print

In this monthly blog series, our collections team write about their Object of the Month, chosen from our collection. In this blog post, Curator Naomi Collick highlights the fascinating historical context of a 6th century Japanese tomb figure.

Japanese Haniwa Tomb Figure

Haniwa of a Warrior
Japanese
Maker unknown
6th Century (Kofun period 250 BC – 600 AD)
Low-fired clay, hollow
Coil-built earthenware with applied decoration

 

Our first Object of the Month is this rare haniwa, which is the oldest object in our Japanese collection.

The name haniwa means ‘circle of clay’. These mysterious clay figures were placed on top of and around Japan’s proto-historic tombs. The tombs were usually built in a unique ‘keyhole’ shape, and covered in an earth mound. Some had up to two thousand haniwa placed on them.

Ancient tombs as they are seen today in Osaka, including the tomb of Emperor Nintoku (the largest in the image). The Japan Times.

The tombs began to appear around 250 BC and continued to be made, becoming bigger and more elaborate, through to around 600 AD. This period in Japanese history is known as the Kofun period, or the ‘ancient tomb’ period. The haniwa began as simple clay cylinders, which may have held offerings for the dead, and developed into a wide variety of detailed figures, including people, animals, and houses.

Ancient tombs as they are seen today in Osaka, including the tomb of Emperor Nintoku (the largest in the image). The Japan Times,

Miniature Replica of Tonoyama Kofun at the Shibayama Kofun Museum, Japan. Megalithic.co.uk

The cylindrical section of this haniwa would have been buried in the ground. Its tall headdress and parted hairstyle give us an idea of the appearance of the warriors of ancient Japan. The rings around its waist and neck hint at jewellery or other adornment. It is about to draw a curved sword. The faces of haniwa are always simple, with a mouth and eyes cut out from the clay. It is very rare to see a haniwa that is still whole like this one. Many are in fragments or have parts missing due to their great age.

The haniwa and kofun tombs were built at a time before the introduction of Buddhism into Japan from China. They are evidence of the native religious beliefs and practices of Japan, which developed into what is now called Shinto. The ancient Japanese believed in a huge pantheon of deities, which lived all over the islands, including in significant natural spots such as waterfalls, rocks, and trees.

The sun, personified by the sun-goddess Amaterasu, was worshipped as the most powerful deity. Burial items found in the ancient tombs include golden crowns and polished bronze mirrors. The rulers of Japan tried to show their connection with the sun goddess through reflecting the light of the sun with what they wore and held.

Gilt bronze crown found in Funayama Kofun, Kumamoto prefecture. Tokyo National Museum. National Treasure number J786.

As no written records exist from the Kofun period, we cannot be certain why the haniwa were made or what they were used for. An early-eighth century text, the Nihon Shoki, suggests a possible origin story for the haniwa, although it was written much later and is considered to be based on myths and legends rather than facts. The Nihon Shoki was commissioned in 720 AD by the Imperial court as a chronological record of the history of Japan. It was one of Japan’s first written texts.

The Nihon Shoki tells of the death of the younger brother of the Emperor Suinin, traditionally considered to be the eleventh Emperor of Japan. When his brother died, all of his attendants were buried up to their necks around his tomb. The Emperor, hearing them wailing, asked if there was a way to spare attendants from the same fate in the future. When the Empress died, he commissioned his ‘guild of potters’ to make clay figures to replace the living attendants. The Emperor liked them so much that from then on they were placed around royal tombs.

Warrior haniwa are very common, giving us an indication of the development of a military class in ancient Japan – the ancestors of the samurai. The existence of the tombs helps us to understand how small groups of hunter-gatherers were brought together under powerful leaders. Only rulers with command over resources, land, and a large population could organise the construction of such monumental tombs.

Find this important and fascinating object on display as part of the Japanese Collection in the Japanese Room at Chiddingstone Castle, along with our two other haniwa.

The Haniwa of Chiddingstone Castle, with our Object of the Month on the right-hand side.

Find this important and fascinating object on display as part of the Japanese Collection in the Japanese Room at Chiddingstone Castle, along with our two other haniwa.

This object is just one of the many objects that form part of Denys Eyre Bower’s five impressive collections which include Ancient Egyptian, Japanese, Buddhist, Stuart and Jacobite, and Books. For more information on these objects, review our Object of the Month series, visit the Historic House and Collections or contact our Curator, Naomi Collick by email or by calling 01892 870347.

Chiddingstone Castle

Chiddingstone Castle is an historic house, set in 35 acres of Kentish countryside, filled with treasures collected over a lifetime by Denys Eyre Bower.

Stay in touch