古墳 kofun—keyhole tombs

In Sakai city is a complex of ancient tombs which deserve to be known as one of the wonders of the world.

They are the burial places of ancient Japanese emperors and their consorts. The largest is larger than any other tomb anywhere in the world, including the Pyramids. They are known as 古墳 kofun—ancient graves, and consist of a huge mound of earth in a “keyhole” shape, surrounded by a moat. They are best appreciated from above. Here is a satellite view (image from Google Earth):

 

In the centre of the picture is Daisen kofun, the burial place of the Nintoku emperor. Officially the Nintoku emperor reigned in the 4th century, although the chronology in this period is considered “legendary” and little is known for certain about his reign, including the dates.

The central island of this kofun is exactly 500 metres long, and the overall length of the tomb precinct is 800 metres. This kofun has a double moat. The scale of  the earthworks required to create this tomb is hard to imagine.

The burial chamber itself is said to be inside the circular part of the mound. Because the Imperial Household Agency considers all 740 of these sites to be sacred, as the burial places of the direct ancestors of the current emperor, the public is not allowed to enter, and only very limited archaeology has been permitted, so they remain somewhat mysterious.

However, some few kofun have been investigated, and archaeologists have found colourful frescoes painted on whitewashed walls, as well as stone coffins and objects that were buried with the emperor.

At the lower right of the picture is the tomb of the Richuu emperor, eldest son and successor to the Nintoku emperor, who supposedly reigned in the early 5th century.

From the ground, of course, it is not possible to make out the keyhole form of the tomb. Instead you look across the moat at the thickly forested hill that forms the central island.

Because the islands of the kofun are declared off-limits and nobody goes there, they are extraordinary havens for wildlife, having remained as intact patches of wilderness as the city and suburbs have spread and built up around them.

An example is the family of tanuki who live on the island of Itasuke kofun. I posted about these guys back in April.

Which leads me on to another question, that I don’t know the answer to.

It seems that back in the 50s, the intention was to level Itasuke kofun for development. There was opposition to this plan, and the work did not go ahead. The concrete structure on which the tanuki is standing in the above picture is the remains of a bridge that was put in place at that time to allow construction vehicles to access the island.

Similarly, today we visited a kofun that had in fact been partially demolished for housing. This is Chinooka kofun.

Without the stone marker (above), it might be hard to recognise what remains as a kofun at all. There is no sign of the moat, and the trapezoidal part of the “keyhole” has been largely levelled. What remains, hemmed in by housing, is a mound that was formerly the round part of the keyhole. The relative paucity and youth of the trees on top suggest that it may have been cleared of vegetation 50 years ago or so. Excavations in the 1970s revealed a sandstone coffin and some precious objects such as bracelets. This is the oldest of the kofun in the area, dating from the 4th century.

What I am wondering is, how could this have happened? If the Imperial Household Agency can assert ownership and authority over all the kofun now, to the extent of not allowing anyone to enter, how was it the case in the 1950s that the partial or complete destruction of several kofun could be proposed?

I don’t know enough about Japanese society and the changing role of the emperor in the years since WWII to hazard an answer to that question.

Note on the word of the day:

The first character in the word 古墳 kofun is 古 ko or furui meaning “old”. The second character 墳 fun or haka meaning “mound” or “grave”, is not one that I know. Another way of writing haka meaning “grave” is the similar kanji 墓.

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3 thoughts on “古墳 kofun—keyhole tombs

  1. The Imperial Household Agency asserts ownership only over kofun that house the bodies of members of the imperial family (according to them, at any rate; in many, many cases it’s impossible to be as certain as they say they are). Many kofun are therefore not protected by the agency. You’re correct that if the tomb had been under their control, there would never have been any question of leveling it.

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