The chronicle of Kipp's Washoku Project. Here you'll find posts about Japanese food and vulture.

Nippon Day Twenty Two: The Kofun Period and The Rise of Yamato

In the last historical post we talked about Himiko, the shaman queen of Yamataikoku, and some other important (and possibly legendary) women of the Yayoi period. Today we are going back into the chronological account of Japanese history by discussing the Kofun Period (250-538). Just a note as we continue, this period and the one directly after it, Asuka, are sometimes combined as the Yamato period. I wasn't sure how I should present it, but finally decided to break them up. One reason for this is that Kofun is an archeological period while Asuka is a historical period. That means that writing was developed late in the Kofun period, meaning that we can look at historical records after that. The other reason for division was simply practical, after all there is a lot of ground to cover and this way I can write two posts. But enough about this, let's move on to talking about the period (dare I say "let's put the fun in Kofun?").

Here we have a Kofun, or burial mound, for which the period is named.

Here we have a Kofun, or burial mound, for which the period is named.

When we last left ancient Japan, it was a country made up of many different settlements, at least two of which (Na and Yamataikoku) gained some real power and were welcomed as vassal states to China. In the beginning of the Kofun Period, a new kingdom was gaining prominence, Yamato. No one is entirely sure whether Yamato is the same thing as Yamataikoku, maybe it is simply the next step in the rule that Himiko started, or maybe it is simply another group moving up in the world. Whatever the case, Yamato is the kingdom that gets all the attention because of its later importance, though through most of this period it was only one of many rival states. Other states such as Kibi, Izumo, Koshi, Kenu, Chikushi, and Hi maintained their independence for quite some time.

By the 5th century a system had developed wherein Yamato was made up of many clans, each headed by a patriarch, awarded a kanabe title, which was hereditary. The clans were the aristocracy of Yamato, and around them a aristocratic and militaristic society began to develop. However, these clans were all subservient to the royal family, the true center of Yamato. Though China was still the big overlord, the royalty of Yamato actually petitioning them for recognition, Yamato kings were not modest. They might have used the title king while communicating with China, but at home they used the title "Okimi" or "Great King".

Inariyama Sword, back and front

Inariyama Sword, back and front

Two swords from this period,  Inariyama Sword and Eta Funayama Sword, show that the owners had inscribed them (in Chinese characters) with a list of the owner's ancestors and the fact that they were under the rule of Amenoshita Shiroshimesu Okimi (Great King ruling of Heaven and Earth). It appears that at this time the royal family began claiming that they were the decedents of gods to justify their right to rule. On these two swords we also see that the clan leaders felt the same way, tracing their ancestors back to the royal line. On the Inariyama Sword after a long list of family names it says "When the great king Waka Takiru's court was in the Siki palace, I, assisting in the governance of the realm, caused to be fashioned this well-wrought efficacious sword, recording my origins in service."

The decedents of the immigrants who had come over from the mainland at the end of the Jomon period and beginning of Yayoi, had now been living in Japan for over six hundred years. They had truly become Japanese, with their own distinct culture and customs. However, during the fifth century, another wave of mainland migrants made their way to the archipelago from Korea and China. These new comers were called Toraijin. In Shinsen Shōjiroku ("New Selection and Record of Hereditary Titles and Family Names"), a book compiled in 814, they listed 154 out of 1,182 clans in the Kinai region as descended from these foreigners. With this number of Toraijin coming to the country it would be impossible for them to have not had any influence over the Kofun society. One of the largest contributions seems to have been the adoption of the Chinese alphabet, which is still used in Japan today.

Further Chinese ideas that inspired the Yamato State were to do with centralized government and imperial courts. This was important as Yamato was suppressing the other states towards the end of the Kofun period, and bringing them under its control. By the end of Kofun the name Yamato had become synonymous with Japan, as they now had control over a good portion of Kyushu and Honshu. Officially the first emperor of Japan started the line in 660 BCE, but modern scholars are skeptical as to whether the first nine emperors even existed. And even after that there is little evidence of the other emperors until the twenty sixth, Emperor Keitai (507–531).

Emperor Keitai

Emperor Keitai

If they did it is highly unlikely that they called themselves emperor, seeing as how they didn't begin using the term until the late Kofun period. However it happened exactly, by the end of Kofun, the imperial family was firmly in place as the rulers of Yamato. The most interesting thing about this, to my eye, is that this is the same imperial family of modern times. It is the oldest continuous hereditary monarchy in the world, even if you discount the first twenty five emperors. Of course the reason they have stayed in power is probably only because they have hardily ever wielded any real power, often just the puppet for whoever was running the show, but still.

The Kofun period comes to an end at the weirdly specific date of 538. Why is that, you may be wondering? That happens to be the year that a new religion came to town, one which would change Japan forever. But you'll have to wait until the next post to find out about it.

Until next time, do you think your decedents will have the same job as you in fifteen hundred years?


P.S. I had to leave you with this hilarious wizard statue. Okay, it's not actually a wizard, but a Kofun period haniwa chief. Haniwa were clay offerings that were placed in rings around the burial mounds of important people. It is from here that we learn that Kofun warriors wore armor and carried swords and other weapons, since this is how the soldier haniwa are dressed. But not this guy, he's just a huge Tolkien fan.