Kofun Culture through the Eyes of the World
Period Tuesday, March 6 –Sunday, May 6, 2018
Venue Special Exhibition Galleries A&B, National Museum of Japanese History

Adults: ¥830 (¥560)
Senior high school & college students: ¥450 (¥250)
* Fees in parentheses apply to groups of 20 or more
* Admission to permanent exhibitions included
* Free admission for elementary & junior high school students
* Free admission for senior high school students every Saturday

Hours 9:30 a.m.–5:00 p.m. (entrance closed at 4:30 p.m.)
* Open hours and days are subject to change.
Closed Mondays (When Monday is a national holiday, the Museum is closed the following Tuesday.)

Exhibition Overview

The National Museum of Japanese History (Sakura, Chiba Prefecture) will hold a special exhibition titled “Kofun Culture through the Eyes of the World” from Tuesday, March 6th to Sunday, May 6th, 2018.
For some 350 years, from the middle of the 3rd century AD to the 6th century, some of the most massive prehistoric monuments in world history were constructed throughout the Japanese Archipelago. They remain a part of the local landscape even today, and some are still considered sites for national rituals.

Prior to the re-opening of Gallery 1 (Prehistoric and Ancient Times) in 2019, the exhibition sheds light on kofun as the largest symbol of Japan’s history and culture, specifying their characteristics through comparison with prehistoric monuments around the world and reconstructing what ancient kings buried there were like from unearthed relics. The ancient kings and their tombs remain the source of inspiration for leaders in contemporary Japanese art and popular culture, for archeologists worldwide, as well as for Japanese people and society from the time they were built until today. Through the various exhibits of approximately a hundred items, including artworks, photos, ancient documents, artifacts, and replicas, visitors can explore how these people view the monuments, what they seek in them, and how they intend to pass them onto the future.

Exhibition Highlights

  • Kofun are presented using reconstruction models and descriptions in comparison with well-known huge structures of prehistoric world cultures by researchers in various fields. It brings to light how big kofun are in the world and why they were so huge.
  • Using original artifacts designated as Important Cultural Properties along with huge replicas, we have brought back to life the kings who rest in peace within these massive tombs, and reconstructed their true role.
  • A Famous artist has created heroic poses that incorporate findings from research into weapons and armor found in kofun, offering a new way of looking at kofun and ancient kings through collaboration between popular culture and archaeology.
  • The diverse meanings and roles of kofun are brought into sharp relief through the eyes of people not only in Japan but also around the world, of people not just today but yesterday as well, and of not just scholars but those involved in administration and society.
  • Through life-size replicas and detailed illustrations, visitors are invited to explore the world in the decorated stone chambers at the heart of kofun and gain insights through their own experiences into what kofun are.

What are kofun?

Kofun are mounded tombs that were built across the Japanese Archipelago, from Kyushu up to Tohoku (and later introduced to Hokkaido), from around AD250 over a period of 350 years or so. The largest, the Daisen Kofun in Osaka, is 480 m long, while the smallest are round tombs about 10 m across. Kofun vary in shape and size. They visually reflect the social status and relationships of the people buried there. While similar phenomena have been observed in other prehistoric cultures around the world, the kofun of the Japanese Archipelago are distinctive in both their number and sheer size.


Exhibition Sections

Chapter 1. Royal Authority and Monuments

In a social stage immediately preceding the development of religions and states with writing, prehistoric monuments were frequently built as a way of expressing the power of the gods and the might of the kings and reaching out to the people. Japan’s Kofun period was one of the most notable of such societies. The panels of this section show that prehistoric monuments take various forms such as homes of the gods (temples and shrines), tombs of kings, and ceremonial spaces (plazas and circuses). They highlight how each of these reflected in its own way the society that built them.


Chapter 2. Kings and Tombs: Authority and Symbolism

Prehistoric monuments from five regions—Latin American (Maya and Moche), North America (Cahokia and Moundville), Europe (Celts), Korea (Goguryeo, Baekje, Silla, and Gaya), and China (Han and later dynasties)—are presented through panels, videos, and a select few replica artifacts, offering distinctive characteristics of the respective regions.

Mayan temples were built in layers, each new one covering the old.

The ways in which a temple was formed tells us how its society changed. This is very different from Japanese kofun, where large objects were created at once.

Temple-tomb of a Mayan king (Temple No. 16)

At the center of the gallery, there is a model of a huge kofun (the Kamiishizu Misanzai Kofun) and an aerial photo of a huge kofun group (the Mozu Kofun Group). There are also panels explaining the features of kofun. They together offer an overview of Japanese burial mounds and the society in which they were built.

(1) Ancient Japanese keyhole-shaped burial mounds

Approximately forty huge keyhole-shaped kofun more than 200 m long, topped by the 480 m long Daisen Kofun. These were built around the Osaka and Nara areas, and west as far as Okayama and east as far as Gunma. Ones up to 100 m long are found from Kagoshima to Miyagi. From great kings to local chiefs, those who could invest their wealth into building these huge tombs, while creating a society with almost no cities or castles.

