Life & Death in a Changing Society

Evidence for changes in society can often be recognised by archaeologists interested in what is known as the social archaeology of the societies whose remains they study. In the Japanese archipelago, major social changes associated with the development of the first state-level society occurred during the Yayoi and Kofun periods, between the third and eighth centuries AD. This section explores how these social changes can be detected through studying burials and settlements, in particular focusing on where and how newly emerging elite classes of people lived, and how they were treated after death. The Japanese evidence is of great interest in this regard – as it includes some of the largest burial monuments anywhere in the world, and a Japanese version of Pompei, a 6th century landscape buried beneath debris from a massive volcanic eruption.


The term kofun means ‘old [ko] tomb [fun]’, and refers to the so-called mounded tombs, or burial mounds, built in Japan from 250 AD to the end of the 7th century, when burial was replaced by cremation with the advent of Buddhism. Some estimates suggest that up to 100,000 such burial mounds were constructed across Japan, from Kyushu to northern Honshu, during these centuries. The largest of these tombs were truly monumental. The great tomb of Daisenyama, considered to the tomb of the 5th century Emperor Nintoku, was 486 meters long, had a distinctive ‘keyhole’ plan (looking like a modern western-style keyhole when viewed from above), and was surrounded by several wide moats. The smallest burial mounds measured just a few metres across. The burials in the chamber were often accompanied by grave goods. The size of the mound and the richness of the goods tell us that these were the burials of the social elite of the time.

The shape of the mound varies. Some kofun are square (hofun), some circular (empun) and other have a keyhole shape (zempo-koen-fun in Japanese) with a round mound joined to a square flared section. The mounds were sometimes covered with sepcial cladding stones (fukiishi); either for decoration to prevent the mound from collapsing. Larger keyhole mounds would often have clay figures (haniwa) set up on terraces along the sides of the mound and on top of the mound. This mound type first appeared in the Yamato region in the south-eastern part of the Nara basin.

Chiefs and commoners

Many archaeologists believe that residences of the community were separated from the residences of the chiefs. These may be separate farms in the area around the residence or in separate parts of the same settlement. Kofun burial mounds would be some distance away from the settlements.

Part 1: Enclosed settlements and elite residential compounds

There are many different kinds of settlement. Detailed excavation reveals many of the details of their structure and the functions of their buildings. The following teaching materials can be used to answer the question –

How can we understand changes in settlements from the Yayoi to Kofun periods?

Fig. 01 – The Yayoi village at Otsuka, Kanagawa prefecture at the end of the excavation. Just above the village itself you can see one of the rectangular burial enclosures of the Saikachido cemetery.

1: Middle Yayoi settlement at Otsuka, Kanagawa prefecture

Excavated as part of a major housing development in the city of Yokohama, the ditch-enclosed Middle Yayoi (c. 100 BC-AD 100) settlement of Otsuka gives a clear picture of the layout of a farming village from this period. A single ditch enclosed an area of 200 x 130 metres and contained 115 pit dwellings and 10 raised-floor buildings, possibly granaries. As you can see on the plan, some of these houses overlapped with each other, indicating that not all the buildings were occupied at the same time. None of the buildings stands out as an obvious ‘leader’s house’, for example, by being larger, more elaborate, or containing special artefacts. Perhaps there was not much difference between individual households at this time. Adjacent to the settlement was a cemetery area, with a series of 25 rectangular ditched burial enclosures were excavated. Each rectangular enclosure contained a single central grave, with other burials in the ditches. It is thought that the members of a family household at Otsuka were buried in each enclosure

Fig. 02 – Plans of Yoshinogari, Saga prefecture

2: A large Yayoi settlement at Yoshinogari, Saga prefecture

Major occupation of the area of the site of Yoshinogari in northern Kyushu began in the Early Yayoi, and by the Late Yayoi had developed to cover 40 hectares. An outer moat 8 metres wide and 4 metres deep enclosed the whole hillside. The hill was 1000 metres from north to south and 600 metres from east to west. The residential area inside the moat included a variety of facilities. These were arranged in zones for dwelling, for post-built storage and for burials.

Fig. 03 – Reconstruction of Yoshinogari, Saga prefecture

3: Modern reconstruction of the settlement of Yoshinogari, Saga prefecture

Different residential zones, each with their own character, were demarcated by walls and palisades. The northern enclosed zone shown here has post-built structures, including a large building of 13 metres square with 16 posts. Buildings with four flared corners are reconstructed as watch-towers. In this area was found a bronze halberd. This zone was thought to be a ritual space or the residence of a chief’s household.

