Kofun
Burial mounds, horse riders and the ascension of the Yamato clan
300 AD - 538 AD
author Armand Sadovschi, January 2018
The Kofun era is named after the great burial mounds which were tombs for the political elite. They are considered by many as the pyramids of Japan. It was a period defined by social stratification and the rise of the Yamato kingdom, which managed to conquer most of western and central Japan. The Ainu were pushed further into northern Honshu and Hokkaido. Shinto became a state religion, enforcing the rule of the kings. Technology in infrastructure, agriculture and weapons evolved with the help of constant trade with the three Korean kingdoms and the Chinese dynasties. Archaeologists and historians are still working to separate myths from real events and, with the help of cutting edge technology, are still coming up with compelling new theories.

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The Kofun period starts right after the Iron Age agricultural society of the Yayoi. From all the warring kingdoms of the Yayoi, a clan emerges victorious. Its name is Yamato, the family which will establish the Japanese imperial line. This is why some historians name this timeline as Yamato. In order to strengthen their rule, Yamato leaders built an official Shinto religion and huge burial mounds for the political elite. Kofun is actually a Japanese terminology for burial mounds. At the end of the Kofun period, massive spiritual and technological imports from China brought a tremendous cultural revolution. Japan slowly began to be one of the most civilized and evolved nations of the world.

Burial mounds first appeared in central Honshu, a region where Yamato kings imposed their dominion. From there the practice spread into most of Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu. Kingdoms and tribes from Hokkaido and southern Kyushu mostly preserved their own customs. The cold climate in Hokkaido discouraged further military expansion. Until modern times, the Hokkaido, Sakhalin and Kuril islands were the home of the Ainu tribes.

The sizes and purposes of burial mounds varied greatly in the different stages of the era. Early burial mounds were discovered as far back as the Late Yayoi period, but their scale was modest. As we go further into the Kofun jidai, archaeologists have discovered bigger graves with some valuable objects buried alongside the dead. Burial mounds from the Middle Kofun period even surpassed the dimensions of pyramids from ancient Egypt. An important person was buried in the center of the burial mound in a coffin or in a stone chamber. Next to the main room, numerous other chambers with jewels, weapons, statues and slaves were discovered.

The capital and main cities of the Yamato were located somewhere between today’s Kyoto, Osaka and Nara prefectures. Because of Shinto beliefs, the capital city was always moved after a king died. It was a cleansing of past mistakes and a preservation of the divine nature of Yamato rulers that should represent immortality in an institutional sense. Many times the heir of the state leader established a new capital from scratch with the goal of creating a new bond with the gods that could offer him blessings for a glorious rule.

Primitive dogu clay figurines from the Jomon and the Yayoi were replaced by elaborate haniwa sculptures made from terracotta. These sculptures are the main source of inspiration for reconstructing what Yamato warriors looked like. Unlike dogu figurines that represented gods and fertility symbols, haniwa sculptures embody shapes of soldiers, aristocracy, horses and farmers. Most of them were discovered in mound burials destined for the political and religious elite. They were meant as offerings for Shinto deities.

In comparison with the Yayoi era, there were no major technological revolutions in the Kofun period. On the other hand, almost every technical means of production and artistic expression became far more complex. Weapons were made from improved iron forging technology, while bronze was used only for decorative and religious objects. Armor, helmets and shields were more effective in keeping soldiers alive in battle. Wet rice fields were cultivated on higher grounds and used elaborate irrigation systems, allowing a bigger supply of food and enhancing population growth.

For unknown reasons, the colossal burial mounds had a keyhole shape. Unfortunately for researchers, these complex structures corroded with the passing of time. Only signs of small mounds made of earth remain, but with the help of high tech excavations and DNA testing, archaeologists have succeeded in grasping an understanding of part of the ancient world. In total, more than 20,000 burial mounds have been discovered up until today.

Total population count doubled in the Kofun jidai from two million to four million inhabitants, Japan becoming one of the most densely populated regions of the ancient world. For example, in the Kofun jidai, the whole Roman Empire had an estimated population of fifty million people. Shintoism became a state religion that tried to unify and ameliorate the local differences in religious, political and social habits. It should be noted that the dominance of the Yamato was gradually obtained and firmly imposed only in the Late Kofun.

Separating Yayoi culture from Kofun culture is not an easy task for historians. Firstly, archaeologists discovered small burial mounds in the Late Yayoi, making the transition difficult to identify. Secondly, technology evolved but the whole period had no technical revolutions. In general, specialists highlight some main characteristics for understanding the changes in the era. Yayoi was a shamanistic, warlike and matriarchal society, while Kofun had an organized religion, was a patriarchal society and warfare was more limited by strong leaders.

The discussion is complicated by western historians who name the whole period from Kofun to Asuka as Yamato because the Yamato clan dominated Japanese politics in this timeline. Most Japanese historians do not agree with this classification because Yamato’s rule was not absolute and sometimes was very limited. Even more relevant is the end of Kofun, when the adoption of Buddhism created a spiritual revolution. Furthermore, the political and social reforms from the Asuka jidai radically transformed Japanese society, making the separation of Kofun from Asuka perfectly justified.

The transition from Yayoi to Kofun was marked by important changes. In Robert Ellwood’s opinion, the biggest religious reforms happened in the time of Emperor Sujin. Society shifted from matriarchy to patriarchy. Sujin prophecies replaced the foretelling role of the shamans. The divination of the sun goddess Amaterasu as the main deity was moved into other provinces, while a male god named ‘Yamato no-Okunidama’ became the main object of worship in the capital. The cosmogony of Shinto commutated from earth and land to mountains and the sky.

Japanese historians like Obayashi and Ishino consider climate change to be the main cause for the Yayoi fall. More exactly, they state that a colder climate in the Late Yayoi could have meant a very poor rice harvest, disease and famine. In this situation, the old Yayoi rituals and ceremonies could have been considered as bringing bad luck and being inefficient, so they were slowly replaced with new ceremonies. Another theory is related to economic development. If the society became more stratified, maybe the political elite didn’t want to continue the same communal rites as in the past.

Traditional historians think that Kofun marks a shift from female shamanistic and political dominance to the rule of male kings with divine rights. While Yayoi was a peaceful, agricultural and magico-religious era, the Kofun was more practical and warlike. Mark J. Hudson thinks that we should not generalize. ‘Late Kofun, yet I would argue that the latter description fits the Yayoi better than the former. Of course this is not to deny there may be some truth in such contrasts, but they should be viewed as theories to be tested rather than received knowledge.’

The Kofun era was outlined by the powerful Kingdom of Yamato which expanded into most of Japan and probably into south Korea. Unfortunately, no written records have been discovered in the Japanese archipelago. Although the military, diplomatic and economic activity in the Kofun jidai is far more intense, the Chinese chronicles give us fewer details about the Yamato than about the previous shamanistic kingdoms and tribes. From this perspective, and having certain parallels with the Dark Age of Europe, this timeline represents a mystery for historians.

Yamato’s accession starts in parallel with the end of civil war in China. The three kingdoms of Wu, Shu and Wei were unified and replaced by the rule of the Jin dynasty. With a population of 35 million people, it became a model for the Yamato court as the Japanese rulers were seeking legitimacy from the Chinese emperors. With the downfall of the Jin emperors, constant civil war between Chinese empires prevented further official communications with Japan. On the other hand, archaeological evidence points to constant trade, most likely undertaken with Korean intermediaries or with Chinese traders on a private level, instead of state-to-state trade.

