Kofun Period in Japan: History & Artifacts

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The Kofun Period was a major era in the development of Japanese culture. In this lesson, we'll check out the history and artifacts of this period and see how it changed life in Japan.

The Kofun Period of Japan

Did you know that Japan claims the oldest continual hereditary monarchy in the world? It's true; according to Japanese traditions the emperor can trace his lineage in a single unbroken line of succession back to the 7th century BCE. Of course, the monarchy looked a little different way back then. Prior to about 539 CE, Japan was not a unified empire but a series of smaller kingdoms and states.

So, how'd these states become unified? It's a bit of a mystery, but one of the crucial time periods in this history is the Kofun era. Spanning roughly 250-538 CE, the Kofun Period was the last of Japan's prehistoric periods, as individual tribes and communities began organizing into more concentrated states. It was at the end of this era that one hereditary monarch could first truly claim the title of emperor.

Trends of the Kofun Period

Before we get into the details, let's go over some of the basic trends of the Kofun Period. There are two notable changes we see in this time that really define Kofun life. First is a period of increased contact with mainland Asia. The aristocrats and ruling families of Japan developed closer relationships with the ruling courts of China and Korea, initiating a period of intense cultural exchange. Mainland Asian policies, cultural practices, metalworking, pottery, and even farming techniques flooded into Japan. This had a big impact on the growth of the time period.

The other major trend we see, which is closely connected, is the rise of more centralized states. Various clans began assuming control over larger and larger territories, and rulers exercised greater control and greater authority. The clan to really benefit from this was the Yamato, who are seen as having been the first to truly establish an Imperial house of Japan, as well as a feudal system of land and labor. The Yamato rose to power in the mid-third century CE, marking the start of the Kofun Period, and centralized a lot of power around themselves. They would be contested by rival clans, some of which would later rise to seize control, but were instrumental in transitioning Japan's political structure.

Kofun

So, how do we know that the ruling class was exercising greater authority and closely engaged with mainland Asia? There are several clues, but the most important are the kofun, from which the era gets its name. Kofun are large, keyhole-shaped burial mounds, in which members of the royal family were interred. Some of these can be absolutely massive, which suggests centralized power. You need to have the authority and control to mobilize a lot of people and a lot of resources to build something this grand.

General shape of a Kofun burial mound
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Kofun are the definitive feature of the Kofun Period, but where did they come from? Most likely, from the burial practices of mainland Asia. Large tombs, particularly mounds, are not found in Japan prior to this period of increased contact with Korea and China, where royal tombs of this sort were common. So we can actually tell a lot about Kofun society simply from the fact that these exist.

Kofun were also filled with grave goods, which have been incredibly important in defining Kofun-era Japanese society. Within these burial mounds, archeologists have found a number of bronze objects, from mirrors to weapons to tools, as well as other forms of jewelry which indicate a big jump in metalworking sophistication and skill during this time.

One intriguing set of artifacts associated with the kofun are hollow, clay cyllinders called haniwa. Rows of haniwa were set into the base of the kofun, and seem to have been used as pillars for offering vessels. Some were also topped with clay sculptures of people and animals. The presence of the haniwa demonstrates another change of the era: a more centralized religion. In fact, it was during the Kofun period that the Shinto religion of Japan rose in prominence, or at least the basic tenets of it. It would still be a few centuries before Shinto was codified as a formal state religion, but we do see a rise in clan-based Shinto practices in this time.

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