Kofun: Tombs of the Ancients

Kofun are massive earthen tombs or tumuli built during the 3rd to 7th century A.D.. The name in Japanese (古墳) translates as “ancient graves”, and the period of history they appeared in is also referred to as the Kofun Period (around 250 to 538 A.D.). They are almost forgotten in today’s hectic lifestyle; inconspicuously occupying land that would be seen as ideal for developers and farmers. Yet, they are historically significant and deserve more recognition from the public.

Despite their enormity, kofun have blended in with their local environments as housing and commercial buildings gradually encroach on the boundaries. Similar to the Nazca lines in southern Peru, the kofun would be best seen from the air to fully appreciate their magnitude and the attention to detail in their design. It is important to remember that people of that time in history had almost no way of appreciating it in this manner, so their achievements become even more impressive. The capacity to gain perspective in this manner, allows us to empathize more with their achievement.


According to the Conference Headquarters for the Promotion of Mozu-Furuichi Kofungun for World Cultural Heritage Inscription (2013), there are approximately 200,000 kofun spread around Japan, so chances are you are quite close to one in your place of dwelling. They vary in shape, some having a basic round or square shape, while others are keyhole or even scallop-shaped. They also vary greatly in size, from several metres long to the enormous Nintoku-tenno-ryo kofun (or Daisen Kofun) in Sakai, Osaka, measuring 486m long and 36m high. This puts it as one of the largest tombs in the world. Within the mound is a burial chamber and various goods, such as terracotta plates, bowls and statues, and bronze jewellery.


When confronted with such ancient structures, it is natural to become inquisitive about the reason for their existence. Why is there such variety in their shape? Who built them and who were they built for? How long did it take to build one? Even the infamous British diplomat Sir Ernest Satow was compelled to witness and investigate the dimensions of the kofun of Gunma prefecture (then called Kōzuke) during the turbulent 1880s. There remains a lot of mystery surrounding the kofun. Some are aligned according to the bearing north, while others show no such alignment, implying there are unquestionably area-specific nuances behind the designs. As with most cultures, the kofun were built for the ruling class of that era and were most likely built by those that served that ruler. It was estimated by a project team in 1985 from Obayashi Corporation (Conference Headquarters for the Promotion of Mozu-Furuichi Kofungun for World Cultural Heritage Inscription, 2013) that it would have taken 2,000 workers every day of 15 years and 8 months to build the Daisen Kofun, considering the tools available at that time.


There is also lingering controversy around some kofun as well. This period of Japanese history saw waves of people migrating from China and the Korean peninsula, along with the introduction of Buddhism (late 6th century) and the development of the writing scripts. The perspective on that period of history, more specifically the people, varies between the Japanese, Korean and Chinese interpretations.


Perhaps it is because they do not hold the aesthetic appeal of a standing structure such as a temple of shrine, or that their size is too great to appreciate, but it would be a shame to human society if they slipped into insignificance. As seen with the slightly older Circus Maximus (Circo Massimo) in Rome, when large structures are left unrecognised or underappreciated they fall into decay and are ever more difficult to recover. Fortunately, the kofun are not completely forgotten. Support from national and local governments, accompanied by education mandated by the national curriculum has enabled their continued preservation.


Photos taken at the 綿貫観音山古墳(わたぬきかんのんやまこふん, watanuki kannon-yama kofun), located in Takasaki, Gunma.
Location: 〒370-1206 Gunma-ken, Takasaki-shi, Daishindenmachi 329


Conference Headquarters for the Promotion of Mozu-Furuichi Kofungun for World Cultural Heritage Inscription (2013). What are kofun? Retrieved July 30, 2015, from http://www.mozu-furuichi.jp/en/learn/about.htm

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