The Jin dynasty crumbled into two empires: The Northern dynasties and Southern dynasties. In the course of two centuries, the Southern dynasties were actually ruled by four different imperial families, while the Northern dynasties were segregated into four different kingdoms. All this social unrest encouraged new waves of immigrants into Japan, many of them sophisticated aristocrats who lost their status in China because of the civil war. Most of them were appreciated by the Yamato rulers for their technical skills and theoretical knowledge and integrated into the noble families of Japan.

The situation in Korea was somewhat more stable. As in Japan, the tribe federations started to conquer their neighbors and form kingdoms. From this struggle, three centers of power emerged: Baekje, Silla and Goryeo. It seems that the name of Korea is derived from Goryeo. Baekje controlled the southwest part of the Korean peninsula, Silla ruled over the southeast part and Goryeo expanded its domination into north Korea, the Liaodong Peninsula and Manchuria. The Yamato court had especially good relations with the Baekje kingdom.

Historians now know that Baekje or Paekche kingdom obtained an important victory over Goryeo, but the latter managed to reform itself after the Chinese model. The three kingdoms of Korea were now strong enough to govern themselves and take advantage of the social unrest in China in order to declare independence from their former protectorate. The destruction of Chinese colonies in Korea brought new waves of Chinese immigrants into Japan. This is why although no official contacts existed, the Kofun culture was highly influenced by the Chinese civilization.

Since it is linked with the destiny of Yamato rulers, Kofun jidai is separated into three large parts. The first one includes the first 150 years, when the Yamato kingdom slowly expanded its dominance in Japan. The second one is represented by the peak of the Yamato kingdom’s power, characterized by huge burial mounds, big and well-supplied armies, and attempts to expand into Korea. Introduction of Buddhism and other major reforms mark the final stage, when the legitimacy and strength of the Yamato kings faded, as they struggled to remain in power.

Social inequality became even more widespread. Those below aristocracy were called ‘be’ and included in this category were artisans, scholars and manufacturers. The majority of them were Chinese and Korean immigrants who possessed superior knowledge and skills in creating things like paper, silk clothes, glass or iron. Due to this, they had a higher status and were protected by the authorities. Next followed farmers and traders. Slaves were placed at the bottom of society. Very few slaves were born with this status, most of them being common soldiers captured in wars.

Archaeologists discovered a bronze sword in a burial mound near Kumamoto Prefecture and another one near Saitama Prefecture. Both had the therm ‘okimi’ inscribed on them in Chinese. Starting from this piece of evidence, specialists concluded that the Yamato rulers received this title from the Chinese emperors. In an approximative translation, okimi means great king. Japanese leaders were called okimi at least until the Taiho code in Late Asuka jidai, when the first mention of the title of emperor appears.

Starting from Korean sources and analyzing ancient myths, a fascinating theory is developed by Egami Namio. In his opinion, emperor Sujin was actually a Korean king who had a huge army of heavy cavalry. He migrated into Japan and conquered the Yayoi kingdoms from Kyushu but moved his capital into central Honshu, forming the real Yamato kingdom. This is why religious habits changed and this is why haniwa statues represented such well armed soldiers. His theory is criticized by others because there is no archaeological evidence to indicate a mass invasion and because a strong kingdom existed in central Honshu before Sujin.

The Shiki area on the eastern coast of Nara’s flatland is the most important archaeological site from the Early Kofun. The biggest burial mounds are: Shibutani Muko-yama - 310 meters, Hashihaka - 280 meters, Maesuri-yama - 240 meters, Ando-yama - 240 meters, Nishitonozuka - 230 meters, Tobi Chausu-yama - 207 meters. Considering that they were built in the same region and had many treasures, it is safe to presume that all of them represented a royal cemetery for the Yamato leaders.

Tsude Hiroshi is a leading expert on Kofun jidai technology. He estimated that rice culture grew exponentially in the Early Kofun. This constant accumulation of wealth allowed Yamato kings to consolidate their rule by constructing big monuments like burial mounds and to expand further into Kyushu and Shikoku.

Analogous burial mounds existed in ancient China in the time of Early Yayoi, but the practise was abandoned after that. Moreover, with some similarities, burial mounds can be found in Korea in the three kingdoms period. Scientist reached two important conclusions. Firstly, the Kofun era was highly influenced by the culture from the continent, either because of trade and immigration, or because of war. Secondly, the apparition of burial mounds in different regions in different timelines means that this practice was not necessarily related to economic development as much as to political centralization.

It seems that burial mound practice was imported from China and Korea, but the ceremony was widely held at that time mostly in Japan. The earliest ones were built from natural hills. Later burial mounds involved terrible work, as hundreds of workers built these structures using earth, clay, wood and stone from a flatland. In their period of glory, they were concentrated on the eastern shores facing the Sea of Japan, the resting place for Yamato kings. Kofun Daisen located near Osaka was one of the biggest burial mounds. It was 35 meters tall and 480 meters wide. The numerous chambers contained thousand of artifacts and offerings.

Burial mounds sizes varied from 15 meters to 823 meters. The 823 meter one belonged to the emperor Nintoku, and its construction lasted 16 years. More than two thousand workers participated in the project. Another huge burial mound belonged to his father, emperor Ojin and it was 415 meters long and 35 meters tall. Because Japanese authorities consider the burial grounds of emperors to be sacred places, many archaeological excavations are forbidden. Some historians are frustrated by this, believing that the tombs hide precious secrets about the Kofun period.

Numerous big burial mounds were surrounded by ditches filled with water. It is not clear if they had religious significance or if they were built in order to discourage robbers and other possible attackers.

Tombs held countless artifacts. The biggest tomb found in a burial mound was 22 meters long and 5 meters tall. It seems the grave belonged to Munakata no Kimi Tokuzen, an important politician at the end of the Kofun era who was later worshiped as a local deity. He is mentioned in the Japanese chronicle Nihon shoki as a relative of the royal family. Munakata was one of the most powerful clans that promised their allegiance to the Yamato, having lands in northern Kyushu and being a key player in stabilizing external relations with Korea. The tomb’s wealth represented the commercial power of the clan.

Archaeologists discovered a wide range of artifacts buried in the royal tombs. The most common were bronze weapons, mirrors, haniwa statues, agricultural tools and gold jewels. Horse statues and saddles were also common, leading archaeologists to believe that the Kofun era was ruled by a military elite that used heavy cavalry as their main tactic. This supposition is confirmed by the existence of the same practice in continental China and by the analysis of armor and weapons.

Haniwa warriors were statues of soldiers from the Kofun era measuring between 1 and 2 meters long that were placed on top of the tombs. Their purpose is still debated. They could be guarding the burial mounds of the ruling elite from evil spirits or just marking the separation between the realm of the living and the mystical underworld. From an aesthetic point of view, the statues were highly complex, helping historians to reconstruct what Kofun soldiers really looked like.

