Kofun Burial Mounds in Ancient Japan

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  • Topic: Japan, Mound, Coffin
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  • Published : September 9, 2013
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Kofun Burial Mounds in
Ancient Japan

“The practice of building sepulchral mounds and burying treasures with the dead was transmitted to Japan from the Asian continent about the third century A.D.” (B. Ford, 1987, p.24) Locally these mega structures were called Kofun Burial Mounds, titled after the Ancient Japanese period in which they were built, the Kofun Period (300 – 800 C.E.) The sites of more than 10 000 keyhole tombs still remain in Japan, though direct access to these tombs is difficult due to governmental conservation and practices. Kofun burial mounds, while not only serving as a place for family members to pay their respects to the deceased, reflected the social and economic status of their owners.

The Kofun period was “a time when power was coalescing in the hands of a warrior aristocracy, grouped in clan based states that competed for primacy” (T. Allan, 2004, p. 148) William Tsutsui, a current professor of History at SMU, proposed that the ritual hierarchy of ancient keyhole tombs in Japan suggested a centralized society; that is, a society with non-hierarchal functions within the same system. The predominant religion in ancient Japan- and indeed current in modern Japan- Shinto, vests little focus in the afterlife, rather focusing on the present life. Though it is common for a practitioner of the Shinto faith to have a Buddhist funeral neither of these religions promoted the construction of sepulchral mounds.

The largest keyhole shaped tomb in Japan is that of Japan’s 16th emperor, Nintoku. Nintoku-ryo Tumulus measures approximately 486 meters in length and 305 meters in width. In 1872 the site was excavated. Archaeologists found various artefacts, currently part of a collection at the Boston Museum of Arts in the United States. Some artefacts found included a large rectangular stone coffin, swords, fine armour, glass pots and dishes. While these artefacts hold no known religious significance they stand testimony to the wealth and power...
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