Fig. 04 – Excavation of Yoshinogari, Saga prefecture

4: The site of Yoshinogari under excavation

The southern enclosed area had mainly square pit dwellings. Post-built buildings with two flared corners in the south were probably watch-towers. In the the moats, four bronze mirrors were found. This zone is thought to be a residential area for the elites. Around 60 square pit dwelling were found, although much disturbed by farming in later periods. Other areas of pit dwellings were found to the north of the outer moat. The main storage area with around 100 post-built structures is located to the west of this southern enclosed zone.

Fig. 05 – Inner residential area at Mitsudera 1, Gunma prefecture (Middle Kofun period, 5th century)

5: An elite residential compound at Mitsudera 1, Gunma prefecture

An inner square area of 86 square metres was enclosed by a moat to the south and west and by natural rivers in the north and east. The moat was 3 metres deep and 30 metres wide. The soil from the moat was piled up on the residential area up to 1.5 metres thick to give it extra height. The outer slopes of the residential island were covered with stones. The outer rim of the area was surrounded by triple wooden fences. The square arena was divided into two sections; north and south. The southern section comprises some post-built buildings, a well and water apparatus. A large building of 158 square metres is thought to be a residence or office for the chief. The southern section was a ritual space for the chief and was shielded by a wooden fence.

Fig. 06 – An overview of the landscape around the Mitsudera 1 elite residential enclosure (lower centre), with surrounding farmsteads and a group of large keyhole shaped burial mounds (kofun) at the top.

6: Overview of the landscape around Mitsudera I in the 5th 6th century AD

In the northern section, even though only the south corner was excavated, there were two pit dwellings of 5 metres square. Tsude Hiroshi thought the northern section was for household management to support the chief living in the southern section. Tatsumi Kazuhiro suggested instead that the site was divided into a secular north and a sacred south. Accordingly, this northern part of the site is a residence for a chief; not for ordinary villagers. Farming villages, such as Kuroimine, have been found in the area around the site, and clusters of kofun, including three key-hole shaped mounds, are about 1 kilometre northwest of Mitsudera 1. These would be the burials of the chiefs.

Student Activity:

Key question

  • How can we understand changes in settlements from the Yayoi to Kofun periods?

Secondary questions

  • Can we classify the kinds of structures found on the sites by type of building, size and location?
  • How do the three sites compare in their evidence for chiefs and ordinary villagers?
  • Why might the sites, or parts of the sites, be surrounded by a moat?

Part 2: Buried elites and kofun burial mounds

A major feature of burials in many cultures is the presence of grave goods in or around the tombs. In the case of the kofun burial mounds of Japan, not only were many of the mounds monumental in scale, but the deceased were also accompanied by terracotta tomb figures (haniwa) set up around the outside of the tomb, distant relations of the renowned terracotta warriors that guarded the great tomb of the Qin Shi Huang Di, First Emperor of China. Grave goods and the state of the body can tell us a lot about the regard in which the deceased were held by those doing the burying. The following teaching materials can be used to address the question:

How can we interpret changes in burials from the Yayoi to Kofun periods’?

Fig. 07 – Middle Yayoi burial mound at Yoshinogari, Saga prefecture

7: A large burial mound at Yoshinogari, Saga prefecture

The mound burial was 40 metres long north to south and 27 metres wide east to west. It was located in the northernmost part of the enclosed area next to the outer moat. It was originally over 4.5 metres high. 14 double jar burials of the Middle Yayoi period were found inside. Two pottery vessels were fitted mouth to mouth to form a coffin. Eight of the burials had grave goods: bronze swords and glass cylindrical beads.

Fig. 08 – Jar burial No.1002 at Yoshinogari, Saga prefecture

8: Remains of a burial inside an urn from Yoshinogari, Saga prefecture

From a burial in the mound in Figure 08, there was a bronze sword (44.5 cm long) and 79 cylindrical beads made of blue glass with a large amount of red cinnabar. All burials in this mound were of adults and no jar burials of children were found. It is thought that successive chiefs were in this mound.

Fig. 09 – Jar burials in the settlement at Yoshinogari, Saga prefecture

9: A cemetery of jar burials at Yoshinogari, Saga prefecture

About 2,500 other jar burials were found in several rows and blocks in the settlement. In contrast with burials in the mound, there were no grave goods of bronze. Instead, there were iron knives, shell bracelets and stone beads.

