Mystery of Dogu Figurines

Jomon Period

The Jomon period of Japanese prehistory lasted from nearly 14000 BC to sometime after 900 BC. The period is divided into six sub-periods: incipient, initial, early, middle, late, final. Jomon people were hunter-gatherers exploiting wild resources for food, but also did some limited cultivation of crops like millet and beans.


Dogu are fired clay figurines. Early dogu from around 10,000 BC were abstract representations of the human figure and were quite small. By 4000 BC they had arms and legs and simple heads. By 3000 BC, the faces are fully formed. All dogu are highly stylised. They are not naturalistic representations of people. Over 20,000 dogu have been found on archaeological sites. Almost all of them were deliberately broken by their Jomon makers. On the other hand a small number of perfect dogu figurines have been found in pits and houses, and a few dogu were repaired with asphalt.

Part 1: The Gender of Dogu Figurines

Dogu are a very characteristic artefact of the Jomon period. They were made throughout the period but changed greatly in form, and possibly in function, by the end of the period. There is a lot of debate about whether dogu represent women or men. The following teaching materials can be used to answer the question –

How can we explain expressions of gender on dogu figurines in the Jomon?

Fig. 01 – “Jomon Venus” from Tanabatake, Nagano prefecture (Middle Jomon)

1: ‘Jomon Venus’ from Tanabatake, Nagano prefecture (2500-1500 BC Middle Jomon)

Displaying the arms-outstretched pose, this dogu’s right leg is a little shorter than the other. Could it be the expression of a figurine walking? The area under the belly is scraped in a trapezoidal form, a common decoration in the Middle Jomon. The spiral pattern on the surface of the flat top of the head is believed to indicate a hairdo. The sides of the head have circular and forked patterns.

Fig. 02 – Urushishita, Akita prefecture

2: Triangular-headed dogu from Urushishita, Akita prefecture (Late Jomon, c. 1500-1000 BC)

This Late Jomon dogu has pronounced breasts and several distinctive design elements. We can observe the influence of the triangular-headed dogu of the Kanto region in the median lines and in the serrated-line ornamentation around the hips. This is an excellent work, made using fine-grained, high-quality clay and carefully decorated with circular punctate patterns.

Fig. 03 -Hollow dogu from Chobonaino, Hokkaido. Late Jomon c. 1500-1000 BC. 41.5 centimetres high. National Treasure.

3: Hollow dogu from Chobonaino, Hokkaido (Late Jomon, c. 1500-1000 BC)

This exceptional hollow dogu was discovered by an old lady digging potatoes. Its importance has been recognised through designation as a National Treasure, indeed the only National Treasure from the whole island of Hokkaido. It was probably buried on its own, in a small cist, away from any apparent settlement area. The dense pattern on the chin could be interpreted as a beard, and has a somewhat masculine quality. Still, the dots running down the abdomen and the carved lines in the crotch area would identify the figure as female. The discord between the gender traits of the head and body areas give the impression of a figure intended to transcend gender. This dogu is the largest of hollow clay figures in Japan at 41.5 cm high. The clay of its back is extremely thin at less than 1 millimetre. The shoulders and chest have forked and circular motifs made from slender, notched clay cords. The lower half of the body is decorated with arrow-feather-like cord marks. Traces of red and black pigment remain on the leg and other areas, suggesting that the entire body was originally painted red and black.

Fig. 04 – Dogu from Mori-machi, Hokkaido. Late Jomon, c. 1500-1000 BC.

4: Dogu from Mori-machi, Hokkaido (Late Jomon, c.1500-1000 BC)

This striking dogu is covered in decorations that are similar to the so-called ‘swirling cloud’ motifs found on many potter vessels at this time. Mori-machi is the location of a large set of stone circles at Washinoki, where more figurines were found, including one large example which had been broken and repaired during the Jomon period.  This dogu does not have obvious breasts. Traces of red pigment can be seen, suggesting that it was originally painted.

Fig. 05 – Goggle-eyed dogu from Toyooka, Iwate prefecture. Final Jomon, c. 1000-300 BC.

5: Goggle-eyed’ dogu from Toyooka, Iwate prefecture (Final Jomon, c. 1000 – 300 BC)

Towards the end of the Jomon period, the most distinctive form of dogu were hollow ‘goggle-eyed’ figurines, named after their large bulging eyes. There are several interpretations for these eyes: could they be modelled on new-born infants, or snow goggles (northern Honshu was then as it is now, prone to very heavy snowfalls in winter), or something altogether more ‘other-worldly’? The bodies of these dogu are burnished (where the clay is smoothed prior to firing) and also have fine cord-marked decorations.

Fig. 06 – Fragments of dogu from the Kasori shell mounds, Chiba prefecture. Late Jomon, c. 1500-1000 BC.

6: Fragments of dogu from the Kasori shell mounds, Chiba prefecture (Late Jomon, c. 1500-1000 BC)

The Kasori shell mounds are one of the most famous Jomon sites in Japan. Two huge circular banks are still visible on the ground, containing huge quantities of sea shells, the remains of many Jomon meals. Among the shell deposits, many artefacts were discovered, including fragments of dogu.

