Introduction to Japanese Archaeology

I wrote this while at uni so it is a little dated. However it is still a good guide to basic archaeology in Japan. Fukuoka has a lot of great archaeological sites and since I live here now I might try and do some more local archaeological posts. Enjoy.

Palaeolithic    35000-9500 BC

Jōmon period 9500-2500 BC

Yayoi period   500 BC–300 AD

Kofun period   300-700 AD


Chazan (2008) notes that there is evidence of humans in the area of Zhoukoudien in Northern China between 500,000 to 300,000 years ago and according to Dobson and Kawamura (1998), Japan was connected to the Asian continent via a land bridge three times in the Pleistocene, about 1.0 Ma then about 500,000 and finally about 300,000 years ago. During these times large animals made the migration from China to Japan (Kawamura 1998: 252-255).  Therefore there would be no reason why humans from China could not have joined the large land animals that immigrated into the Japanese islands over these land bridges in the Early and Middle Pleistocene. But, so far there is no clear, fully agreed upon evidence of humans in the Japanese islands before about 50-30,000 years ago.


There are a number of Early Palaeolithic sites that have been recorded, but they are controversial due to a major scandal uncovered in 2000 by the Mainichi Shimbun (a daily Japanese newspaper). The paper caught amateur archaeologist Shinichi Fujimura planting artifacts on the Kami Takamori excavation site.  After the scandal the Japanese Archaeological Association (JAA) had to re-excavate sites and re-examine many artifacts associated with the scandal.  The JAA issued a final report in May 2003 and concluded that there was a very high probability that Fujimura planted artifacts on all 186 sites that he was associated with (Nihon Kokogaku Kyokai 2003).

Although the scandal was a setback for Early Japanese Palaeolithic excavations there are over 5000 Late Palaeolithic sites in Japan.    The Late Palaeolithic sites show that there is extensive evidence of tool making and the use of stone.  Flake and pebble tools predominate and are thought to be between 35,000 and 23,000 years old.  A volcanic eruption about 24,000 years ago in Southern Japan (Aira-Tanzawa) spread ash across most of the country making excavated sites easy to date, “before AT or after”.  Small tools of chert and hard shale dated between 16,000 and 13,000 years ago “show resemblance to tools of the same age in northeastern Asia and in Europe.  The tools in the northernmost island of Hokkaido are almost identical to those in the Russian Far East and Siberia” (Keally).  The environment during the Late Palaeolithic in Japan was cool to cold.  Around 21,000 to 18,000 Hokkaido was a tundra, covered with ice and snow while the southern islands was covered with forests.  It is unclear what was eaten during this period as only Lake Nojiri site has yielded artifacts in association with possible food remains.  Keally notes that elephants and elks may have been the staple diet but he is not convinced that the humans would not have been able to make the kills of larger animals due to the small size of tools found.  People of this period were highly mobile and it is estimated that sites were used for only weeks or months.  There isn’t any strong evidence that there were any solid structures built, although there are claims of a few pit dwellings.  Let’s look at a few artifacts found at Late Palaeolithic sites. 

The “Shirataki Site Group” is found in the village of Shirataki which is located in the north eastern foothills of the North Daisetsu range in north eastern Hokkaido.

The stone tools in Fig 1 include large and small points, large bifacially flaked tools, boat-shaped keeled scrapers, various types of blade and microblade cores, plus large amounts of refitted materials indicating the conditions of manufacture of these items. (Courtesy of JAA, 2004)

Large amounts of knife-shaped stone blades and other artifacts from the Upper Paleolithic period is especially noteworthy as shown in Fig 2 and 3. These were distributed atop the ridge of a small tongue-shaped projection of a hill, in the uppermost regions of Takadate volcanic ash layer, directly below a thin, dark brown weathered stratum which lies nearly 2 m below the present surface. Judging from the age of the strata, these items are inferred to date from approximately 24,000 to 15,000 years before the present.  (Courtesy of JAA and Aomori Prefecture 2005).


According to Kudo (2005) the change or transition from Paleolithic culture to Jomon culture was over a period of about 8,000 – 14,000 years.  The culture change occurs over three cultural phases.  Microblades and microcores, Mikoshiba and Chojakubo stone tools including large axe like tools and the pottery phase stone tools including axes, querns and grinders.  Arrowheads are found at many sites but are a rare find in quantity.  It appears that the Jomon are adapted to fishing, hunting and gathering and have a high level of social culture.  The Tokyo Bay area and coastal regions have found that the Jomon diet consisted of shellfish and other sea mammals.  The Jomon cultural phase is famous for its pottery. Nail marked and cord marked pottery, although rare has been found along with the tools for the making of pottery. “At the Kakura site in Miyagi Prefecture the principal archaeological features consist of the remains of approximately 150 pit-dwellings, about 30 embedded-pillar buildings, and approximately 220 pits (for storage); a wide variety of artifacts were also recovered, beginning with pottery (fig 4,5,6), stone tools, and clay figurines, and animal bones.” (JAA)

Also found at the site were wooden utensils, basketry, nuts, leaves and so forth.  All were found within the pits. There were more than one hundred baskets woven with vine, valuable materials for conveying methods of basket-weaving from the Jōmon period to the present day. Acorns, a valuable foodstuff, were unearthed in large amounts. The majority were from a Japanese yew whose acorns have little harshness, but among them were very harsh acorns of oaks and other species gathered together in a single location, from which we can infer that the Jōmon people were storing acorns according to their variety.