Haniwa statues were placed on top of the burial mounds and most likely had a ritual purpose. Bearing in mind that the burial mounds were surrounded by consecutive ditches of water, it is clear that the common folks didn’t have access to them. It is speculated that the aristocracy, priests and shamans held regular religious ceremonies even after the funeral and that haniwa figurines played an important symbolic role.

Haniwa from the Early Kofun represented simple cylindrical forms. In the Middle Kofun, at the peak of Yamato’s power, haniwa statues changed. They started to represent soldiers, houses, horses and shamans. Historians think that when all the haniwa were placed in order on the top of a burial mound, they formed a model of an actual village. This would mean that religious ceremonies were held in order to protect the whole community.

Taking haniwa statues as a guide, archaeologists have reconstructed how a Kofun soldier was armed. He had an iron helmet and his ears and neck were covered in a leather material in order to protect the warrior from cold temperatures. The body armor was most probably a cuirass model, a type of armor formed from at least two iron plates which were linked to one another. The forehands were also protected by metal guards. Besides swords and spears, many haniwa had a quiver on their backs and were armed with bows and arrows.

Combining information from haniwa statues and weapons unearthed from the ground, archaeologists have been able to understand how the Kofun armies fought. Ancient chronicles from China and Korea, alongside Kojiki and Nihon shoki, also helped in completing the big image. The military organization was quite complex, but the real difference was almost certainly made by Yamato’s heavy cavalry.

All the Yamato swords were straight and had a cutting edge only on one side, resembling the Chinese model. A great variation of blades existed, but they can be separated into two simple categories: big swords and small swords. Big swords were almost 90 cm long and were much fewer in number than smaller ones that measured 45 cm. The big ones were heavier, suitable for cutting and crushing bones through armour, and were wielded with two hands. The small ones were suitable for stabbing: the warrior held the small sword in one hand, and a shield in the other.

Scientists have tried to understand Yamato tactics on the battlefield. Usually foot archers started the battle. The bulk of the army was made of medium armored infantry troops armed with a short sword or a two meter-long spear and a shield, with the task of holding the line. From the reserves came heavy infantry soldiers with two-handed swords, who could use their mass in a charge in order to break the enemy ranks. The elite warriors were formed of skilled heavy armored horse archers. After they finished their ammunition, they could easily smash into the enemy's flank.

The sheath, handle and guard from the swords of the elite soldiers were made of wood, copper and gold, and were also ornamented with inscriptions of Shinto gods and the origins of their noble family. Many swords had also a strange pommel that was large enough to be used efficiently in fighting. It should be noted that although swords from the Kofun era looked nice, they were inefficient because the metal ore used in producing them was not of a high quality, and the forging techniques were not efficient. The blades of the big swords especially were too rigid, wide and thick, and could easily break in combat.

Art prospered under the guidance of free craftsmen from Korea and China who formed small colonies in Japan. Because of their skills, they were protected by the Yamato kings, and were given a special status. In a sense, they were like the precursors of specialized guilds from the Middle Ages in Europe.

Pottery was far more evolved. A special wheel was used, and the clay was produced at temperatures used even now in industry. In contrast with the previous vessels that had a reddish color and were symbols of fertility, in the new pottery the main nuances were blue and green, symbolistic of spirituality and cyclical rebirth.

In Late Kofun, a new type of pottery was introduced. The most common color of the vessels was gray, with different shapes and lines. This type of ceramics was clearly destined only for the political elite, being hard to make and bearing signs of royal elegance. Archaeologists have compared them with the ones that came from Korea, reaching the conclusion that the same technique was used. Some of them arrived in Japan via trade routes, while others were created in Japan by Korean immigrants.

Noritake Tsuda explained how a complex social organization stimulated creativity in artistic expression. ‘There were spinners and weavers of cotton and silk, polishers of gems, workers in gold, silver, copper and iron, forgers of arms and armor, makers of earthenware and dressers of leather, all forming themselves into guilds named be, each of which carried on its own industry from generation to generation.’

Haniwa statues sometimes depicted the whole arrangement of a village. Comparing them with archaeological excavations, specialists concluded that houses had a more complex roof to allow rain to drain and that the buildings had two floors. P. C. Swann explains that the standard of living had become higher. ‘Warriors in iron and leather armor, huntsmen, and ladies of the court in decorated skirts all reveal a civilization by no means as primitive as was once thought.’

Yamato was the strongest Japanese warrior clan of its time, but it wasn't strong enough to defeat all the competitors at once by military means. Instead, Yamato rulers developed the old system of tribe federation from the Yayoi into a tributary and alliance system. The neighboring kingdoms could pledge allegiance, trade and give specific resources to the Yamato. In return, the Yamato offered military and economic aid, and even appointed their allies to vital administrative positions. These regional leaders had the noble title of ‘uji’ and originated from different clans like Mononobe, Munakata, Otomo, Soga, Nakatomi, Haji, Ki and Kagusa.

Starting from Middle Kofun, Yamato rulers were buried in the Saki area, northwest of Nara. The main burial mounds from there are Gosashi, 275 meters wide and Horaisan, 227 meters wide. Historians believe that the first one belonged to the legendary emperor Jimmu and that the second one was the resting place of emperor Suinin.

In Middle Kofun, with the exceptions of northern Honshu and Hokkaido, Yamato rulers had influenced all of ancient Japan. The Japanese ancient chronicles Kojiki and Nihon shoki abound in references to legendary battles. Historians think that this period can be considered the heroic part of the history of Japan. So many myths about constant warfare and heroes that receive supernatural powers from the gods like Yamato Takeru, the bravest of the Yamato, can’t be all fiction. Most probably they depict real historical battles seen through the eyes of popular folklore.

With the relocation of the royal cemetery from Shiki to Saki, official religion changed. Now the main shrine was Isonokami and the most common objects of worship were swords, spears, bows and arrows. This modification was probably ordered because of the growing influence of uji clans, the noble families that pledged allegiance to the Yamato court. As the kingdom expanded, the influence of foreign aristocrats grew even stronger. All the evidence indicates the divination of a war god and an intense concert for military activities.

Linking the archaic animistic beliefs with the organized religion of Shintoism, the concept of kami represented both powerful gods, but also magic spirits of sacred animals, rivers or mountains. In the book ‘The Cambridge History of Japan Volume 1’, Delmer M. Brown describes the spiritual revolution from Middle Kofun and puts it into a historical context. ‘The second difference was that the Yamato rulers now gave more attention to military affairs and less to kami ritual. This shift is noticed first in the archaeological discovery that the fifth-century mounds contained more weapons and military gear made of iron and fewer ceremonial items such as bronze mirrors and sacred jewels.’

Not only was the religious center of the Yamato moved, but also the political one. The new location of the capital was in Izumi prefecture, west of Nara Plain. This is also the site of the biggest burial mounds from the Kofun era. Suggesting that Middle Kofun was dominated by two competing aristocratic families, archaeologists discovered two important sites. The first group included Nakatsu-yama and Konda Gobyo-yama. The second group was composed of Upper Ishizu Misanzai, Daisen-ryo and Haji Nisanzai.

Shiraishi Taiichiro thinks that the explanation for this constant movement of institutions consists in the influence of uji clans. When a Yamato ruler died, he was buried in the territory dominated by the main uji family. Also, it seems that Yamato kings married the princess from the strongest uji clan of that period and so the balance of power would be kept. This also may indicate that it is very probable that the next heir was half Japanese with some Korean or Chinese blood.

