Burial rituals and mortuary customs
According to the Wei dynasty account, when someone died, the Yayoi people mourned for ten days and burial was done in a single coffin. They dressed in hemp clothes for mourning.
At the Yoshinogari burial mound site, the people would proceed from the mound along a passageway ending at a pair of postholes which are thought to be tori gates. In front of this gate is a large pit filled pottery. Traces of fire found here suggest fires were lit here, as food offerings contained in the pottery were made to ancestors by family members or tribal members. The passageway and tori gates are thought to have been the earliest examples of the Shinto gate. (According to the Japanese religion, the pilgrim on his way to a Shinto shrine to worship his ancestors also has to pass a torii, a Shinto gate.)
The Hirabaru mounded grave was orientated towards sunrise (at the vernal and fall equinox season) and is thought to have been a site where sun worship as well as ancestral worship were practiced. Two pairs of postholes thought to have formed tori gates were directed eastwards at the Takasu mountain and the mountain pass of Hinata in east-south-eastern direction — perhaps symbolising the power of the dead person that extended beyond the mountains, or in reverence for a nature or mountain deity.
Archaeologists have found different kinds of burials from excavation sites around Japan. The burial culture of the Yayoi period showed a change from the earlier Jomon burial rituals in that it was the beginning of large-scale formal cemeteries.
Megalithic stone graves
One of the rarest burial customs seen at the beginning of the Yayoi era in Kyushu was the burying of the dead in megalithic stone graves. The dead corpse was placed in an earthen jar, a wooden or stone coffin or a pit, with a single large capstone right over the grave. This custom was copied from the Korean practice of dolmen construction, and probably came with Korean immigrants. The practice was limited to burials in Saga and Nagasaki prefectures only in the very early days of the Yayoi period and did not prove to be popular as it did not last very long.
Pit, jar and coffin burials (primary burials)
On the Fukuoka plain, the people of the Early Yayoi period buried some of their dead directly into pits without coffins and some of them into wooden coffins. Placing their dead (or interring their dead) in burial jars was to become the main kind of burial and one of the most distinctive types of burial for the Yayoi culture.
Especially popular during the Middle Yayoi period, the jars were at first placed horizontally (e.g. those at Itazuke site). Later, they were placed at an angle to counter the weight of the earth pressing down from above. And finally, the custom shifted to burying the jars upright with the mouths turned down. Bones are often painted red, their sacred colour. By Late Yayoi, it became common to wrap the bodies placed into the jars in mats.
At the Yoshitake-Takagi site in Fukuoka city, 34 jar burials (in which 16 adults were buried) and four wooden coffins were excavated. All four of the coffins and eight of the mortuary jars contained grave goods such as jasper, jade or glass beads and a bronze dagger. One of the coffins contained two daggers, a bronze halberd, spearhead and a mirror – something worth noting – because it is the earliest collection of the mirror-sword-jewel combination that is traditionally connected with the imperial family of Japan.
At the Yayoi commoner’s excavated cemetery from the Kanenokuma site in Fukuoka, were found 348 burials in large jars (called kamenkanbo), a large number of which were burials of children, thus allowing experts to figure out that this was the preferred form of burial for children. 119 other burials were direct into the pit or in wooden coffins, as well as two stone coffin burials.
At the Doigahama cemetery site in Yamaguchi Prefecture, the majority of Yayoi 200 or so skeletons found there, lay in extended positions with their heads pointing east, the rest had their heads pointing north. The Yayoi people also segregated the burials of community members from those of outsiders married into the group.
In Honshu, however, there existed a different burial custom. When a person died, the Yayoi people would first bury the dead corpse in an earthen pit (in a temporary mortuary house). After the flesh had decomposed, the dead remains would be exhumed (dug up) and possibly in order to remove several of the teeth to be worn by relatives. Then the remaining bones and teeth would be moved into a jar for burial into a pit in a separate formal cemetery. The jars commonly had narrow necks of 10 cm diameter. Bones that could not fit into the jar would be cremated and returned into the main pit. Burnt animal sacrifices were presented as this stage perhaps as ancestral offerings, and the teeth were returned by the relatives to the main pit after having worn them for a time.
Cremated bones have been recovered from the Yatsuhagi cave in Gunma prefecture. Human bones, teeth with holes pierced for use as ornaments were uncovered at several sites. Archaeologists used to think that knife-like marks on bones meant that cannibalism had taken place, but now experts are of the view that the cut marks, such as those found on bones excavated from caves on the Miura peninsula, were made during the defleshing of the bones for secondary burial. Many of the jars had been repaired carefully. Jars of several individuals were re-buried together in a pit on a single occasion even though they had not died at the same time. These secondary pits were usually separate and far away from the village settlement.
