Who lies entombed within?

Inside the burial chamber of Shougunyama kofun (a reconstruction), Saitama Prefecture

Who was buried in the Kofun tombs?

Because of the immense labour required to build an ancient burial mound, Kofun tombs were initially built only for elite rulers such as Yamato priest-kings, regional “kings” or clan chieftains or warrior kings and generals. Later, the tombs were copied and built even by wealthy clansmen or farmers though on a smaller scale.   

Only 2 of the mound tombs have been positively and correctly identified: the tombs of Emperor Temmu and Tenji.

Since the kofun society existed during a protohistoric period of Japan before the kofun people had learnt how to write, no one kept records of who was buried in which tombs during the tomb building.   When the first histories of Japan were compiled in the early 8th century, the memory of who was entombed within these tombs was already lost. The designation of imperial tombs of the late Edo and Meiji is based on guesswork and thus unreliable.

And some tombs designated as imperial tombs, including the tomb said to be Nintoku’s, have been excavated in the past. The Imperial Household Agency has only recently allowed a small number of archaeologists to begin some excavation work on designated tombs, in conjunction with maintenance and repair work.

Kings are thought to be buried in tombs that meet these criteria laid down by historians and archaeologists: 

  • the tomb must be of a large dimension;
  • the tomb must be separated from other tombs;
  • the tomb must contain outstanding and lavish grave goods such as super-sized bronze mirrors;
  • there is evidence (e.g. written records) of the existence of a king / queen in the geographical region.

In the Early Kofun period

During this period, ceremonial grave goods (such as bronze mirrors, necklaces of curved and cylindrical beads made from jade and jasper and other jasper or green tuff ornaments) were buried along with some iron weapons and armor, indicating that the person buried had sacred or magical powers as well as military might.

Bronze mirror, Museum of the Sakitama Ancient Burial Mound

In the Middle Kofun period

Horsetrappings in the continental style, numerous iron weapons and agricultural tools, and imported gold ear ornaments, and stone ware were buried.

Horse saddle, straps, ornaments and other trappings along with bronze and sue drinking ware were buried in the Shougunyama kofun tomb in Saitama Prefecture, one of the most famous tomb discoveries containing horse gear.

Instead of jasper or jade jewellery, roughed out talc imitations of sheathed knives and daily objects turned up. These indicate the resources available to the elite ruler as well as access to continental technology, such as are required for gilt-bronze metalwork for producing horse gear and ornaments.

In the Late Kofun period

Sue pottery and food were deposited to accompany the interred person into the afterlife world, in addition to the personal ornaments and weapons worn by the deceased.

Sueware as provision for the afterlife of the deceased person,Museum of the Sakitama Ancient Burial Mound

The Japanese Imperial Family is identified with three sacred objects — the mirror, sword and curved jewel, or magatama — the Three Imperial Regalia.  The Three Imperial Regalia were already important religious symbols by the Middle Yayoi Period, and are abundant in the tombs of the Kofun Period.

The roots of the mirror are unknown. Han Chinese mirrors were common in northwestern Kyushu by Middle Yayoi, and these were preceded by a few mirrors brought from Korea a bit earlier. The third-century Wei mirrors of Late Yayoi were common in both northwestern Kyushu and in Kinai. Mirrors were a major burial object in Kofun Period tombs, especially the earlier ones, but they are not always — or even mostly — associated with the other three symbols.

The mirror from the beginning was perhaps a representation of the Sun Goddess, the ancestor of the Imperial Line. But it might also have been a talisman to ward off evil. It is not known whether the ideas surrounding the mirror were imported from the continent together with the mirror, or whether the Yayoi people simply saw the mirror as a useful symbol of ideas they already had.

The sword (or weapon) might be a symbol of male virility and have its roots in the Jomon stone phallic symbols, thought to represent male fertility. By Latest Jomon, however, these stone phallic symbols looked more like stone swords than phalluses.

Swords excavated from a kofun tomb in the Tama New Town area, Tokyo Maibun Archaeological Center

Bronze swords and spears were originally imported from Korea beginning about the end of Early Yayoi. Later, obviously ritual forms of these weapons were manufactured in Japan and are common in Yayoi sites — spears in northwestern Kyushu and swords in western Honshu and Shikoku. Swords are common in Kofun Period burials, especially the later ones.

The magatama’s origins are more controversial. These curved jewels of jadeite are common in Kofun Period burials, and they are common also in Korean sites of the same age. This fact seems to have led most archaeologists to conclude that the magatama originated in Korea. But magatama are found in Yayoi sites, too, and unquestionable true magatama are reported also in Jomon sites in Tohoku as early as about 1000 B.C., long before true magatama appeared in Korea.

Jasper magatama beads, Tokyo National Museum

The magatama is said to represent the soul. Tama in Japanese means jewel (ball, bullet) and is also part of tamashi, the Japanese word for soul or spirit.


(All photographed by permission of the respective museums, copyright Kawagoe)

4 responses to “Who lies entombed within?

  1. Awesome help for my Japanese History project!

  2. interesting…………….

  3. Pingback: Ancient Bling: Reboot – Museum Bites

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