Outside the central area of Yamato’s control, many middle and small sized burial mounds have been discovered. Specialists interpret this fact as evidence for the special relation of Yamato kings with local leaders. The more modest burial mounds were destined for regional governors or tribal chiefs. Instead of building a large monument for just one person, the whole aristocratic family loyal to the Yamato kings was buried there.

A team of archaeologists, historians and folklorists tried to reconstruct the religion from the Kofun era. The main burial mounds from Early Kofun were all built at the foot of the Miwa mountain. Connecting archaeological findings with local myths and legends, scientists now believe that Yamato rule was closely linked to the divination of Shinto gods that had their home on the top of this mountain. It seems that Omiwa shrine, the main temple of the Kofun era, was dedicated to the Miwa kami. Somewhat similar to Medieval Christian kings, Yamato divine kings took the legitimacy of their leadership as an intermediate between the land of the living and the land of the gods.

Omiwa shrine had no special room for worshiping a particular deity. Historians speculate that this meant that the priest worshiped the mountain Miwa as a living body that connected the natural and supernatural world. In the last fifty years, much evidence points to rituals and offerings held on that mountain.

Nihon shoki offers hints regarding the change from matriarchy to patriarchy. It is said that a Yamato princess had fallen in love with a god from mount Miwa that appeared to her only in the middle of the night. She requested the deity to come down in the day, so she could see him. He accepted, but with the condition that the princess would not be scared. The next morning she saw the god in the form of a snake and was horrified. Furious, the deity cursed the queen and returned to the sky. Marked by sadness, the queen committed suicide. The episode represents the loss of divine right to rule.

Further speculation concerns the fact that the tomb of the emperor Sujin might be the Ando-yama one, meaning that he is the founder of the Yamato kingdom. Nihon shoki chronicle describes in detail the reign of Sujin and it says that the sovereign considered himself the ruler of the Yamato and the representative of the god Omono Nushi which had his headquarters on mount Miwa. The myths might hide some historical truth.

Another interesting ceremony was held starting from the rule of Nintoku. It was called the Yasojima festival and celebrated the mythical islands of Onogoro and Awaji, linking the myths of the main Shinto gods Izanami and Izanagi to the origins of Yamato kings. According to the legend, Yamato rulers came from far away by sea. This story strengthens the thesis that Yamato rulers from Middle Kofun invaded Japan with an army of horsemen from the continent.

Nintoku is probably buried in the Middle Kofun tomb of Daisen-ryo, the biggest burial tomb of the Kofun jidai. The monument built in his honor and his long reign make him the greatest king of the Kofun era. It should be noted that the dates of his rule are noted in the Nihon shoki chronicle that tends to put historical events earlier than they really were. It is more plausible that Nintoku hegemony happened at least a century later.

Historians also speculate about Ojin, the son of the legendary empress Jingu and the father of Nintoku. Kojiki chronicle tell the story of a warrior queen Jingu who led a victorious military campaign into Korea. When she returned to Kyushu, she gave birth to a son destined by the gods to rule Japan. Having obtained the favours of the kami, Ojin received three provinces from Korea. This might suggest that Ojin actually came with an army from Korea and defeated the old political elite from central Honshu and replaced it with a new Yamato dynasty.

Archaeologists discovered evidence that supports the description from Nihon shoki. For example, they found a huge irrigation canal dated from the time of Nintoku reign bearing marks of constant repair. Historians concluded that Nihon shoki texts are far more accurate as we get closer to the fifth century AD, probably because the scribes had access to archives that in the meantime were lost. Many references are similar to the ones from the Chinese ancient chronicles and some dialogs are even copied from there.

Delmer M. Brown observes that unlike any emperor before him, Nintoku is described in Nihon shoki as a historical person and less as a myth. ‘Instead they concentrate on such secular matters as receiving envoys from Korea, gathering immigrants for building ponds, accepting tribute, going on royal hunting expeditions, coping with royal love affairs, settling conflicting claims to the throne, establishing title to rice lands, putting down a Emishi rebellion in northern Japan, building palaces and irrigation systems, and raising an army to invade Silla.’

The system of uji clans evolved into a more complex one. Resembling the Medieval system of knightship, many noble titles appeared. In general, those favoured by the Yamato court and sent into the provinces to govern had the title kabane. The most important nobles either remained at the royal court or had their estates close by the capital. Their titles were hereditary and were named muraji and omi. Differences between appointments made researchers conclude that the main warrior clans from the Middle Kofun were Otomo, Heguri and Mononobe.

A situation analogous with the ironic one found in the famous book ‘Don Quijote’ happened. Each Yamato king raised many people to the title of nobleman, which had a chaotic effect. An inflation of religious and political authority emerged because minor leaders claimed rights when they were actually impostors. Nihon shoki says that the Yamato emperor Ingyo was forced to take measures. He ordered all the persons who claimed to be of noble birth to put their hands into a barrel with boiling water. The impostors fled and so the realm was cleansed.

Yamato kings initiated several diplomatic missions in Korea. Their most important trade partner became the Korean Kingdom of Paekche, a realm that would become their closest ally in the next era, the Asuka jidai. Inspired by the legendary invasion of the empress Jingu in Korea and backed up by some archaeological evidence, Japanese historians believe that the kingdom of Yamato conquered the southern part of Korea. Korean historians claim that the area was actually a commercial center where the Yamato people were allowed to trade in exchange for paying tribute. Regardless of the truth, the Japanese were expelled or repelled from there by the Korean Kingdom of Silla in 562 AD.

Korean historians say that the Yamato kingdom was not strong enough to mount an invasion of Korea. Archaeological evidence points to the contrary. A large monument was discovered in northern Korea with an inscription. The text says that a great Korean sovereign of the Goguryeo or Koguryo kingdom died a year ago. He was named Kwanggaet’o or Gwanggaeto and he obtained a glorious victory against the Japanese invaders in 399 AD. The intrusion of the Japanese into the Korean peninsula is backed by the numerous technologies, myths and rituals used by the Yamato court that have clear Korean origin.

Analyzing both archaeological evidence and mythological references from Nihon shoki, Delmer M. Brown comments on the possibility of Yamato expansion into Korea. ‘The comment that Sujin received tribute from the Korean kingdom of Mimana cannot be accepted as historical fact, and yet it seems that Yamato had generated enough power by the middle of the fourth century to undertake military action in areas well outside the Nara plain.’ Gaya confederacy is the most likely location of the Mimana province.

In early Kofun time, Paekche or Baekje paid tribute to the Chinese kingdom of Eastern Chin. With a consolidated external position, Paekche started a series of wars with Goguryeo or Koguryo and obtained numerous victories. The capital of Koguryo was conquered, their king was killed and the survivors fled into northern Korea while Paekche expanded into the central area of the peninsula. The Silla state from south Korea declared war on Paekche and allied itself with the defeated Koguryo. Surrounded by two sides, Paekche sought new allies and initiated closed diplomatic ties with Yamato leaders.

