Japanese History: Jōmon period. 日本史:縄文時代。

The Jōmon period (縄文時代) is a time in prehistoric Japan that ranged from about 14,500 BC to about 300 BC. The very long—approximately 14,000 years—Jōmon period (縄文時代) is conventionally divided into a number of phases: Incipient, Initial, Early, Middle, Late and Final, with the phases getting progressively shorter. Most dates for the change of phase are broadly agreed, but dates given for the start of the Incipient phase still vary rather considerably, from about 14,000 BC to 10,500 BC. The fact that this entire period is given the same name by archaeologists should not be taken to mean that there was not considerable regional and temporal diversity; the chronological distance between the earliest Jōmon (縄文) pottery and that of the more well-known Middle Jōmon period (縄文時代) is about twice as long as the span separating the building of the great pyramid of Giza from the 21st century.

This period was rich in tools and jewelry made from bone, stone, shell and antler; pottery figurines, vessels, and lacquered wood.The Jōmon (縄文) culture is often compared to pre-Columbian cultures of Pacific Northwest North America because in both regions cultural complexity developed within a primarily hunting-gathering context.

fishing hooks

The name Jōmon (縄文) means “cord-marked” and was first applied by the American scholar Edward S Morse whom discovered sherds of pottery in 1877. This pottery style was characteristic of the first phases of the Jōmon period (縄文時代) and was decorated by impressing cords into the surface of wet clay. The earliest vessels were mostly smallish round-bottomed bowls 10–50 cm high that are assumed to have been used for boiling food, and perhaps storing it beforehand. The size of the vessels may have been limited by a need for portability; as later bowls increase in size, this is taken to be a sign of an increasingly settled pattern of living. This pottery, dated to around 16,000 years ago, is perhaps the oldest in the world.


By the end of the Incipient Jōmon (縄文) phase, around 8,000 BC, a semi-sedentary lifestyle apparently led to an increase in population density, so that the subsequent phase, the Initial Jōmon (縄文), exhibits some of the highest densities known for foraging populations. Genetic mapping studies by Cavalli-Sforza have shown a pattern of expansion from the Sea of Japan towards the rest of eastern Asia. This appears as the third principal component of genetic variation in Eurasia (after the “Great expansion” from the African continent, and a second expansion from the area of Northern Siberia), which suggests geographical expansion during the early Jōmon period (縄文時代). These studies also suggest that the Jōmon (縄文) demographic expansion may have reached America along a path following the Pacific coast.


The foundation myths of the origins of Japanese civilization extend back to the periods now regarded as the Jōmon period (縄文時代), though they show little or no relation to what we know archaeologically of Jōmon (縄文) culture. 11 February 660 BC is the traditional founding date of the Japanese nation by Emperor Jimmu. This version of Japanese history however comes the country’s first written records, the Kojiki (古事記) and the Nihongi (日本紀) or Nihon shoki (日本書紀), dating from the 6th to the 8th centuries after Japan had adopted the Chinese writing system.

Some elements of modern Japanese culture may date from this period and reflect the influences of a mingled migration from the northern Asian continent and the southern Pacific areas and the Jōmon peoples. Among these elements are the precursors to the Shinto religion, some marriage customs, architectural styles, and technology developments such as laquerware, laminated bows, metal working and glass making.

I hope this gives you more of an understanding of the Jōmon period (縄文時代). As always if you have any questions on this or any other topic that I cover you can always email me at colormeindie@gmail.com or leave a comment below.


1 Comment

  1. Pingback: Japanese History: Yayoi period. 日本史: 弥生時代 | Japanese 101

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