Fig. 10 – This headless body from Yoshinogari was buried in two ceramic urns, placed mouth to mouth

10: A headless burial from Yoshinogari, Saga prefecture

Some of the skeletons from the settlement had their head removed. This is assumed to be the result of warfare.

Fig. 11 – The largest kofun in Japan: Daisenyama, Osaka prefecture, attributed to the 5th century Emperor Nintoku

11: The Daisenyama kofun in Sakai, Osaka prefecture, thought to be the tomb of the 5th century Emperor Nintoku

Many of the largest kofun were constructed around Osaka Bay in the 5th century. The largest of all the kofun, 486 metres long, is the Daisenyama tomb, thought to be where the 5th century Emperor Nintoku is buried. Many of the largest kofun were built at this time, with a concentration in the Kinai region, including the modern-day prefectures of Osaka and Nara, the centre of political power that was to become the first state-level society in Japan, the Yamato state.

Fig. 12 – Imashirozuka kofun, Osaka prefecture. ‘H’ marks where the house-shaped haniwa was found

12: Imashirozuka-kofun, Osaka prefecture

The Imashirozuka-kofun measures about 354 metres in total length, including its double moats. There is one theory that this kofun mound is the tomb of Emperor Keitai, and is described as Mishima Aino Misasagi in ancient documents. An arrangement of about 180 haniwa clay objects was found on the flared section between the two moats. They were arranged in four zones divided by palisades. The haniwa included warriors, waterbirds, a snake charmer and houses.

Fig. 13 – A model house haniwa from Imashirozuka-kofun, Osaka prefecture, of the Late Kofun period (6th century) . Height 132 cms

13: Haniwa in the shape of a house, Imashirozuka kofun, Osaka prefecture’

This haniwa gives a realistic impression of what a high status house of the Late Kofun period (6th century AD) may have looked like. Note in particular the elaborate eaves at either end of the roof, and the fact that it had two stories. The pillars are also interesting, and give an indication of the architectural sophistication of such buildings.

Fig. 14 – An armoured warrior haniwa from Imashirozuka-kofun, Osaka prefecture, of the Late Kofun period (6th century). Height 118 cms

14: Haniwa of a warrior, Imashirozuka kofun, Osaka prefecture’

Warriors such as this played an important part in Late Kofun society. The material for the iron armour was probably imported from the Korean peninsula. Actual suits of armour such as this, along with large quantities of iron weaponry, are often found in kofun tombs. Inscribed swords have also been discovered from 6th century tombs, describing the achievements of their owners.

Fig. 15 – Hotoda-hachimanzuka kofun in the Hotada mound cluster near Mitsudera 1

15: A reconstruction of the arrangement of haniwa at the Hotoda kofun cluster near the elite residence of Mitsudera I, Gunma prefecture

From excavations, archaeologists were able to reconstruct how the 54 haniwa found at the Hotoda-Hachimanzuka tomb were arranged. Various forms of haniwa, including a seated person, warriors, wild boar and waterbirds, were arranged in lines enclosed by a rectangular setting of cylindrical haniwa, all located on the bank between two moats surrounding the tomb.

Fig. 16 – Bronze mirrors were buried with the deceased from Yayoi times, but some of the most special examples are the triangular-rimmed mirrors decorated with images of mythical beasts and deities (sankakuen-shinju-kyo), motifs which probably derive from Chinese Daoist beliefs. The Early Kofun (4th century) Kurozuka kofun in Nara prefecture produced a particularly rich treasure of thirty such mirrors, placed just outside the wooden coffin in the stone burial chamber’

16: Bronze mirrors from the Kurozuka kofun, Nara prefecture

Bronze mirrors were buried with the deceased from Yayoi times, but some of the most special examples are the triangular-rimmed mirrors decorated with images of mythical beasts and deities (sankakuen-shinju-kyo), motifs which probably derive from Chinese Daoist beliefs. The Early Kofun (4th century) Kurozuka kofun in Nara prefecture produced a particularly rich treasure of thirty such mirrors, placed just outside the wooden coffin in the stone burial chamber.

Student Activity:

Key question

  • How can we interpret changes in burials from the Yayoi to Kofun periods?

Secondary questions

  • Why did burials for elites become separated from the community?
  • Why did burials for elites lose their regional differences in the Kofun period?