The keyhole-shaped kofun tomb of Japan’s Emperor Nintoku lies nestled in the bustling seaport of Sakai in an undated aerial photo. The fifth-century tomb is the largest in Japan.
Recently archaeologists were allowed inside the kofun tomb of Empress Jingu—the first time that scholars had been permitted inside a Japanese royal tomb outside of an official excavation. The rare visit offers experts hope that other closely guarded graves, including Nintoku’s, might soon be open to independent study.
Photograph by Yoichi Tsukioka/Getty Images
Tony McNicol in Tokyo
for National Geographic News April 28, 2008
A rare visit by archaeologists to a fifth-century imperial tomb offers hope that other closely guarded graves in Japan might soon be open to independent study.
This month a group of 16 experts led by the Japanese Archaeological Association released results from their February visit inside Gosashi tomb.
The event marked the first time that scholars had been allowed inside a royal tomb outside of an official excavation led by Japan’s Imperial Household Agency.
Archaeologists have been requesting access to Gosashi tomb and other imperial sites since 1976, in part because the tombs date to the founding of a central Japanese state under imperial rule.
But the agency has kept access to the tombs restricted, prompting rumors that officials fear excavation would reveal bloodline links between the “pure” imperial family and Korea—or that some tombs hold no royal remains at all.
Although the team’s visit didn’t lay any of those issues to rest, experts celebrated it as a first step toward expanded access to the mysterious tombs.
“The main achievement of the occasion was that for the first time we could enter to do [our own] research,” said Koji Takahashi, a Toyama University archaeologist and spokesperson for the group.
Gosashi tomb in western Japan’s Nara Prefecture is revered as the resting place of Empress Jingu, the semi-legendary wife of the country’s 14th emperor.
Jingu is thought to have ruled as regent for her son starting around A.D. 200.
During their two-and-a-half-hour visit, the team was allowed to explore the lower part of the 886-foot-long (270-meter-long) burial mound.
The archaeologists weren’t allowed to excavate, but they did find previously unknown terra cotta haniwa figures on the tomb’s eastern side. These funerary statues were believed to help tend to the elite after death.
In addition to overseeing Jingu’s tomb, the Imperial Household Agency looks after some 896 sites said to contain the remains of imperial family members.
Of those, around 70 are kofun tombs dating to before the seventh century. These keyhole-shaped mounds surrounded by moats are some of the largest and most historically important burial sites in Japan.
“It was during the Kofun period [in the third to seventh centuries A.D.] that the Japanese nation was established on the Japanese archipelago,” Takahashi said.
“The tombs hold the key to unlocking details of the Kofun period.”
While the Imperial Household Agency shares the results of its research, the agency has been reluctant to give independent archaeologists access.
In a fax to National Geographic News, the Imperial Household Agency’s Tombs and Mausolea Division wrote: “Imperial Household religious ceremonies continue to take place at tombs and mausolea. As they are objects of remembrance and veneration for the public and imperial family, preserving their peace and dignity is of paramount importance.”
The agency added that although they will consider further research requests, “excavation is not permitted.”
Takahashi, however, believes the agency is reluctant because excavation might threaten bureaucrats’ control over the tombs.
Of the oldest, most significant tombs under the agency’s jurisdiction, very few can realistically be proven to contain the remains of imperial family members, he said.
Nevertheless, the status of the tombs is all but set in stone. The last time that the agency changed an imperial tomb’s designation was in 1881.
Other experts have suggested that the hesitation is because courtiers and conservatives fear excavation will uncover blood ties between the supposedly pure Japanese imperial line and the Asian mainland, specifically Korea.
But Walter Edwards, professor of Japanese studies at Tenri University in Nara, argues that the “Korean bones” issue is a red herring.
“Blood links between Korea and the Japanese imperial family are documented from the eighth century,” he said.
“Even the current emperor [Akihito] has said that he has Korean ancestry.” Edwards suggests that the agency’s attitude has more to do with trying to maintain the imperial family’s dignity.
But faced with the costs of keeping up hundreds of sites, the reputedly cash-strapped Imperial Household Agency may eventually allow more access as a way to get more public funds, he suggested.
The agency may now try to handle the tombs as both national heritage sites and as private graves of the imperial family.
“The problem is how to strike a balance between the two,” Edwards said.
In the meantime, high on archaeologists’ wish list for access is the fifth-century tomb of Emperor Nintoku in Osaka Prefecture.
In the past the agency has refused access to the tomb on the grounds that the boat to cross its moat is too old and unsafe.
At 1,594 feet (486 meters) long, the mausoleum is the largest in Japan.
“[It is] almost as large as the biggest of the Great Pyramids [of Egypt] in volume,” Edwards said, “and like the latter it is a truly monumental work from the ancient period.”