An intriguing piece of puzzle from the Kofun era is represented by the discovery of an ancient bronze sword in the Isonokami temple. The inscription states that the blade was created in the Korean kingdom of Paekche in 369 AD in honor of the king of Yamato. There are three main theories for explaining the purpose of the sword. It could mean that Yamato was a protectorate of the Paekche. The reverse could also be true. A third plausible argument says that the sword meant that Yamato accepted the protectorate of the Chinese kingdom of Eastern Chin, and Paekche was just an intermediary.

The text from the sword discovered in the Isonokami temple resembles a reference from Nihon shoki where an emissary from the Kingdom of Paekche speaks in the name of a Korean prince. He offers the Yamato seven mirrors and a sword. Considering that the characters used for the word sword are exactly the same as the inscription found in Isonokami, historians believe they might have discovered the same item. The diplomat said that he is pleased because friendly relations between the two countries were established and made allusions to iron ore from Korea, a context that perfectly matches archeological evidence.

Historians are very divided when they talk about the nature of the involvement of the Yamato in Korea. Some deny its very existence, while others go as far as to say that Yamato sent military aid to Paekche against Silla and Koguryo. In return, Paekche sent the heir to their throne as a prisoner to Japan, as a guarantee for their alliance. The Paekche and Yamato coalition was under the protectorate of the dynasties of Southern China and Koguryo, whereas the Silla coalition swore allegiance to the Northern dynasties of China. After several military encounters in the course of a century, a relative stalemate was reached.

An additional discovery was made at Okinoshima island, located close to the northern coast of Kyushu. The shrine unearthed from the excavations showed that annual offerings to the gods were made there by Japanese sailors who traveled into Korea. There are more than twenty sites that had this role in Okinoshima, in which many treasures were found. Archaeologists concluded that this ceremony was constantly held from the fourth century till the ninth century, suggesting that the Yamato kingdom was very active in the Korean Peninsula.

Chinese chronicles note that at least five Yamato rulers sent nine emissaries in order to gain the favor of Chinese emperors and support for establishing a Yamato foothold in Korea. Historians can’t estimate with accuracy if the Japanese adventure into Korea was profitable or just an expensive and exhausting experience that contributed to the gradual downfall of the Yamato divine rulers.

Taking advantage of the fact that the Chinese empire was divided and that the Korean kingdom of Paekche was weakened by constant fighting on two fronts, Koguryo declared independence. Their armies managed to repel the Chinese settlers from Korea. With the expansion into Manchuria and with the northern border secured, Koguryo made peace with Paekche in order to stabilize their conquest. Without their main ally, Silla made a temporary truce with Paekche but prepared for war. Their first objective would be to liquidate Japanese influence in Korea.

Japanese interests in Korea fall in three categories. Firstly, if Silla became too strong, the balance of power could be affected and commercial, technological and political ties with China could be severed. Secondly, Nihon shoki makes a positive description of the kingdom of Silla, saying it was a land full of riches. The military expansion of Yamato demanded a constant supply of metal ore from Korea. Legends regarding the conquest of the empress Jingu in southern Korea are most probably inspired by real military campaigns against Silla. Thirdly, many uji families had blood ties with Paekche.

When the kingdom became stronger, Koguryo once again declared war against Paekche. This time Paekche recorded a humiliating defeat. From the Chinese text of Sung shu it seems that the Yamato rulers planned to send help but the Koguryo attack was too fast and the expedition was abandoned. The destruction of Paekche was avoided thanks to the Japanese diplomatic missions who managed to convince the Chinese emperors that a balance of power in Korea was in their interests. They even suggested that trade relations would be affected because Koguryo constantly broke sacred laws.

The Yamato king proposed to the Liu Song dynasty of China that he should be named the commander of a combined force of Japanese, Silla and Paekche soldiers in order to punish Koguryo. The Chinese refused but pressured Koguryo with the possibility of total war if they did not leave Paekche independence intact. In the face of a double invasion, Koguryo accepted. On the other hand, Paekche became even more isolated because soon after the death of the Yamato king Yuryaku, the Japanese started to be more preoccupied with the battle for who would inherit the throne.

By the end of the Kofun jidai, Koguryo controlled most of Korea, with Paekche and Silla dividing the southern part of the Peninsula. Even so, Silla became the strongest and the most coherent military power in the region. Moreover, Koguryo had problems in controlling such a large territory. As soon as the Chinese empire reunified, they would return and want revenge for the rebellion of Koguryo. Silla would take advantage of the situation in Asuka jidai, allying themselves with China, decisively defeating the Yamato invaders and conquering all of Korea, after some epic ancient battles.

The Kofun political and religious system started to crumble. Keeping in balance so many uji clans was a game that exhausted all the resources of the king. The internal strife overturned all the expansionists plans into Korea and affected the military and economic development of the country. Even in warfare technology and ship building, Yamato was lagging behind Silla. Keitai and Kimmei were the greatest Yamato kings from the Late Kofun era, but they could not prevent the downfall of their house. A radical package of reforms was needed. Unfortunately for the Yamato leaders, Kimmei implemented reforms that, while leading to unprecedented prosperity, ended up destroying their authority.

Paekche claimed parts of Mimana, the so called province from southern Korea controlled by the Japanese. As Silla grew even stronger, the Yamato court accepted the request of Paekche in the hope that they could defend it better against Silla. Nihon shoki comments that two important Yamato officials were bribed in order to concede Mimana. This episode tells us that Yamato’s military strength was shrinking and that the king needed his troops to maintain peace in Japan in a context where the functionaries and generals were becoming disloyal and corrupt.

Finally, Silla invaded Mimana, and Kenu no Omi, a Yamato general with 6,000 soldiers was sent to support the local troops. Because he had to fight a strong rebellion in Kyushu, the military intervention was delayed for two years. By the time he reached Korea, most of Mimana province was already divided between Paekche and Silla. Kenu tried to reach a diplomatic agreement but without success so he was forced to retreat because even the local tribes from Mimana grew tired of Yamato’s inefficiency. Kenu died a year later, and with him the foreign ambitions of the Yamato.

Probably by virtue of domestic discontent, emperor Keitai sought to regain his authority by moving his capital next to mount Miwa, the birthplace of the Yamato dynasty in Early Kofun. Some historians hypothesised that the change was motivated by the defeat in Korea. The capital needed to be protected from attacks from the sea. The new location was also at the intersection of important trade routes between the main Japanese provinces. Others believed that the accession of the Korean Soga clan as the most influential uji family in the Yamato court demanded the adjustment.

Big burial mounds continued to be built in the capital, the greatest example being the grave of Senka, emperor Kinmei’s brother. At the same time, Late Kofun jidai is characterized by the emergence of small and medium sized burial mounds all over Japan, a sign of the decadence of the Yamato court. Delmer M. Brown explains the main causes. Firstly, the spread of burial mounds means that the authority of Yamato kings was diminishing in such a manner that it became almost equal to local warlords. Secondly, the uji system was slowly being replaced by new clans with immigrant connections.

The biggests uprisings broke out in Western Japan, mostly Kyushu, and in the Kanto plain near today’s Tokyo, far north of Yamato’s power base. The first major Kyushu rebellion started when the Yamato king requested a local noble named Iwai to grant his troops safe passage in order to cross the sea and defeat Silla who was attacking Mimana. He was killed, but the Yamato army was forced to stay in Kyushu in order to maintain peace. The island was divided in three parts. The northern part was under the control of Munakata, a loyal clan. The central and southern parts became very hostile.

