On July 6, 2019 the Mozu-Furuichi Kofun Group of forty-nine mounded tombs was officially inscribed on the World Heritage List. The tombs, in Osaka Prefecture, become the twenty-third cultural or natural property in Japan to be inscribed on the UNESCO list.
The Osaka Plain, facing a bay that is a maritime gateway to continental Asia, was once one of the political and cultural centers of Japan. For a period of about 400 years from the second half of the third century, mounded tombs called kofun were constructed for people of high standing in the society of the time.
There are forty-nine kofun mounds located on a plateau above the Osaka Plain. These have been selected as World Heritage from a total of around 160,000 in Japan on the grounds that they form the “richest material representation of the Kofun period, from the 3rd to the 6th century CE. They demonstrate the differences in social classes of that period and reflect a highly sophisticated funerary system” (UNESCO).
Kofun may be found over a wide area of Japan in a range of shapes and sizes. The largest of the four main shapes are the keyhole-shaped kofun, as exemplified by the largest of them all, the Daisen Kofun (photo) in Osaka Prefecture, the star of the Mozu-Furuichi Kofun Group. There are also circular-, scallop- and square-shaped kofun. The smaller mounds are about 20 meters long while the biggest exceed 400 meters in length. The Daisen Kofun is almost 500 meters long.
Many kofun were decorated and both spiritually and physically protected by haniwa clay figures — some 30,000 in the case of the Daisen Kofun — which were arranged in lines on the flat terraces of the tiered burial mounds. Haniwa found in Nara and northern Kyushu take a wide variety of forms including houses, tools and weapons; birds, animals and fish; as well as human forms such as warriors.
The burial chamber within the mound was also filled with funerary objects such as swords, armor and ornaments. These objects indicate the wealth and power of the buried person during their lifetime and serve as valuable social records of the day, pre-dating as they do the arrival in Japan of a written language. The historical period when the elaborate keyhole-shaped mounded tombs were constructed is called the “Kofun period.”
In the Yayoi period (1,000 BCE–300 CE) preceding the Kofun period, Japanese people started rice farming rather than merely hunting. The change marked a paradigm shift from a hunter-gatherer economy to a production economy and saw the beginning of the formation of settlements around rice paddies. As these settlements became more integrated they gradually became primitive polities. The powerful leaders of such polities started to construct kofun — mostly square mounds surrounded by ditches — from about 300 BCE. The most powerful such leaders were emperors.
Twenty-nine of the forty-nine kofun in the Mozu-Furuichi Kofun Group are ryobo, defined by Imperial House Law as the “graves of the Emperor, the Empress, the Grand Empress Dowager and the Empress Dowager.” The Daisen Kofun in Osaka Prefecture, for example, is said by the Imperial Household Agency to be the tomb of the Emperor Nintoku, while the smaller mounds surrounding it are said to contain the burial chambers of family members. Many kofun are managed by the Agency, which prohibits entry to the sealed tombs even for research purposes citing the need to maintain “tranquility and dignity.”
For more information, visit the Mozu-Furuichi Kofungun Ancient Tumulus Clusters website.