Kofun Government, Military & Armor

Instructor: Joanna Harris

Joanna has taught high school social studies both online and in a traditional classroom since 2009, and has a doctorate in Educational Leadership

There is more to ancient Japan than legends of the samurai. To learn more about the period of ancient Japan that predates the samurai, give this lesson a read.

The Kofun Period of Japan

The years between 250 CE and 538 CE were a time of transition in Japan that was frequently very violent. During these centuries, Japan found its footing and became somewhat like what we know now as imperial Japan. However, this period was markedly different than modern day Japan in its culture and governmental structure.

Contact with China and Korea expanded during these years, and many aspects of both civilizations permeated Japanese society. Metallurgy also improved during the period as Japan emerged from its Iron Age into the Bronze Age creating new forms of weaponry and tools.

Clans, or rich and powerful families led by an elder militaristic family member, fought each other for control of islands like Honshu and Okinawa. During these years, clans like the Soga, Nakatomi, Kasuga, Ki, and the Yamato left the countryside of Japan bloody from battles and feuds warring for dominance over each other. For centuries, none of these clans could turn the tide in their favor.

Of these clans, the Yamato family emerged victorious during the era known as the Kofun Period (250 CE-538 CE) and became the imperial dynastic rulers of Japan by way of the government they installed, their military prowess, and their new forms of armor.

The Yamato Government

The first main hurdle the Yamato clan made in their rise was to form a confederation with the major clans who posed a threat to their rule. Called the uji class and given high rank and influence were the Soga, Mononobe, Kasuga, Ki, Nakatomi, Haji, and the Otomo clans. Those who performed important trades like papermaking and blacksmithing organized into trade organizations called guilds and were among the be class.

The government of Japan during the Kofun Period was also predicated upon the confederation of the clans with responsibilities of running the military and holding religious rituals of the most importance. The Mononobe clan supported by the Otomo clan were charged with controlling the military. The Nakatomi clan were placed over the conduction of religious rituals in the Shinto faith.

Ministers were also appointed from the clans in a hierarchy of positions. The highest government minister during the Kofun Period always hailed from the Soga clan. The position of second minister would be chosen from among the Otomo and Mononobe clans. The ruler of Japan during this period was not called emperor, as the position became known in the following Asuka Period. Kofun Period Yamato rulers were called kings or a Kimi, and later called great king or Ohkimi.

Image of a burial mound called a kofun

Of note during the period, and where its name originated were the burial mounds for important clan members called kofuns. These hills were originally only laden with the remains of the deceased, but over time became tombs where pottery and riches were buried as well. To keep the kofuns safe from plunder, moats or deep ditches filled with water were dug around each mound.

Most of the kofuns discovered from the period hold only members of the clans. However, eventually they became large cemeteries where the dead from both the uji and the be class were laid to rest.

The Yamato Military

Because Japan had no form of writing during the era before adopting Chinese calligraphy, much of what we know about the Yamato clan's rise to power, and about the period itself comes from the kofuns that have been excavated. What we do know is that the Yamato clan slowly took power over the other clans from their ancestral lands located at Honshu and Kyushu.

Most of the internal fighting in Japan during the era was among the clans, however major battles were fought between the Japanese and the Koreans in the kingdoms of Silla and Paekche. Other battles were fought in the kingdom of Goguryeo that also expanded Japanese rule into Korea. As Japan made its way further into Korea, the influences from both China and Korea had a profound effect on Japan and its military.

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