After they heard about Iwai’s insurrection and about the weakness of the Yamato king, many former uji clans from the Kanto plain declared their independence. Yamato rulers were forced to defeat rebellion after rebellion and establish the miyaki system, meaning that they started to confiscate territory as the divine right of the king. Directly governing a territory so far from the capital implied desperate measures forced by the fact that uji clans could no longer be trusted.

Soga clan is the most influential royal family from Late Kofun and the first part of Asuka jidai. The greatest leaders were Iname, who coordinated the most ample infrastructure and irrigation building, and his son Umako, who made great efforts to defend the Buddhist faith against old clans who wanted the uji system restored. This was a great accomplishment since, after the death of emperor Kinmei, Buddhism was banned and great fights and plots for succession made the whole political situation very unpredictable.

Emperor Kinmei is the first Japanese historical figure whose existence has been proven by indubitable historical evidence. King Song Myong of Paekche sent a special mission to the Yamato court. The delegation from the Korean kingdom of Baekje arrived in Japan in 538 AD, with the goal of convincing the Yamato kings of the benefits of Buddhism. The context is not clear, but Yamato kings accepted the services of Buddhist monks. This symbolic act marks the arbitrary separation of Kofun jidai from Asuka jidai. The measure triggers a competition between the supporters of Shintoism led by the Mononobe clan, and those who wanted the recognition of Buddhism, gathered around the Soga clan.

The defeat in Korea and the rebellions from Kyushu and the Kanto plain were just the beginning of political disruption. Although he was the rightful heir, emperor Kinmei ascended to the throne after a nine year struggle against other pretenders from aristocratic families. Historians connected the missing parts and concluded that Kinmei’s reign started after Ankan and Senka, the sons of emperor Keitai, in 540 AD. His title was not emperor because this concept was introduced later. Imitating Chinese practice, Kinmei was an ‘okimi’, the great king of all under heaven.

Ankan and Senkan were supported by the powerful clan leader Otomo no Kanamura, while Kinmei was backed by the Korean clan Soga, led at that time by Soga no Iname. The first party wanted to pursue revenge against Silla, considering they should recruit a massive army. Influenced by the Soga advisers, Kinmei militated for restraint and wanted to consolidate Yamato’s power at home. When they were strong enough, the Japanese would deal with Silla and any other contender in Korea. After a coup d’etat, Kinmei’s point of view was imposed.

Historians think that Kinmei’s rise overlaps with a Buddhist mission sent from Paekche. Most probably, Kinmei rule was backed by Paekche. They offered Buddhist and Confucianist teachings, medicine, ancient scrolls and books, and technical knowledge. In exchange, Kinmei accepted the dissemination of Buddhism in his realm and sent troops to Paekche in order to serve them as mercenaries. Paekche’s situation was desperate, being again at war with Silla and Koguryo.

Kinmei used a wise strategy, consolidating his power and waiting for the proper moment to strike, after the Korean kingdoms were exhausted by their wars. In the meantime, Kinmei prepared the ground for the great taika reforms from Asuka jidai made by his successors. He ordered more lands to be confiscated for the crown. Then he ordered scribes, most of whom were of Korean or Chinese descent, to note and measure the size of each piece of land, laying the foundations of the first royal archive in Japan.

Despite the fact that no written records were preserved from Kinmei’s reign, it is clear that a writing system was widely introduced by his initiative. Most probably, the Nihon shoki chronicle is so accurate when is describing the Late Kofun because scribes had access to documents written in Kinmei’s time that are now lost. The king was very interested in promoting cultural, spiritual and technical revolutions, trading soldiers with Paekche in exchange for any knowledge related to the Chinese civilization.

‘The Cambridge History of Japan Volume 1’ offers us the explanations for late Kofun policy. ‘Just as Japan’s Meiji leaders adopted, in the middle of the nineteenth century, the slogan “Rich Country, Strong Army” when faced with the West’s overwhelming military might, Yamato ministers seem to have agreed after 540 conference that Yamato should henceforth concentrate on efforts to maximize its wealth and control.’ A short-term consequence was abandoning foreign expansion but the long-term repercussion was very positive, bringing the cultural enlightenment, economic growth and military might of the Asuka jidai.

At the end of the Kofun era, Yamato’s rule in Japan was fully established in practice and theory. By practice we mean the actual military and economic power, and by theory we refer to political and religious institutions. Shinto shrines spread over all the country, and the Yamato kingdom turned into an empire. Yamato leaders become the first emperors of Japan whose existence is evidenced by certain historical documents. Foreign cultural imports like a writing system, Buddhist and Confucianist ethics have led historians to compare this tremendous spiritual evolution to the one found in Europe in the time of the glorious Hellenic and Roman civilization.

Iwai’s rebellion in Kyushu was possible because the Kofun system was highly decentralized. In such an environment, local warlords could build a small but very strong kingdom. For example, Iwai’s burial mound was discovered by archaeologists and it’s the second largest one found on the island. The loyalty of chiefdoms could not be guaranteed by brute force alone and the arguments of proto-Shintoist myths were not very compelling for the reason that the will of the gods could be interpreted in many ways. A region that was growing fast could mean that the local warlord was favoured by the kami to become king.

Buddhist teachings criticized the Yamato elite for their display of wealth even in death. Living a simple and virtuous life was far more important than impressing the Shinto deities. Graves were now humble in size, but embellished by Buddhist paintings representing the temporary afterlife and the next rebirth. At the beginning, the ideas were inspired by Chinese Buddhism, divided into six sects: Ritsu, Kegon, Hosso, Sanronshu, Jojitsu and Kosha-shu. The differences between them were given by the different point of origin from various provinces of south or north China.

Buddhist dogma was adapted to the Japanese context, and resolved the loyalty problem by introducing a clear form of ethics based on a pyramidal respect for your superior. The state became far more centralized and in the context of constant technological, economic and artistic development, managed to reach a compromise between local leaders and the capital. Culture flourished from the beginning of Asuka jidai, giving a sense of unity to the political elite. Later, the imported Chinese Buddhism renounced most of the Indian influences. The Japanese prefered Mahayana Buddhism.

In the Late Kofun, burial mounds started to shrink, becoming an accessible ritual for the common folk. Burial mounds are a unique phenomenon that can be found only in the Kofun jidai. At the end of this period, Buddhism was imported from China and Korea and the practice was gradually abandoned. The smaller ones finally disappeared in the eighth century AD.

Yamada Shunsuke made a synthesis about the latest discoveries related to the Kofun jidai and the most important contributions of specialists in relation to this subject. This type of research is exploratory, and until things become clearer, it should be treated as fascinating dialectical hypothesis and not as indubitable historical truth. Nevertheless, exploration is the very core of science, and the general presentation could be useful because it puts things already known into an increasingly complicated context. In this way, we are getting closer to the empirical and spiritual reality of the Kofun jidai.

Yamada Shunsuke starts his article by briefly explaining the most intriguing theories that have a holistic character. For example, Fukunaga Shin’ya analyzes the burial mounds and brings an original theory about the transition from Yayoi to Kofun. In his opinion, Japanese history should be put in the context of international history. From this methodological belief we can compare the people of ancient Japan with other contemporary countries. Understanding differences and similarities we can identify historical patterns that can illuminate many mysteries related to the period.

