Kofun are megalithic tomb
A tomb is a repository for the remains of the dead. It is generally any structurally enclosed interment space or burial chamber, of varying sizes...

s or tumuli
A tumulus is a mound of earth and stones raised over a grave or graves. Tumuli are also known as barrows, burial mounds, Hügelgrab or kurgans, and can be found throughout much of the world. A tumulus composed largely or entirely of stones is usually referred to as a cairn...

 in Japan
Japan is an island nation in East Asia. Located in the Pacific Ocean, it lies to the east of the Sea of Japan, China, North Korea, South Korea and Russia, stretching from the Sea of Okhotsk in the north to the East China Sea and Taiwan in the south...

, constructed between the early 3rd century and early 7th century. They gave their name to the Kofun period
Kofun period
The is an era in the history of Japan from around 250 to 538. It follows the Yayoi period. The word kofun is Japanese for the type of burial mounds dating from this era. The Kofun and the subsequent Asuka periods are sometimes referred to collectively as the Yamato period...

 (middle 3rd century - early-middle 6th century). Many of the Kofun have a distinctive keyhole-shaped mound
A mound is a general term for an artificial heaped pile of earth, gravel, sand, rocks, or debris. The most common use is in reference to natural earthen formation such as hills and mountains, particularly if they appear artificial. The term may also be applied to any rounded area of topographically...

 , unique to ancient Japan. The Mozu
Mozu kofungun
is a group of forty-seven kofun or tumuli in Sakai, Osaka Prefecture, Japan. Twenty-one of the burial mounds are key-hole shaped, twenty round, five rectangular, and one is of indeterminate shape...

Furuichi kofungun
is a group of one hundred and twenty-three kofun or tumuli in Fujiidera, Osaka Prefecture, Japan. Thirty-one of the burial mounds are key-hole shaped, thirty round, forty-eight rectangular, and a further fourteen are of indeterminate shape...

 kofungun or tumuli clusters have been proposed for inscription on the UNESCO World Heritage List
World Heritage Sites in Japan
Japan accepted the UNESCO World Heritage Convention on 30 June 1992. As of 27 June 2011, Sixteen properties have been inscribed on the World Heritage List: twelve cultural sites and four natural sites...

, while Ishibutai Kofun
Ishibutai Kofun
is a kofun in Asuka, Nara, JapanIshibutai has a rectangular chamber measuring 25 ft by 11 ft by 15 ft high approached by a passage 38 ft in length and roofed by two capstones each weighing between 60 and 70 tons. Modern estimates place the largest stone at approximately 75 tons....

 is one of a number in Asuka-Fujiwara
Asuka-Fujiwara: Archaeological sites of Japan’s Ancient Capitals and Related Properties is a cluster of archaeological sites in and around the late sixth- to early eighth-century capitals of Asuka and Fujiwara-kyō, Nara Prefecture, Japan. In 2007 twenty-eight monuments were submitted jointly for...

 similarly residing on the Tentative List.


The kofun tumuli have taken various shapes through history. The most common type of kofun is known as a , which has a shape of a keyhole, having one square end and one circular end, when looked down upon from above. There are also circular type , "two conjoined rectangles" type , and square type kofun. Orientation of kofun is not specified. For example, in the Saki Kofun group, all of circular parts are looking toward the north, but there is no such formation in the Yanagimoto kofun group. Haniwa
The are terracotta clay figures which were made for ritual use and buried with the dead as funerary objects during the Kofun period of the history of Japan....

, terracotta figures, were arrayed above and in the surroundings to delimit and protect the sacred area.

Kofun range in size from several meters to over 400m in length. The largest kofun is Daisen kofun in Sakai City, Osaka Prefecture
Sakai, Osaka
is a city in Osaka Prefecture, Japan. It has been one of the largest and most important seaports of Japan since the Medieval era.Following the February 2005 annexation of the town of Mihara, from Minamikawachi District, the city has grown further and is now the fourteenth most populous city in...

, which has been attributed to be the tomb of the Emperor Nintoku
Emperor Nintoku
was the 16th emperor of Japan, according to the traditional order of succession.No firm dates can be assigned to this emperor's life or reign, but he is conventionally considered to have reigned from 313–399.-Legendary narrative:...