(2) Korean burial mounds
The biggest mound on the Korean Peninsula is the royal tomb of Silla, 120 m long. There are very few that reach 100 m in length, and relatively small, round tombs dotted the landscape, serving as tombs of the kings. The wealth these kings saved on not building such huge burial mounds as the kings of Wa (Japan) was spent on constructing walls around their capitals, mountain fortresses, and other military facilities. Buddhist architecture is also seen at an early stage in Baekje and Goguryeo.
(3) Chinese burial mounds From the Warring States period through the Qin and Han periods, it was the fashion for nobles and emperors to construct huge tombs. The peak of this tomb-building came with the tomb for the First Qin Emperor, a huge mound 370 m on a side, with ancillary facilities housing the Terracotta Army and other funerary goods. However, the emperor’s power was not only shown in his mausoleum, but in his city and military facilities as well.
(4) European burial mounds In Europe, during the Bronze Age and the Iron Age of 2,200 BC to 800 BC (corresponding with the later Jomon and early Yayoi periods in Japan), it was common for kings and people of power to be buried in round burial mounds. In the Iron Age, huge tombs, up to 100 m across, were constructed. Compared with these, the development of cities and military facilities was not originally notable, but rather they were spread by the expansion of Roman rule.
(5) North American tombs and temples
Throughout the Americas, both North and South, temples rather than tombs developed as the nucleus of royal authority. In North America, some mound-builder societies created great mounds of earth that functioned as the foundations for temples. These mounds were also used at times to cover the gorgeous burials of chiefs. At the base of these mounds, ceremonial cities with plazas and roads developed.
(6) Latin American tombs and temples In Central and South America, there were a number of flourishing cultures that built temples and pyramids from stone, rather than earth as in North America. The temples were built cumulatively over many years, with larger ones being built over smaller ones. Around them, ceremonial cities with plazas and roads developed. Throughout the Americas, both North and South, no notable military facilities developed.


Chapter 3. Kings of the Kofun Period

What were kings of the Kofun period like? Ancient kings who were feared and respected by the people for having many faces such as heroes, shamans, priests and controllers of handicrafts are brought to life through displays of the various items offered to kings and gods in the kofun, including weapons (Marozuka Kofun, Kumamoto Pref.: Important Cultural Property), mirrors (Maezuka Kofun, Nara Pref.), handicrafts (replicas of horse harnesses from the Shitomiyakita Site, Osaka Pref. and other sites; Sue ware pottery), and ceremonial goods (Okinoshima Ceremonial Site, Fukuoka Pref.: replicas), along with exhibits of clay figures (haniwa) of warriors (Collection of National Museum of Japanese History), large jars of Sue ware (Obadera Site, Osaka Pref.), Japan’s largest house-shaped haniwa (Imashirozuka Kofun, Osaka Pref.: replica), and enclosure-shaped haniwa (Okamizuka Kofun, Osaka Pref.: replica).


Chapter 4. Views of the Kofun Period

This section shows how Japan’s kofun have been understood and presented by archeologists in the two countries, Britain and Germany, which have had a significant influence on Japanese archeology. With creative images by a famous artist and small illustrations featuring anecdotes about works that have already been unveiled, we present images of kofun and kings as viewed by an artist.

(1) Through the eyes of overseas archeology and museums (Britain, Germany)
(2) Through the eyes of contemporary art


Chapter 5. How Kofun Are Viewed Today

This section presents efforts to get the Mozu-Furuichi Kofun Group registered as a World Heritage Site. Panels show initiatives for the preservation and investigation of burial mounds that make up the bulk of Japan’s biggest kofun, along with exhibits of actual objects (haniwa fragments) found during investigations of these mounds. Based around a full-size replica of the interior of a decorated stone chamber inside a kofun (Segonko Kofun No. 1, Kumamoto Pref.), visitors can see copied paintings (originals and prints) by Hakko Kusaka, which are works of art in themselves, and experience what it is like inside these decorated stone chambers. A film shows how these copied paintings and replicas are important in passing on kofun to future generations, and features the latest initiative, a CG recreation of the decorated stone chamber in the Goroyama Kofun (Fukuoka Pref.). In addition, panels describe how kofun, as cultural artifacts that were directly affected by the Great East Japan Earthquake and the Kumamoto Earthquake, are to be kept safe for the future even through natural disasters.

1. [Important Cultural Property] Afukinosanryoki Tumulus Records (Formerly possessed by Mr. Minoru Tanaka)
Collection of National Museum of Japanese History

A valuable document of the Kamakura Period recording events related to imperial tomb

2. Photos taken during investigation of keyhole-shaped kofun, the greatest monuments of prehistoric Japan (Hodota-Hachimanzuka Kofun, Gunma Pref.)

3. Kofun period iron sword carved with gold characters showing the name of the king (Inariyama Kofun, Saitama Pref.; replica)
Collection of National Museum of Japanese History

4. Temple entombing a Mayan king (Temple No. 16)

5. Haniwa statue of a standing armed man (said to have been unearthed in Gunma Pref.)
Collection of National Museum of Japanese History

6. [Important Cultural Property] Iron cuirass (Marozuka Kofun, Kumamoto Pref.)
Collection of National Museum of Japanese History

7. A photo of an investigation of a British barrow

8. Full-size model of a decorated stone chamber inside a kofun (Segonko No. 1 Kofun, Kumamoto Pref.)
Collection of National Museum of Japanese History (Photo credit: Benrido Co., Ltd.)

The interior of the decorated stone chamber from inside a kofun is recreated in full size, about 3 m long by 2.4 m wide. This is the first exhibit of a decorated stone chamber replica in about 25 years.

9. Reproductions of wall paintings from a kofun stone chamber (Kamao Kofun, Kumamoto Pref.)
Collection of National Museum of Japanese History

10. Stirrup-shaped spout vessel, Moche culture, Peru.
Collection of the University Museum, the University of Tokyo.

11. Aerial photograph of the Mozu Kofun Group
(Credit: Sakai City)

12. Comparative images of Daisen burial mound (the mausoleum of Emperor Nintoku) at the time of construction (left) and present (right)
(Credit: Sakai City)