The first discovery of an early Jomon site was excavated in 2003 in Obihiro, Hokkaido.  Approximately 8,600 stone items were found, including flakes, with obsidian being the main material, and small amounts of andesite also used. The composition of stone tools includes points and spatulate tools, bifacially retouched tools, burins, end scrapers and side scrapers, awls, grooved flakes, and so forth, with small points and spatulate tools being characteristic.  “AMS radiocarbon dating of carbonized matter adhering to the interior surfaces of the pots also found on the site indicates an age of 12,500-12,000 bp. The reading has caused a dilemma for Japanese archaeologists.  “The current investigation has determined that sites of the Incipient Jōmon period exist without doubt in the interior of the eastern portion of Hokkaido, providing data noteworthy for making us rethink the issue of the beginning of the Jōmon period.” (Kitazawa Minoru, Yamahara Toshirō)  Although the Hokkaido Jomon lived parallel with the Jomon from the southern islands early on, when the Yayoi began settling in the south the Hokkaido Jomon continued to flourish.  The Epi-Jomon of Hokkaido continued to hunt, fish and gather through to the Kofun period.  DNA testing on the Japanese male gene pool found that the “Ainu are generally recognized as remnant populations descendant from the Jomon, with the Ainu surviving in Hokkaido in relative isolation from post Jomon influences until the end of last century.” Hammer 2006.    


The Yoyoi Period saw many changes on the Japanese peninsula.  Hokkaido and Okinawa being excluded from this period of change as the Epi-Jomon (Satsumon) in Hokkaido and Shell mould culture of Okinawa continued under the Jomon.  Keally states that the earliest Yayoi immigration from the Korean Peninsula and Eastern China began about 750-700 B.C. Early mixed marriages would have brought the Jomon gene pool into the Yayoi but these genes became swamped by the large immigration of the Yayoi in the middle Yayoi about 400-170 BC.

The early Yayoi people were peasant farmers and lived in small villages.  The Yayoi is famous for bringing rice farming to Japan, Keally states that “Rice farming spread all over western Japan around 400-500 B.C. (uncalibrated radiocarbon age) and is also found in a number of sites in Aomori Prefecture, northern Honshu, apparently spreading up the Sea of Japan coast along the Tsushima Current.” While known for being the first group in Japan to use irrigated rice fields for intensive food production, the Yayoi also grew other crops, including barley, wheat, and foxtail and broomcorn millet. All these crops flourished in the south but northeastern Japan proved difficult to grow rice due to the log cold winters.  All the crops found in Satsumon, Hokkaido were more than likely growing by 400-500 AD in Tohoku, the northernmost province of Honshu.

The Yayoi Period also saw an increase in conflict between villages for food sources and rice farming land space.  Moated villages have been found, possibly for its defence and early weaponry such as arrow and spearheads have been found.  One such settlement in Aichi Prefecture on the Nobi Plain is a good example.  “The Asahi site is a moated core settlement of the Yayoi period. Continuing from the Early Yayoi, the settlement changes at the start of the Middle Yayoi into a large moated settlement 800 m east-west by 300 m north-south (dimensions for the southern settlement). Further, a cluster of square moated burials, extending 400 m east-west, was formed. In addition, to the north a special settlement existed, somewhat small in scale but ringed by multiple moats. Taken together, the scale of these items can be inferred to extend over a wide area 1.4 km east-west, and 800 m north-south.” (Akatsuka Jirō, Kageyama Seiichi, JAA)

The above left photo shows a few bronze arrow heads approximately pentagonal in shape. Widely seen in the Owari region during the Late Yayoi, nearly 40 items have already been recovered at the Asahi Site. Length of the item on the right is 3.5 cm.

The above right photo shows stemmed points that are typical of the Middle Yayoi. The triangular point on the right is made of chert, the broad pentagonal point in the middle and the elongated pentagonal item on the left are made of an andesite found in the Hida region. Length of the item on the right is 4.2 cm.


The Kofun period is an era in the history of Japan dating from the early Kofun, about 300AD through to the introduction of Buddhism around 710AD. The Kofun Period is generally regarded as the end of Japanese Prehistory and the beginning of Japanese history.  Around the 5th century writing was introduced into Japan from China.  Written evidence shows the developing Yamato government working very closely with the Sui Dynasty (581-618AD).

