Art & Architecture of the Kofun Period in Japan

Instructor: David Juliao

David has a bachelor's degree in architecture, has done research in architecture, arts and design and has worked in the field for several years.

In this lesson, study the art of an early period of Japanese history: the Kofun. Learn about burial structures, wooden architecture, and also explore sculpture, pottery, metalwork and other arts from this time.

The Kofun Period

The Kofun period was marked by social changes and death, though in this case not famine or annihilation. As in Ancient Egypt, the death of rulers inspired the arts, and many pieces were created for burial rituals.

The start of the Kofun period was around year 250 CE, with the beginning of a new form of burial structures. It lasted until 538 CE, when Buddhism was first introduced to Japan. The Kofun period was named after the many tombs from this period, also known by this name. The word Kofun means old mound.

A Kofun tomb in Ojiyama
A Kofun Tomb in Ojiyama

Socially, Japan saw the development of an elite of feudal lords that competed for control over the land. Immigration and influences from China and Korea were also significant. The introduction of the Chinese writing system was the beginning of writing in Japan, and many techniques for crafts came from the mainland.

Architecture

During the Kofun period, buildings became a symbol of status, and many tombs and dwellings were built for the elite.

Funerary architecture

The architecture for the dead was an important form of art. Kofun burial structures were impressive in size and number. Over 100,000 tombs have been found all over Japan.

The kofun was the main burial structure. It was a mound built for burying members of the royalty. The form and size of the tomb represented power and wealth. The main shapes were round, square, and the distinctive keyhole-shape, basically a circle combined with a triangle. The sizes varied from about 15 feet to over 1,200. If you were someone with some wealth, you would probably have a small, rounded kofun, but if you were the king, you could expect a huge keyhole-shaped tomb. The largest tombs were often surrounded by water ditches.

The Goshiki-zuka Kofun in Kobe
The Goshiki-zuka Kofun

A wooden coffin and goods of the deceased were placed inside an interior burial chamber. In keyhole-shaped structures, this room was under the rounded part, and the triangular part served as an antechamber. Early Kofun tombs usually had undecorated chambers. By the late Kofun period, painted decoration on the walls was common.

Houses

For the common people, housing didn't change much. The pit houses from the previous periods continued to be built. These were wooden elongated structures with gable roofs. One significant advance, however, was the incorporation of stoves, improving interior air quality by eliminating much of the smoke from the preceding fireplaces, while still providing heat and a place to cook.

For the elite, dwellings evolved into palatial houses. Timbered walls were incorporated, some houses had more than one story, and raised structures became a symbol of social status. These high-class dwellings often had a ceremonial altar inside. Outside, they usually had a fence built around the structure to separate the elite from the common people.

Reconstruction of a Kofun house
Kofun House

Ceramics

The new social class influenced the production of clay pieces. One type of pottery was produced for the common people, and another style emerged for the royalty. The production of clay figures was also important.

Haji Ware

The Haji ware was produced for everyday use. Pieces were modeled and then cooked in fire, providing them with a distinctive rust-red color. They had no ornaments and were of a variety of shapes, like vases, jars, and wide pots.

Sue ware

The Sue ware was a more sophisticated pottery reserved for the upper class. The potter's wheel was introduced to Japan for modeling Sue pieces, which were then fired at high temperatures. They had a blueish or gray finish and elaborate shapes and ornaments.

A Sue vessel
A Sue Vessel

Both wares were also used as offerings for the dead and placed around tombs.

Haniwa Sculptures

The Haniwa sculptures were created from several tubes of clay; hence the name, which roughly means clay cylinder. Similarly to the Haji ware, these figures were modeled and cooked, and also had a reddish finish. They commonly depicted human figures, horses and houses. These pieces were placed as offerings around the tombs.

Haniwa sculpture of a horse
Haniwa Sculpture of a Horse

Metalwork

Metalwork evolved significantly, both for the creation of war equipment and for decorative and ceremonial pieces.

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