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Yayoi Period Art, Pottery & Architecture

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

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

The Yayoi people were members of one of Japan's oldest cultures. In this lesson, we are going to check out their art an architecture and see how they impacted Japan's history.

The Yayoi Period

In 1884, an archeological excavation in the Yayoi district of Tokyo yielded some interesting artifacts. In some ways, these finds looked like products of the Jomon culture, the hunter-gather society of prehistoric Japan. In other ways, however, these artifacts bore resemblance to Chinese and Korean objects, and in still other ways they looked completely unique.

The archeologists had uncovered evidence of a culture historians were not yet aware of, now known as the Yayoi. Since then, historians have determined that the Yayoi Period of Japanese history lasted from roughly 300 BCE to 250 CE. During this time, Japan developed fully sedentary societies, full-scale agriculture and metalworking. It was a time of change as one of Japan's oldest cultures developed.

Art and Pottery of the Yayoi Period

There's a lot that we don't know about the Yayoi people, and what we do know comes from limited archeological finds. These do excavations suggest the Yayoi had a thriving artistic culture. Of the artifacts that have survived, Yayoi arts can mostly be grouped into two categories.

The first is pottery. Pottery seems to have been a very important product of Yayoi cultures, which is consistent with most societies at this stage of development. Pottery had first been developed in the Jomon period, where it was made by coiling a long, thin strip of clay upwards into the shape of a pot. Yayoi pottery was made in much the same way.

Yayoi pottery was distinctive in its design
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Yayoi pottery, however, was very different in design. While Jomon pottery was complex and intricate, Yayoi pottery tended to be very smooth and elegant, focusing on the function of the vase over extraneous design. It was unglazed, generally unpainted and often undecorated at all. The simplicity and austerity of the design indicates a minimalist ideology, perhaps suggesting an appreciation for the shape of the vessel and character of the surface itself. It's worth noting that these are traits of Japanese ceramics that reappeared for millennia to come.

Pottery makes up the vast majority of Yayoi arts that we've uncovered, but there is another unique product that also appeared in this time. Dotaku were bronze bells decorated with geometric shapes and patterns that first appeared in the Yayoi period. Since Japan itself is not overly rich in iron or bronze, these materials were likely sourced in Korea, showing an increase in contact between the islands and peninsula in this time. It's also worth noting that Korean cultures of the time also made ceremonial bronze bells, which were hung outside the house. We don't know exactly what the dotaku were used for, but they were often buried in remote locations. This suggests a ceremonial role, perhaps connected to the earliest iterations of Japan's nature-based religion of Shinto.

Yayoi dotaku
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Yayoi Architecture

Being the first truly sedentary culture of Japan, the Yayoi people were also the first to get architecture off the ground - literally. The most distinctive Yayoi structures were elevated, resting on seven posts in the ground. A ladder, carved from a single piece of wood, was the method of entry. Some architects think that these buildings may have been used for storing rice, the main agricultural product of the Yayoi. By elevating them off the ground, the Yayoi may have hoped to keep rodents and other pests out of the storehouse. The posts of these structures even had rat guards, which are wide disks near the top that would have prevented rats from crawling up the sides.

Flared roofs are a defining trait of Yayoi architecture
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