The funeral chamber was located beneath the round part and consisted of a group of megaliths. In 1972, the unlooted Takamatsuzuka Tomb
Takamatsuzuka Tomb
The or "Tall Pine Tree Ancient Burial Mound" in Japanese is an ancient circular tomb in Asuka village, Nara prefecture, Japan.The tomb is thought to have been built at some time between the end of the 7th century and the beginning of the 8th century. It was accidentally discovered by a local...

 was found in Asuka
Asuka, Nara
is a village located in Takaichi District, Nara, Japan.As of September 1, 2007, the village has an estimated population of 6,146 and a density of 255.23 persons per km². The total area is 24.08 km².Asuka is the land where ancient palaces were located...

 and some details of the discovery were revealed. Inside the tightly assembled rocks, white lime
Lime (mineral)
Lime is a general term for calcium-containing inorganic materials, in which carbonates, oxides and hydroxides predominate. Strictly speaking, lime is calcium oxide or calcium hydroxide. It is also the name for a single mineral of the CaO composition, occurring very rarely...

 plasters were pasted and colored pictures drawn depicting the 'Asuka Beauties' of the court as well as constellations. A stone coffin was placed in the chamber and accessories, swords and bronze mirrors were laid both inside and outside of the coffin. The wall paintings have been designated a National Treasures and the grave goods an Important Cultural Property
Important Cultural Properties of Japan
The term is often shortened into just are items officially already classified as Tangible Cultural Properties of Japan by the Japanese Agency for Cultural Affairs and judged to be of particular importance to the Japanese people....

, while the tumulus is a Special Historic Site.

Development history

Yayoi period

Most of the tombs of chiefs in the Yayoi period
Yayoi period
The is an Iron Age era in the history of Japan traditionally dated 300 BC to 300 AD. It is named after the neighbourhood of Tokyo where archaeologists first uncovered artifacts and features from that era. Distinguishing characteristics of the Yayoi period include the appearance of new...

 were square-shaped mounds surrounded by ditches. The most notable example in the late Yayoi period is Tatetsuki Mound Tomb in Kurashiki, Okayama
Kurashiki, Okayama
is a historic city located to the west of Okayama Prefecture, Japan, sitting on the Takahashi River, on the coast of the Inland Sea.As of April 2010, the city has a population of 473,392. The total area is .-History:...

. The mound is about 45 meters wide and 5 meters high, has a shaft chamber. Broken pieces of Tokushu-kidai, cylindrical earthenwares were excavated around the mound.

Another prevailing type of Yayoi period tombs is Yosumi tosshutsugata funkyûbo, square mounds whose four corners protruding outward. These tombs were built in the San'in region, coastal area of the Sea of Japan. Unearthed articles indicate the existence of alliances between native tribes in the region.

Early Kofun period

One of the first keyhole-shaped kofun was built in the Makimuku area, the southeastern part of the Nara Basin. Hashihaka Kofun, which was built in the middle of the 3rd century, is 280 meters long and 30 meters high. Its scale is obviously different from previous Yayoi tombs. During the next three decades, about 10 kofun were built in the area, which are now called as the Makimuku Kofun Group. A wooden coffin placed on the bottom of a shaft, and the surrounding walls were built up by flat stones. Finally megalithic stones placed as a roof. Bronze mirrors, iron swords, magatama
Magatama , are curved beads which first appeared in Japan during the Jōmon period.They are often found inhumed in mounded tumulus graves as offerings to deities . They continued to be popular with the ruling elites throughout the Kofun Period of Japan, and are often romanticised as indicative of...

, clay vessels and other artifacts were found in good condition in undisturbed tombs. Some scholars assume the buried person of Hashihaka kofun was the shadowy ancient Queen Himiko
Himiko or Pimiko was an obscure shaman queen of Yamataikoku in ancient Wa . Early Chinese dynastic histories chronicle tributary relations between Queen Himiko and the Cao Wei Kingdom , and record that the Yayoi period people chose her as ruler following decades of warfare among the kings of Wa...

 of Yamataikoku
or is the Sino-Japanese name of an ancient country in Wa during the late Yayoi period . The Chinese history Sanguo Zhi first recorded Yemetaiguo or Yemayiguo as the domain of shaman Queen Himiko...

, mentioned in the Chinese history texts. According to the books, Japan was called Wa
Wa (Japan)
Japanese is the oldest recorded name of Japan. Chinese, Korean, and Japanese scribes regularly wrote Wa or Yamato "Japan" with the Chinese character 倭 until the 8th century, when the Japanese found fault with it, replacing it with 和 "harmony, peace, balance".- Historical references :The earliest...

, which was the confederation formed by numerous small tribes or countries. The construction of gigantic kofun is the result of the relatively centralized governance structure in the Nara Basin, possibly the origin of the Yamato polity and the Imperial linage of Japan.

Mid-Kofun period

The trend of keyhole kofun first spread from Yamato Province
Yamato Province
was a province of Japan, located in Kinai, corresponding to present-day Nara Prefecture in Honshū. It was also called . At first, the name was written with one different character , and for about ten years after 737, this was revised to use more desirable characters . The final revision was made in...

 to Kawachi, where gigantic kofun such as Daisen Kofun of the Emperor Nintoku were built, and then throughout the country (except for the Tōhoku region
Tohoku region
The is a geographical area of Japan. The region occupies the northeastern portion of Honshu, the largest island of Japan. The region consists of six prefectures : Akita, Aomori, Fukushima, Iwate, Miyagi and Yamagata....

