Japanese History: Kofun period. Part 1 日本史: 古墳時代 パート1

The Kofun period (古墳時代) is lasted from 250 to 538. It is named after the type of burial mounds dated from this era. The Kofun period (古墳時代) and the subsequent Asuka period (飛鳥時代) is sometimes referred to collectively as the Yamato period (大和時代). The Kofun period (古墳時代) is the oldest era of recorded history in Japan.

The Kofun period (古墳時代) and the Asuka period (飛鳥時代) are divided by their cultural differences. The Kofun period (古墳時代) is characterized by a Shinto culture which existed before the the introduction of Buddhism.

Kofun (古墳) are defined as the burial mounds built for the people of the ruling class during the 3rd to 7th centuries in Japan. The mounds contained large stone burial chambers. Some are surrounded by moats. Kofun (古墳) come in many shapes, with round and square being the simplest. A distinct style is the keyhole-shaped kofun, with its square front and round back. Kofun (古墳) range in size from several meters to over 400 meters in length.


The oldest Japanese kofun is said to be Hokenoyama Kofun located in Sakurai (櫻井) in Nara prefecture (奈良県) and it dates back to the 3rd century. The trend of the keyhole kofun first spread from Yamato to Kawachi and then throughout the country (except for Tohoko region) in the 5th century. Keyhole kofun disappeared later in the 6th century, probably because of the drastic reformation which took place in the Yamato court.

While conventionally assigned to the period from 250 AD, the actual start of Yamato rule is disputed. Regardless, it is generally agreed that Yamato rulers possessed keyhole kofun culture and held hegemony in Yamato up to the 4th century.

The regional autonomy of local powers remained throughout the period, particularly in places such as Kibi (current Okayama prefecture 岡山県), Izumo (current Shimane prefecture 島根県), Koshi (current Fukui and Niigata prefectures 福井県 and 新潟県), Kenu (northern Kantou), Chikushi (northern Kyushu), and Hi (central Kyushu). It was only in the 6th century that the Yamato clans could be said to be dominant over the entire southern half of Japan.


The Yamato polity, which emerged by the late 5th century, was distinguished by powerful clans (豪族 Gozoku). Each clan was headed by a patriarch (氏上 Uji-no-kami) who performed sacred rites to the clan’s kami to ensure the long-term welfare of the clan. Clan members were the aristocracy, and the kingly line that controlled the Yamato court was at its pinnacle. Powerful clan leaders were awarded kanabe, a title that denoted a political rank. This title was inherited, and used instead of the family name.

The Yamato court ultimately exercised power over clans in Kyushu and Honshu, bestowing titles, some hereditary, on clan chieftains. The Yamato name became synonymous with all of Japan as the Yamato rulers suppressed the clans and acquired agricultural lands.

Based on Chinese models (including the adoption of the Chinese written language), they started to develop a central administration and an imperial court attended by subordinate clan chieftains but with no permanent capital.

The famous powerful clans were the Soga (蘇我氏), Katsuraki (葛城氏), Heguri (平群氏), Koze clans (巨勢氏) in the Yamato and Bizen Province, and the Kibi clans (吉備氏) in the Izumo Provence. The Otomo (吉備氏) and Mononobe clans (物部氏) were the military leaders, and the Nakatomi (中臣氏) and Inbe clans (忌部氏) handled rituals. The Soga clan (蘇我氏) provided the highest minister in the government, while the Otomo (吉備氏) and Mononobe clans (物部氏) provided the second highest ministers. The heads of provinces were called Kuni-no-miyatsuko. The crafts were organized into guilds.

I hope this gives you a better understanding of the Kofun period (古墳時代). Stayed tuned next week for part 2 where we will go into more depth about this period! As always if you have any questions on this or any other topic we cover feel free to send me an email at colormeinide@gmail.com or leave a comment below. Until next time! ~まったね!


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