The word Kofun is Japanese for the type of keyhole shaped burial mounds dating from this era.  During the Kofun period, the Chinese kingdoms of  the Sui Dynasty and T’ang Dynasty (618-907) along with the Korean three kingdoms had a strong influence the culture and affairs in the Japanese archipelago.  Waves of migration from the Korean Peninsula were at a high at the time of the Kofun which resulted in high levels of trade, travel and cultural change. Most scholars believe that there were massive transmissions of technology and culture from China and Korea via Korea to Japan which is evidenced by material artifacts in tombs of both states in the Proto-Three Kingdoms of Korea and Kofun eras. 

The Kofun burial sites are a main point of study for archaeologists.  The tombs are found from the late Yayoi and continue and become much more impressive in size and number of tombs into the Kofun.  Keally (2009) describes the difference between the Yayoi and Kofun burial sites. “Yayoi burials were in the ground in a square area delimited by a ditch or moat. The burial in the middle had a low mound over it. Toward the end of Yayoi, some of these ditches or moats became round. With higher mounds, these were the most common kofun tomb in the Kofun Period, but the burial was on top of the mound instead of under it. The square mounds, too, continued from Yayoi into Kofun, but these later ones also had the burial in the top of the mound instead of under it”.

There are about 30,000 Kofun mound tombs found in Japan.  The tombs are generally the burial sites of emperors, empresses and other royal family members.  Many items are found in the burial site but of most interest are the “Haniwa”, or clay shaped objects.

The above photo shows haniwa which are recovered human figurines from the Mukadezuka mound in Shintomi town, Miyazaki Prefecture.  The two haniwa in the foreground are female figurines wearing a cloak resembling a Buddhist priest’s stole; the one in back to the left is a female wearing a cord used to tuck up the sleeves of her garment, while with her right hand she rolls up the hem. The item in back to the right is a male figurine.

The above image shows haniwa found at the Imashirozuka site on the Mishima Plain in northern Osaka Prefecture.  “It is representational haniwa, human- and animal-shaped haniwa.  House-shaped haniwa (80 cm tall), sunshade-shaped haniwa (35 cm tall), sword-shaped haniwa (46 cm long), domestic fowl-shaped haniwa (27 cm tall), animal-shaped haniwa for which only the legs were found (27 cm tall), human-shaped haniwa for which only the head was found (11 cm tall).” JAA.

The Kofun Period saw the small village living evolve into bigger settlements and “Chieftain” towns. By the end of the Kofun Period the aristocracy and power was centralized in Yamato province (present day Nara) and eventually gave way to the Japanese imperial dynasty.  Conflict arose within the aristocracy when Buddhism was adapted by rival chieftains. By 594 AD Buddhism was recognized as the official religion and the famous Horyu-ji temple was built in 607 AD.

From simple hunter gatherer beginnings in the Paleolithic Period to the chieftain centralized governments of the Kofun, Japanese culture and society began to beak away from its early ties with Korea and China.  I’m happy to find that there is proof through modern DNA testing that the modern Ainu do have tracings back to the Jomon people as per Michael Hammers study in 2006 and that even with the influx of Yayoi people we can still see the ancient Ainu culture in places like Abashiri and Akan in Hokkaido, both of which I have personally been to.  Japanese tool making and pottery making skills over these periods I hope I have shown to be as good as or if not better than other parts of the world at the same time.            


Akatsuka Jiro and Kageyama Seiichi.

Chazan, Michael.  2008.  World Prehistory and Archaeology.  Pathways through Time. pp 113

Dobson, Mike, and Yoshinari Kawamura. 1998. Origin of the Japanese land mammal fauna: Allocation of extant species to historically-based categories. Daiyonki Kenkyu (The Quaternary Research), 37: 385-395. [in English with Japanese abstract]

Kawamura, Yoshinari. 1998. Daiyonki ni okeru Nihon retto e no honyurui no ido (Immigration of mammals into the Japanese islands during the Quaternary). Daiyonki Kenkyu (The Quaternary Research), 37: 251-257. [in Japanese with English abstract]

Keally, Charles.

Kitazawa, Minoru and Yamahara Toshiro.

Kudo, Yuichiro.  2005. Honshu-to Higashi Hanbu ni okeru Koshinsei Makki no Kokogaku-teki Hennen to Kankyo Shi to no Jikan-teki Taio Kankei (The Temporal Correspondence between Archaeological Chronology and Environmental Changes in the Final Pleistocene in Eastern Honshu Island). Daiyonki Kenkyu (The Quaternary Research), 44:51-64. (in Japanese with English summary)

Nihon Kokogaku Kyokai. May 2003.

If anyone has further information or spots any errors please let me know


Written by Stuart Iles.

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