2. Info and Resources

 How much do you know about the prehistory of Japan? How much do you know about the prehistory of East Asia? Where did you learn about it? If you can, humor me with your answers below in the comment. Thanks!

For the sake of the rest of this post, as well as my contributions over the next few weeks, I’ve already assumed that most readers are unfamiliar with Japanese archaeology. My motivations for joining this project are, in part, to remedy that. There may be a bit of a learning curve, but don’t worry! This post will serve as a general resource and reference for all future posts. It’ll probably be updated over the next few months as well.  

So, get ready to dump your notion of the three-age system (Stone Age, Bronze Age, and Iron Age). It just doesn’t apply in Japan, as is the case in other parts of Asia, Africa, and the Americas. Humans first settled in Japan during the Paleolithic (“old stone”) period and this term has been adopted by researchers in Japan (旧石器時代 kyūsekki jidai). Yes, this is technically part of the Stone Age, but the terms Mesolithic (“middle stone) and Neolithic (“new stone”) have not been widely adopted for later periods of Japanese prehistory. Instead, researchers have developed a different three-period chronology for the Japanese islands. We’ll be covering each of them in the following section. Granted, the following will be brief, as it’s for a blog and not a textbook. 

c. 13,000-800 BCE*

  • takes its name from the patterns of decorations on pottery from this period- Jōmon literally means “cord marked”
  • The end of the Ice Age (last glacial period) overlaps with transition from the Paleolithic to the Jomon period
  • Regionally diverse groups of foragers survived on a seasonal diet
  • These groups cultivated certain plants, but are not considered agricultural 
  • Ornate pottery figures (dōgu) and vessels, like flame ware, were made towards the later part of the period
  • A rise in complex pit-houses took place around the same time
  • Increased contact with the mainland led to the introduction of new technologies and a widespread shift in culture

*I’ve decided to use the most recent dates provided by the Agency of Cultural Affairs in Japan. There is some debate concerning the start and end of the Jōmon period, but covering it would easily turn into a post in its own right.

c. 800 BCE- 250 CE**

  • Named after the Yayoi neighborhood in Tokyo where the culture was first identified; the culture spread from northern Kyushu
  • This new culture is attributed to rise in mainland migration and the introduction of rice agriculture & paddy field technology
  • Jōmon populations were likely not entirely replaced or forced northward, but contributed to the expansion
  • Bronze and iron goods were imported from the mainland and metallurgy was also introduced;
    • Bronzes: ceremonial bells (dōtaku), mirrors, and weapons
    • Iron: farming tools and weapons
  • New firing techniques & styles of pottery; this includes jars for burials
  • Communal and later stratified burial practices emerge
  • Chinese records may include information about late Yayoi period political developments and culture

**Surprise! More dating debates. The Yayoi period is defined by the introduction of wet rice agriculture and, as research is ongoing, these dates are subject to change. The end of the period is closely associated with Himiko, a figure from a Chinese historical text, and the tumulus archaeologists have attributed to her, Hashihaka Kofun. 

c.250CE to the late 7th century***

  • Kofun literally means old grave, and it refers to large tumuli
  • While many kofun are “keyhole-shaped”, there are various styles and sizes of mounded burials throughout the period
  • Late Yayoi period elite gave way to a complex network of local leaders vying for power and control 
  • Widespread burial practices as well as sets of grave goods are used to establish general sub-periods:
    • Early Kofun period: Bronze mirrors and other ceremonial goods
    • Mid Kofun period: Weapons, armor, and horse trappings
    • Late Kofun period: Objects of wealth and adornment
  • Haniwa (lit. clay rings) are funerary sculptures adorning kofun; simple cylinders expanded to items, then animal and human figures
  • Sueki – or Sue ware- wheel-thrown, kiln-fired pottery was likely introduced from Korea and used as funerary or ritual objects
  • The establishment imperial line (Yamato clan), the spread of Buddhism, and the rise of literature all mark the end of the period. 

*** Who would’ve guessed there’d be another footnote. Many sources will place the end of the Kofun period at 538 CE, as it is the date of the introduction of Buddhism. However, kofun were still constructed a century later and Buddhist funerary practices are adopted in the 8th century, so I have provided a less precise date for the end of the Kofun period.


Today the islands of Okinawa and Hokkaido are part of the nation of Japan. However, they were colonized at different points throughout history and have distinct chronologies. I will introduce them in a separate post a little later on. 

If you are looking for more information on Japanese archaeology, you can start with Wikipedia, but there are other sources available. Below you will find a suggested reading list. I tried to avoid books that had astronomical prices, but it’s almost impossible to do so as most texts are produced by academic publishers. There are a few new titles excluded from the list as I haven’t read them yet. A list digital resources is still in the works. I’ll provide them in a future post. 

Finally, if you have any questions, comments, or even additions regarding the contents of this post, leave them in the comments below. 

Printed Resources __________________________________________________________

Barnes, Gina.  Archaeology of East Asia: The Rise of civilization in China, Korea and Japan. Philadelphia: Oxbow Books, 2015. 

Farris, William W. Sacred Texts and Buried Treasures. Honolulu: University of Hawaii P, 1998.

Habu, Junko.  Ancient Jomon of Japan. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2004. 

Kobayashi, Tatsuo; Kaner, Simon & Nakamura, Oki. Jomon Reflections: Forager Life and Culture in Prehistoric Japanese Archipelago. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2004. 

Mizoguchi, Koji. An Archaeological History of Japan, 30,000 B.C. to a.D. 700. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002.

Pearson, Richard J., Gina L. Barnes, and Karl L. Hutterer, eds. Windows on the Japanese Past: Studies in Archaeology and Prehistory. Ann Arbor: Center for Japanese Studies, University of Michigan, 1986. 

Digital Resources_______________________________________________________


Japanese Archaeological Terms _______________________________________

For those readers studying Japanese, I’ve also compiled a list of archaeological terms in Japanese! After several years on a dig site in Japan, I’ve found some of these terms are essential for keeping a smooth work flow between native English speakers and their Japanese counterparts. They can also be extremely helpful for second language learners tackling their first article in Japanese. 

考古学 (kōkogaku) – archaeology

遺跡i (seki) – (archaeological) site

遺物 (ibutsu) – artifact

発掘調査(hakkutsu chōsa) – excavation

縄文 (Jōmon) – lit. cord marked, period of Japanese prehistory dated between (13,000- 800 BCE)

弥生 (Yayoi) – lit. a neighborhood of Tokyo, period of Japanese prehistory dated between 800 BCE- 250 CE)

古墳 (Kofun) – lit. ancient grave, a period that spans the transition from Japanese prehistory to Japanese history  (250-7th cent. CE)

時代 (jidai) period, epoch, era; usually follows the name of a given prehistoric and historic period

石器(sekki)- stone tools or lithic

土器(doki)- earthenware pottery

鉄器(tekki) – metal artifact

青銅器(seidōki) – bronze artifact

骨(hone)- bone

埋葬(maisō)- burial

工具 (kōgu) – hand tool 

文様 (monyō) – pattern or design

器具 kigu – instrument, device, implement

副葬品(fukusōhin) – burial good

 装身具(sōshingu) – body ornament

土偶(dogū)- lit. earthen figures; small human and animal-like figures made during the Jōmon period

銅鐸(dōtaku)- lit. bronze bell; decorated bronze bells of the Yayoi period found primarily in Kyoto, Osaka, and Nara prefectures

埴輪(haniwa)- lit. clay ring; terracotta funerary objects arranged on kofun


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