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Japanese Kofun Period: Religion & Burial Mounds

Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson we explore the burial rites and unique burial mounds built in Japan during the Kofun period. We also delve into the religious history of Japan in this time period as well.

Honoring the Dead

How do you honor your ancestors who have passed? Perhaps you leave flowers at their head stones, or perhaps you do the same thing every year that helps you remember them. What you probably don't do is a gather a big pile of dirt.

That, however, is just what the Japanese of the Kofun period did. Burial mounds were all the rage in this period of ancient Japan, which also featured the characteristically Japanese religion, Shintoism. This lesson will explore the religion and burial rites of that unique period of Japanese history.

Background

The dates of the Kofun period are not exact and often depend upon who is measuring them. Most historians place the beginning of the period sometime in the late 3rd century C.E., with it ending sometime during the late 6th or early 7th century C.E.

Little is known about the Kofun period as no written records survive from this period of Japanese history. This isn't always a problem in early Japanese history - often we can learn about Japan from cultures in contact with it who did keep copious written records, oftentimes the Chinese. But the problem with the Kofun period is that for most of the period China was embroiled in a series of civil wars, and the attentions of Chinese writers were often focused on internal matters.

Thus, what we know about the Kofun period largely comes from what archaeologists can glean from sites dating to the period and from writing created in Japan shortly after the end of the Kofun period.

What we do have from Chinese and Korean sources tells us that during the Kofun period the assortment of small states in Japan likely came under control of a single government, the Yamato government. Yamato began as a coalition of the most powerful clans in Japan and it gradually gained greater and greater control over political and economic affairs in most of Japan. The Yamato were powerful enough that they even intervened militarily in Korea during the period.

Burial Mounds

Arguably the most defining feature of the period--indeed, where the time period gets its name--was the burial mounds. Burial mounds, or kofun, in Japan existed before the Kofun period, but it was during this time that mounds changed dramatically.

Mound dating from the Kofun period
burial mound

In the Kofun period, mounds were built in a keyhole shape and took on other design characteristics as well. Though originally reserved for nobility, as the period progressed nearly all Japanese honored their dead by entombing them in burial mounds. Those of higher social status were buried with personal items, weapons, or other objects of religious significance. Generally, the more important a figure was, the more things that were buried with them. In the later period, some were buried with so much stuff that there was a separate mound made merely to entomb the deceased's belongings!

Often included in these burial mounds were haniwa, which were small, cylindrical clay tubes. These small clay sculptures were embedded in the mound itself or fixed to the ground just before the mound. They provided a spot to place religious offerings and honor the deceased.

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