Yayoi Pottery vs. Jomon Pottery

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

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

The Jomon and Yayoi peoples made up two of the oldest cultures in Japanese history. In this lesson, we'll compare their main material products (pottery) and examine the similarities and the differences.

Early Japanese Pottery

Japanese culture is rich and diverse. It's also been characterized for centuries by high-quality ceramic production. But where did this begin? When we trace Japanese culture all the way back through the archeological record, we find its origins in two societies. First were the Jomon people, the first identifiable culture of Japan. The term ''Jomon'' is something of a catchall for the Paleolithic people of the islands, spanning a broad time period from roughly 14,500 to 300 BCE. They were followed by a more unified culture called the Yayoi (roughly 300 BCE- 250 CE).

These people lived a long time ago and there's much about their lives that's a mystery to us. The vast majority of our knowledge comes from their pottery; the principle element of their material culture which has survived the passing of time. So what did Japanese culture look like in its infancy? A comparison of these pottery types may give us some clues.

Jomon Pottery

Let's start with the pottery of the Jomon cultures. Jomon ceramics first appear in the archeological record around 13,000 BCE, which is earlier than nearly any other part of the world. Over thousands of years, they developed a diverse range of styles, but for the sake of this lesson we're going to focus on the most definitive trends.

First, let's talk about how the Jomon people made their ceramics. Jomon societies existed before the invention of the potter's wheel, so every vessel was molded by hand. The clay was rolled into thin coils, which were stacked on top of each other until the desired height was achieved. The sculptor then molded the shapes and designs of the vase. Since they do not seem to have had kilns, the ceramic would have been fired over an open flame. It's also worth noting that these vessels were unglazed.

A typical Jomon vase
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The Jomon people made a variety of vessels, but the most common was a very deep vase likely used to store things. The Jomon people stored their goods in pits, built their homes in pits, and buried their dead in pits. The deep vases are likely a reflection of this.

Stylistically, Jomon ceramics are very unique. The most distinctive design element was a pattern created by wrapping a chord around the wet clay and pressing an imprint onto the surface. In fact, the entire Jomon culture is named for this process; Jomon means ''straw rope pattern''. That pattern was often just the beginning, however. Jomon ceramics, particularly of the Middle Jomon period (roughly 2,600-1,500 BCE), became more and more extravagant. Wild and ornate designs were molded into vases and other ceramic objects, creating what is called a flame-style or pattern. Many of these are so decorative that the actual function of the vessel is obscured. For this reason, archeologists believe many of these were strictly ceremonial and not intended for daily use.

Later Jomon ceramicists also started producing humanoid figurines with goggle-shaped eyes called dogu figures. The exact purpose of these intricate clay sculptures remains unknown, but they are one of the most intriguing elements of Jomon culture.

Jomon dogu figure
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Yayoi Pottery

In the 3rd century BCE, a new unified culture appeared across Japan. The Yayoi people were the first fully sedentary and fully agricultural communities of the island, and they also maintained an active ceramics culture.

In technical terms, Yayoi pottery was similar to that of the Jomon. The Yayoi also worked without the potter's wheel, creating ceramics by stacking coils of clay. Their vessels were also unglazed, and also unpainted. The biggest difference is that Yayoi people had developed more sophisticated clay production and firing techniques, including applying a clay slip to the vessel before firing, so the quality tended to be higher and the vessels less porous.

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