Fig. 07 – Dogu from Aidani-Kumahara, Shiga prefecture. Incipient Jomon, c. 11,000 BC.

7: The oldest known dogu, Aidani-Kumahara, Shiga prefecture (Incipient Jomon, c. 11,000 BC)

This tiny dogu, only slightly larger than a postage stamp, was discovered in association with a large pit dwelling in 2010. It is currently the oldest known dogu from Japan. Archaeologists think that it has two breasts, but no arms or legs. Maybe a head, perhaps made of a different material, was inserted in the hold in the neck. This ancient object is remarkably modern in its abstraction.

Student Activity:

Key question

  • How can we explain expressions of gender on dogu figurines in the Jomon?

Secondary questions

  • Do dogu represent women or spirits that transcend gender?
  • Is there another, better way of explaining dogu?

Part 2: Broken v Complete Dogu

The form of dogu is not the only clue to their possible use. The condition in which they were found, and where they were found is also used by archaeologists to investigate their meaning. Many dogu have been found broken. Archaeologists cannot agree whether dogu were broken intentionally. The following teaching materials can be used to answer the question –

Were dogu broken intentionally?

Fig. 08 – Some of the 1116 dogu fragments from Shakado, Yamanashi prefecture. Middle Jomon, c. 2500-1500 BC.

8: Dogu fragments from Shakado, Yamanashi prefecture (Middle Jomon, c. 2500-1500 BC)

The site of Shakado in the mountains behind Mount Fuji comprises a series of Jomon village settlements occupied in the Early and Middle Jomon periods (c. 5000 – 1500 BC). Scattered across the site were found 1116 fragments of dogu – heads, arms, legs, torsos. None was complete, and remarkably, it was only possible to find fragments from the same dogu in less than 3% of the total. This suggests that perhaps people from other villages came together for ceremonies involving dogu, and took pieces home with them, leaving just broken fragments at Shakado. Some archaeologists have suggested that some dogu were deliberately made so as to be easily broken, like the individual pieces in a bar of chocolate.

Fig. 09 – Refitted fragments from Shakado, Yamanashi prefecture

9: Refitting dogu fragments from Shakado, Yamanashi prefecture

Only in very few cases was it possible to refit fragments of dogu at Shakado. In these cases, two pieces from two figurines were found, separated by 230 metres and 90 metres respectively. How did these pieces from the same dogu end up so far apart on the same site?

Fig. 10 – Large cruciform dogu from’ in front of ‘Sannai Maruyama’ and ‘, c. 1500-1000 BC. Height 32 centimetres.’ after ‘Jomon

10: Large cruciform dogu from Sannai Maruyama, Aomori prefecture (Middle Jomon, c. 2500-1500 BC).

This is one of the largest dogu of this period. The three-dimensional head which appears to be wearing a triangular mask, was found 90 metres from the flat body. The body is decorated with cord-marked patters, including what looks like a pair of pants. Once the dogu was formed out of clay, a stick had been pushed down through the mouth out through the bottom of the figurine. Some 1800 dogu were recovered from Sannai Maruyama altogether, the largest number from any single Jomon site. Sannai Maruyama is discussed further in the module on ‘The Earliest Settlements and Cemeteries

Fig. 11 – Seated dogu with clasped hands from Kazahari, Aomori prefecture. Late Jomon, c. 1500-1000 BC. National Treasure. Height 19.8 centimetres

11: Seated dogu with clasped hands from Kazahari, Aomori prefecture (Late Jomon, c. 1500-1000 BC)

This very unusual dogu is depicted in a seated position. It seems to be wearing a mask and has an elaborate topknot. One interpretation is that it is represented giving birth. The body of the dogu is covered in very fine cord-marked decoration. The legs were repaired in prehistory, using asphalt, a kind of natural glue.

The dogu was found near the traces of the wall of a building, and may have fallen from an altar-like perch inside the house when the building was abandoned.

Fig. 12 – The “Jomon Venus” as it was found at Tanabatake, Nagano prefecture (Middle Jomon, c. 2500-1500 BC).

12: The “Jomon Venus” as it was found at Tanabatake, Nagano prefecture (Middle Jomon, c. 2500-1500 BC).

The famous ‘Jomon Venus’ dogu was discovered in a pit at the centre of the large Jomon settlement at Tanabatake. It is one of a relatively small number of dogu that were placed in the ground complete. The Tanabatake settlement is described in more detail in the module on the ‘Earliest Settlements and Cemeteries.’.

Fig. 13 – Imojiya, Yamanashi prefecture (Middle Jomon Hollow cylindrical dogu from’ in front of ‘Imojiya’ and add ‘, c. 2500 – 1500 BC)

13: Yamanashi prefecture (Middle Jomon Hollow cylindrical dogu from Imojiya, c. 2500 – 1500 BC. Height 25.5 centimetres.)

This distinctive dogu may have been a rattle. Other, similar examples, contain a number of small stones that make a noise when the dogu is shaken.  The incised marks on the swelling abdomen are interpreted as ‘stretch marks’ indicating pregnancy. This figurine was found almost complete in the remains of a pit dwelling

Student Activity:

Key question

  • Were dogu broken intentionally?

Secondary questions

  • Why might dogu be broken deliberately?
  • Could they have been broken after being deposited?