) in the 5th century.
The spreading of keyhole kofun is generally assumed to be evidence of the Yamato court's expansion in this age. However, some argue that it simply shows the spreading of culture based on progress in distribution, and has little to do with political breakthrough. In recent years, as South Korea became more affluent after years of war and hardship, they started to allocate more resources into archeology and keyhole tombs were found in areas of ancient Gaya confederacy
Gaya confederacy
Gaya was a confederacy of territorial polities in the Nakdong River basin of southern Korea, growing out of the Byeonhan confederacy of the Samhan period.The traditional period used by historians for Gaya chronology is 42–532 CE...

. These keyhole tombs discovered so far on the Korean peninsula were built from the 5th to the 6th century. Whether the Gaya keyhole tomb was due to a local chieftain influenced by Japanese culture or for a Japanese immigrant is debated. "Still now, many Korean and Japanese scholars have concentrated on the issue of who are the owners of the keyhole-shaped tombs in Korean peninsula."

Keyhole-shaped kofun disappeared in late 6th century, probably because of the drastic reformation in the Yamato court, where Nihon Shoki
Nihon Shoki
The , sometimes translated as The Chronicles of Japan, is the second oldest book of classical Japanese history. It is more elaborate and detailed than the Kojiki, the oldest, and has proven to be an important tool for historians and archaeologists as it includes the most complete extant historical...

records the introduction of Buddhism
Buddhism is a religion and philosophy encompassing a variety of traditions, beliefs and practices, largely based on teachings attributed to Siddhartha Gautama, commonly known as the Buddha . The Buddha lived and taught in the northeastern Indian subcontinent some time between the 6th and 4th...

 during this era.

Recent research

The Imperial Household Agency
Imperial Household Agency
The is a government agency of Japan in charge of the state matters concerning Japan's imperial family and also keeping the Privy Seal and the State Seal...

 designates 740 kofun as the tomb of ancient imperial family members
and their relatives, although the accuracy of the designation has been disputed. These kofun are not open
to the public, including archaeologists. Academic societies repeatedly petitioned for archaeological surveys of kofun for years, and in March 2008 the Agency permitted limited investigation of Gosashi Kofun which is designated as the tomb of Empress Jingū.

Restriction of access to Gosashi

In 1976, Japan stopped all foreign archeologists from studying the Gosashi tomb, which is supposed to be the resting place of Empress Jingū. Prior to 1976, foreigners did have access. In 2008, Japan allowed limited access to foreign archeologists, but the international community still has many unanswered questions. National Geographic wrote that "Japan has kept access to the tombs restricted, prompting rumors that officials fear excavation would reveal bloodline links between the "pure" imperial family and Korea
Korea ) is an East Asian geographic region that is currently divided into two separate sovereign states — North Korea and South Korea. Located on the Korean Peninsula, Korea is bordered by the People's Republic of China to the northwest, Russia to the northeast, and is separated from Japan to the...

 or that some tombs hold no royal remains at all." But these controversies make interpretation of the Nihongi, Book of Song
Book of Song
The Book of Song , also called "The History of the Song," is a historical text of the Liu Song Dynasty of the Southern Dynasties of China. It covers history from 420 to 479, and is one of the Twenty-Four Histories, a traditional collection of historical records. It was authored by Shen Yue from...

/Sui and Samguk Sagi
Samguk Sagi
Samguk Sagi is a historical record of the Three Kingdoms of Korea: Goguryeo, Baekje and Silla. The Samguk Sagi is written in Classical Chinese and its compilation was ordered by Goryeo's King Injong Samguk Sagi (History of the Three Kingdoms) is a historical record of the Three Kingdoms of...

 inconclusive, and until further analysis of restricted tombs and artifacts are evaluated, it is difficult to draw conclusions.

See also

  • William Gowland
    William Gowland
    William Gowland was an English mining engineer most famous for his archaeological work at Stonehenge and in Japan. He is known in Japan as the "Father of Japanese Archaeology", which is an exaggeration. He was a major founding figure....

    , English engineer who made the first deliberate survey for Saki kofun group.
  • Ernest Satow, English diplomat who wrote about kofun in Kozuke for the Asiatic Society of Japan
    Asiatic Society of Japan
    The is a society of Japanese studies . Founded in 1872, the ASJ is Japan's oldest learned society.-Overview:The Asiatic Society of Japan was founded in 1872, five years after the Meiji restoration, at Yokohama by British and American residents - in particular missionaries, diplomats, businessmen...


External links

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