The moat-enclosed burial mound
The custom of secondary burials gradually gave way to the moated precinct which became one of the most common types of burial during the Yayoi period. In the centre of the precinct, the mounds are usually square or circular and inside the mounds were wooden coffins or pit burials. The pits were sometimes found inside the moats.
Inside of the Yayoi mound was usually buried a person of paramount importance to their society, most probably some very powerful tribal chief or shaman priest(ess) who had wielded a strong influence and power over people for many kilometres. The mound was built in an area totally separate and away from the communal cemetery or cemetery for the common people.
The earliest of the mound burials was at the Mine site in Fukuoka. It was a rectangular mound 18 m long, 13 m wide and 1 m high and was surrounded on three sides by a 1.7 m deep ditch. Apparently a very important ruler member of the Yayoi community and family members were actually placed in the large jars and entombed within the mound.
A rectangular mounded and moat-enclosed grave at the Hirabaru site in Fukuoka prefecture contained a wooden split log coffin that had been painted red (in cinnabar pigment) which was the custom for Middle and Late Yayoi burials. The moats usually contained only one individual, sometimes with additional pit burials in the moat.
The earth dug from the moats was usually used to pile up the mound. A great deal of labour was mobilised for the building of each of the mounds, some of which were huge. Historians believe that the higher the mound, the more important the standing or status of the person buried within the mound. The mounds were however too numerous to have been reserved for elite rulers, and are thought to have been used as a mode of burial for powerful families as well.
The moated burial precinct eventually replaced the secondary burials in popularity perhaps because there was a shift towards beliefs in ancestral worship and ideas about treatment of the dead resulting in new mortuary rituals. The segregated moated precinct also showed the kinship groupsand ties based on the agricultural production unit and also showing their stress on their ancestral rights to land. One ethnologist (Obayashi) has suggested that the central mounded area surrounded by the moat may be symbolic of the rebirth of Onogoro Island according to the land creation mythology.
During the last phase of the Yayoi period, the mounds characterized by their size and variety and quality of grave goods are thought to reflect a society becoming increasingly complex and hierarchical (with many layers of differing status and ranks for different people). The grave goods and type of coffin or burial and height of the mound would distinguish the person buried in it according to his social status or his role as chief, shaman priest, warrior, craftsman, rich or poor farmer, etc.
The network of gigantic tombs (that continued into the Kofun era), and the distribution of grave goods, particularly of bronze mirrors, found within the mounds are considered by many experts to reflect the specific political happenings during the era and to reflect who controlled what resources such as specialized crafted items or exotic items that could be obtained only through trade or diplomatic exchanges. The pattern of prestige goods found in the mounded tombs all over the country likely mirrored the relationships and political alliances between the ruling chiefs while they had been alive.
Most burial jars of ordinary graves, and there were hundreds and even thousands of such jars at some Yayoi cemetery sites, contained no grave goods.
However, a number of remarkable finds of grave goods have been found:
Bronze mirrors were the most valuable of grave goods marking the grave of a very high-ranking person. The Hirabaru mound site had 39 bronze mirrors; the Mikumo-minami-shoji burial no. 1 site had 35 mirrors; Suku-okamoto site 32 mirrors; Mikumo-minami-shoji burial no. 2 site 22 mirrors; and Ihara-yarimizo site had 21 mirrors.
Glass beads from burials were analysed by scientists and found to have been lead-barium glass of the kind found in the pre-Han period in China. Such glass bead items, known as pi, were likely to have been objects of trade between Yayoi Japan and China.
At the Yamamoto site in eastern Japan, 68 glass beads were recovered from the burial mound, along with pottery.
Hirabaru mound had turned up some of the largest finds of glass beads: 480 dark blue globular beads; 10-12 cylindrical glass beads; 17-18 “bone-like” cylindrical beads; 12 cylindrical agate beads forming a bracelet; 1 amber-opal earring and 500 amber-opal beads; 320 rings of deep blue joined glass beads that made up a necklace; and three blue curved glass beads (magatama) uncommonly perforated on both sides. Agate beads and amber-opal beads were unknown in Yayoi Japan, and most likely arrived as trade items from Han period sites in China or from the Chinese outpost of Lolang in Korea.
Shell bracelets were found in a burial jar of a female from the large communal cemetery of the Yoshinogari settlement alongside with a bronze mirror. The shells bracelets were made out of cone shells from the south seas. The female skeleton was thought to have belonged to a female shaman priestess.