Yamada Shunsuke is optimistic in terms of future research into Japanese history. ‘Also, beginning with the comprehensive treatments introduced above by Fukunaga, Hishida, and Hirose, there were many outstanding contributions that recognized the importance of going beyond the analysis of individual archaeological topics to seek understanding of Kofun period society as a whole.’

Tanaka Fumio suggests that the internal strife from the Late Kofun was caused mostly by changes in the balance of power in Korea. Being somehow influenced by the Marxist school of thought, Hishida explains Kofun jidai from a socio-economic perspective. In this sense, all the spiritual, religious and political manifestations can be understood as a consequence of economic development, evolution of production force, division of labor and social inequality. On the other hand, Fujisawa Atsushi states that it’s a mistake to think that a common material culture meant a common spiritual identity.

Matsugi Takehiko is another researcher who bases his thesis on burial mound investigations. He thinks that the main cause that triggered the change from Yayoi to Kofun was of an environmental nature and states that Early Kofun should be dated from fifty years earlier. Moreover, recent excavations at Makimuku site in Nara prefecture might have uncovered the palace of the legendary shaman queen Himiko. The material data is still in the processing stage, and for now only a general report exists.

Hishida Tetsuo might have discovered strong evidence to point out that although immigrants were tolerated and welcomed in Japan, the local communities usually had different customs to the waves of newcomers. For example, common folks were buried in cemeteries just outside the village. Yamato people with Korean or Chinese descent had their tombs placed in different places, preferably at the foot of a mountain. This idea would also strengthen the perspective of a cosmopolite Yamato elite, because the burial mounds of the royalty were placed at the foot of mount Miwa.

Cutting edge technology was also introduced in Japan. Many Japanese archaeologists are more traditionalists but this is not the case for Izumi Niiro. He uses sophisticated software that analyzes in 3D geographical information systems. With this program, he was able to measure the exact dimension of the burial mound Tsukuriyama. The results were astonishing, pointing to a closer connection between the Yamato court and ancient Chinese technology.

The Tsukuriyama burial mound was exactly 350 meters long, with a key-hole diameter of 200 meters and a height of 31 meters. This means that the ancient Japanese were far more evolved, having the architectural capability to design huge monuments with millimeter precision, borrowing from the Chinese the shaku measurements. One shaku is the equivalent of 232 millimeters. Using geographic analysis, Izumi Niiro also theorized that the Kofun jidai ended because of environmental changes, especially volcanic eruptions. Late Yamato rulers stockpiled food in Northern Kyushu in order to help people from Korea.

The Horse Riders Invasion Theory was first proposed by Egami Namio and Oka Masao. It is an intriguing concept, but most specialists consider it to be too speculative. In short, it posits that the Yamato kingdom was established by a strong nomadic people from eastern Manchuria who passed through Korea and then conquered the Yayoi people of Japan, using superior military force. More than fifty years have passed since Egami Namio presented his theory and now archaeologists have discovered empirical proofs which bring back the dialectical debate about the origins of the Japanese people. Anyway, Egami Namio was personally decorated for his services by the emperor Akihito.

The Horse Riders Invasion Theory was criticized by both Japanese nationalistic historians and Korean historians. The first group of researchers were scandalized by the possibility that the origins of the Japanese imperial house might be Chinese, or even Mongolian. They acknowledge foreign influences and explain the transition from Yayoi to Kofun as a gradual evolution made possible by constantly borrowing knowledge and technology from Korea and China. Many small-scale migrations into Japan happened, but the immigrants were assimilated even though they played an important role.

On the other side, Korean historians accused Egami of inventing Chinese warriors in order to hide the truth. From their perspective, Koreans were the ones that founded the Yamato court by conquering Japan at the end of Early Kofun. Most probably, they came from the Paekche kingdom. The Japanese authorities have forbidden the excavations of important sites from the Kofun jidai because they are afraid of discovering tombs of kings with Korean origin. Japanese historiography has attempted to emphasize Chinese influence to the detriment of the Korean one.

Traditionally, Kofun jidai is separated into three parts: Early, Middle and Late. Egami Namio combines the Middle and Late timeline into a single period. From his perspective, Early Kofun is radically different from what happened next. Indeed, Early Kofun burial mounds represented a slow evolution from Late Yayoi but the burial mounds that appear at the end of Early Kofun are completely changed and not related to the local culture. This would suggest that an Early Kofun people continued the Yayoi traditions and borrowed some elements from the continent, until a foreign elite imposed new sets of customs.

Resembling Yayoi culture, the burial mounds from Early Kofun are small and built on hills, not necessitating a vast workforce or massive economic resources. The treasures discovered in the tombs are related to a shamanistic and magical word that is clearly a an inheritance from Himiko’s era. In contrast, the tumulus from the next centuries are large and built on flatland, requiring a huge labor force in order to move large quantities of earth and other building materials. The vast majority of the objects are weapons, no longer related to a society whose foundation was based on a mystical experience.

The tools and weapons discovered in the next stage of the Kofun are very similar to the ones owned by Hu barbarians that originated from Mongolia, North China and Manchuria. Because of the constant civil war between the Chinese dynasties, they migrated into northern Korea at the end of the fourth century AD. A group settled there and formed the Korean kingdom of Koguryo. The rest of the migrators landed in Kyushu and from there conquered all the important Yayoi kingdoms until they reached central Honshu, where they settled and formed the Yamato kingdom.

According to Chinese chronicles, Yayoi people didn't use cavalry in warfare and horses didn’t exist in that time in Japan. If the mention is correct, it would strengthen Egami’s theory. Starting from the end of Early Kofun, archaeologists discovered numerous statues, weapons, tools, decorative objects and saddles, that are all related to a horse riders society. Moreover, the date of invasion corresponds to the date mentioned in Korean chronicles when it is said that Koguryo kingdom sent a huge army of 50,000 soldiers, infantry and cavalry, in order to conquer Paekche located in southern Korea.

The Horse Riders Theory is still an intriguing one because historians generally don’t know if in the ancient world such important foreign influences could be transmitted through trade, peaceful immigration and diplomatic connections. Sasayama Haruo points out the main problem. ‘Although his horse rider theory has not gained universal acceptance, it is quite persuasive when one considers the many common elements in the customs, language, and mythology of ancient Japan and Northeast Asia.’ Gina Barnes concludes: ‘In general it may be said that most historians accept the horse rider theory in one way or another.’

Theories regarding dual kingship in the Kofun era have been around in the academic sphere for a long time now. In 2013, Naofumi Kishimoto managed to go beyond traditional views. He proposed a new concept of dual kingship of two rulers who shared authority, but were also in competition. Even more captivating is the fact that Kishimoto brings the idea that both leaders were male and that the one charged with the religious sphere was roughly equal to the one with secular concerns. This internal balance of political power was very fragile and unstable. Finally, only in Late Kofun was this system replaced with a more reliable and centralized reign of a single king.

