computerized image by OZ Labs)

Mizokui village (computerized image by OZ Labs)

Close-up on square

Close-up

(D) The ruins of Nokata (Nokata Iseki) in Nishi-ku, Fukuoka-shi, Fukuoka Prefecture

At the Nokata site are the remains of a village located on a long, fan-shaped plateau, which has an altitude of 17m to 20m, and measures 600m from north to south, and 200m east to west. The village existed from the end of the Yayoi period to the Kofun period, and during the Yayoi period, it had had two moats.

During the Kofun age, Nokata village had more than 300 dwellings. The burial area was clearly situated away from the residential area. Many artefacts were excavated from the kango, including earthenware, stone implements and ironware, along with a variety of clam shells and bones from animals, birds, and fish, such as shark, bream and sea bass. Also unearthed were stone coffins filled with mirrors, balls, swords, glass balls and beads.

(E) The Ozono site in Osaka prefecture

The Ozono site contains only post structures which are thought to be the residence of a minor chief or a powerful farmer. A rectangular ditch encircled the southern group of buildings which consisted of a main building, two annex buildings, a storehouse, and a well, which together demarcated a dwelling section. This fitted the homestead settlement pattern of the yashiki-chi, with the land on which the house stood clearly demarcated.

(F) The Kobukada site

The Kobukada site is a collection of pit houses, and was probably a village of commoner farmers.

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