Naofumi Kishimoto uses two main sources in order to make his point. The first one is the analysis of burial tombs in the Nara Plain region. Most of the archaeologists recognize that many tumulus were contemporary to each other, constructed almost at the same time. They would say that the biggest one belonged to the Yamato kings, while the others to smaller chieftains who pledged allegiance to the sovereign. Kishimoto thinks otherwise. Numerous contemporary burial mounds in one location actually meant two kings who ruled simultaneously represented by two separate lineages.

If this version of the Dual Kingship Theory is correct, it would mean that the Yamato state was built from at least two main clans that had to reach a compromise. Each of the clans was supported by smaller tribes and noble families. The compromise consisted in sharing leadership roles. Kishimoto observes that some contemporary burial mounds were hiding mainly ceremonial objects, whilst in others weapons and tools were the most widespread. Contrary to other beliefs, the religious leader may have been just a little bit stronger.

When a new ruler was appointed, the construction of burial mounds for him and his heirs was immediately ordered. Sometimes, the work was finished in the time of the next ruler. The author compares different sites and reaches the conclusion that two lineages of kings existed till the end of the fifth century. He names them Saki Tomb Group and Furuichi-Mozu Tomb Group. From his point of view, the two dynasties of Hanzei and Ingyo were contemporary, each with its own tomb group and both ruling over the same kingdom.

Another important source that Kishimoto uses is Kojiki and Nihon shoki chronicles. He observes that the legendary queen Himiko does not appear in the ancient Japanese written records. Instead, the vast majority of rulers were males. If we accept that the burial mounds from Early and Middle Kofun discovered in central Honshu hold two contemporary kings, and if we compare the carbon dating of the tombs with the information from the Japanese chronicles, we may approximate with high accuracy the years of their reign.

Like Egami Namio, Gina L. Barnes also argues that Early Kofun was radically different from Middle and Late Kofun. Conflicting with a materialist deterministic view, Barnes does not support the idea of a foreign invasion that founded the Yamato kingdom. Her alternative hypothesis is based on the power of ideology. The Yamato kingdom didn’t have the military power to subdue Japan. In reality, Yamato rulers slowly expanded by the force of religious authority represented by the cult for a Queen goddess, an idea originating from China. Himiko was the first reincarnation of that political system.

Mixing archaeological empirical evidence with written records, Gina L. Barnes brings in a constructivist approach in the debate, suggesting that a foreign religious ideology was strong enough to gradually unite Japan. More exactly, the Miwa federation that was the core of the Yamato kingdom imported the cult for the divine Queen Mother and started to build burial mounds. The belief expanded in western Japan, a region beyond Miwa’s control. Using the persuasive arguments offered by the new religion, the Yamato kingdom formed after other tribes and kingdoms were incorporated by the means of royal marriage.

Barnes thinks that Nihon shoki provides evidence to support her claim. It is said that emperor Sujin of the Miwa dynasty sent troops to invade Yamashiro. His army stopped at mount Nara to make an offering, the action suggesting that the border of Sujin’s realm was in southern Kyoto. Furthermore, the next emperor Suinin had to defeat a rebellion led by Saho Hiko in central Honshu. Saho Hiko’s sister was Saho Hime, one of the many wives of emperor Suinin. She refused to assassinate her husband and the uprising was defeated. The episode means that Yamashiro was subdued by a marriage alliance, and it might not be the only one.

Barnes observes that the Queen Mother cult reached the highest level in northeast China, in the time of Early Kofun and Himiko’s reign. In that exact period a strong Chinese Daoist rebellion against the Han dynasty was defeated after almost twenty years of fighting. It is very probable that some of the survivors migrated to Korea and Japan. They brought with them mirrors with the Queen Mother symbols, the first occasion that these particular objects entered into the Yamato kingdom. Most of the burial mounds from Early Kofun have this kind of mirrors stored alongside the corpse of the former ruler.

Japanese chronicles enumerate the wives of emperors Sujin and Suinin. They were usually the daughters of important chieftains from northern Nara plain, Kanto Plain and Osaka Bay. It is clear that Yamato’s influence grew after they integrated their neighbours in a protectorate system based on marriage. But why did the other chieftains accept the offer so lightly and why did they start to build burial mounds? It was highly improbable that the Yamato rulers married princesses from all the clans they subdued. In Barnes’s opinion, the key answer lies in the Early Kofun cult inspired by Daoist dogma.

Why was the Queen Mother cult so popular in ancient Japan? Barnes points out the main qualities of the deity. According to traditional myths, she lived in some mountains outside China. Her role was to protect the people from natural disasters, taming the rivers and the earth. Also, because of her wisdom, the Queen Mother was the one who chose a human ruler to represent her, and protected the souls of the elite after they died, in order to safely enter the underworld. In other words, the Queen Mother cult was so valuable for the Yamato because it legitimized both divine and secular power.

Barnes is suggesting the intriguing idea that the Queen Mother was later assimilated with the sun goddess Amaterasu. Firstly, many myths about the Queen Mother are related to caves, just like the legend of Amaterasu when she hid herself from the world in a cave. Secondly, the key shape of the burial mounds may represent the dress of the Queen mother. Thirdly, maybe the burial mounds are actually the recreations of the mountains where the Queen Mother lived. Thirdly, both deities had a mirror as their prime symbol. The mirrors had the quality to reflect light, just as a sun goddess would.

The first representative of the Queen Mother was the shaman queen Himiko. Her tomb was located most probably in Miwa kingdom. This is why the Chinese chronicles regarded Himiko as having magical powers. After her death, a man tried to take command but he was immediately assassinated and replaced by queen Iyo who was only thirteen years old. Only a woman could be viewed as a reincarnation of Queen Mother on earth. Economic and military power worked hand in hand with the Queen Mother ideology in order to centralize the power in central Japan, and from there to unify the kingdoms from Kyushu.

In the latest archaeological reports from 2013-2014, Tanaka Yutaka and Nakakubo Tatsuo write about the progress of Kofun jidai research and what they think the future will hold. The first researcher is more pessimistic, while the latter has a positive vision about the next years. Nakakubo Tatsuo estimates that Japan holds at least 160,000 burial tombs and that the scientists have made an impressive collection of information about the period. On the other hand, Tanaka Yutaka points out the fact that interest in ancient Japanese history has decreased. His argument is sustained by the decrease in the number of books sold about the subject and by the smaller number of young archaeologists.

Tanaka Yutaka points out that the existence of many regional studies is not justified if the conclusion of the articles does not support a wider view about the era. In addition, he brings to the public attention the precondition to try to preserve the archaeological sites affected by the great earthquake from 2011. Consolidation works to protect against landslides are required. Unfortunately, many remains were lost in the disaster. and scientists have no access to the burial mounds located in the irradiated places around Fukushima.

Nakakubo Tatsuo thinks that one of the greatest achievements in the field was the recent publication of ‘Kofun Jidai no Kokogaku’ in ten volumes, edited by Ichinose Kazuo, Fukunaga Shinya and Hojo Yoshitaka. It has the merit of bringing old facts into the light of the twentieth century. Scientific cooperation between Japan, China, Korea, Western Europe and North America is necessary and should be further encouraged. Moreover, specialists should now focus on a complex process of synthesis because monographic studies are plentiful. The fine organized details need to be viewed holistically in order to recreate the ancient world of Japan.