3: Archaeology in Japan: The Early Years

Everyone loves a good origin story- as indicated, if anything, by the success of the movies within the Marvel cinematic universe. Archaeology has its roots in Western practices, specifically from an interest in artifacts, sites, and historic documents by enthusiasts (antiquarians). These ancestors of archaeology practiced their craft within their home countries, but also to studied and “collected” artifacts in other countries. While Napoleon’s army carried out “excavations” in Egypt around the start of the 19th century, Japan was under the control of the Tokugawa shogunate, which had adopted an isolationist foreign policy. During the Tokugawa, or as it is more commonly known, Edo period(1603-1868) trade still occurred, but was extremely limited. Contact with the Dutch traders introduced aspects of scientifically and technological advances occurring in Europe, but Western archaeological practices would arrive later. 


Before we dive into the next section, I should note that there are examples of native antiquarian traditions in Japan. In particular, observations and records of mounded tombs associated with the Japanese emperors in the earliest historical documents exist from as early as the 12th century. Although these studies never developed into a particular practice, they forged a relationship between ancient records, artifacts, and sites. Think of this section as a bit of foreshadowing. 


The origins of archaeology in Japan are woven into the the political and social upheaval that occurred within the country around the start of the Meiji period(1868-1921). The Tokugawa government fell and imperial rule was restored under the Emperor Meiji. As a means of strengthening Japan against the threat of colonialism, Japan opened itself up to the world and actively adopted Western thought and practices, including archaeology. The government invited Westerner scholars and specialists to take up positions at newly formed institutions. A few Westerners from this period conducted the first excavations in Japan. They also happened to contributed to the large collections of Japanese archaeological artifacts in Western museums, but that’s a story for another day. So, for now, let me showcase three figures from this period.

Edward S. Morse (1838-1925) ____________________________

  • American zoologist and the first Professor of Zoology at the Tokyo Imperial University (TIU)
  • worked with both Jeffries Wyman and Frederic Ward Putnam at Harvard.
  • travelled to Japan to research mollusks in 1877 and was offered the position while en route
  • conducted the first archaeological excavation at the Omori shell mound after spotting it from a train 
  • introduced the term jōmon, cord-marked, in a report published in 1879
  • settled in back in Massachusetts and donated part of his collection to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston

Heinrich von Siebold (1852-1908) __________________________

  • German antiquary, collector, and translator in the employment of the Austo-Hungarian legation (1869-1873) and later Austrian embassy(1874-1893)
  • his father was Phillip Franz Siebold, physician, botanist, and researcher on Japan
  • half brother of Ine Kusumoto, considered the first female Japanese doctor
  • credited with creating the Japanese term for archaeology, kōkogaku 
  • wrote on Japanese archaeology and Ainu Culture
  • guided Crown-Prince Franz-Ferdinand during his trip to Japan
  • collected for several German museums including the Natural History Museum in Vienna (now located in the Vienna Ethnology Museum)

William Gowland (1842-1922) __________________________

  • English mining engineer hired in 1872 by the forerunner of the Japan Mint and consultant for the Imperial Japanese army
  • amateur archaeologist with no formal training
  • conducted several surveys of Kofun period burial mounds
  • he oversaw the raising of a leaning stone at Stonehenge and produced a detailed report of the site
  • authored several books on Japanese prehistory
  • was awarded the Order of the Rising Sun and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society and the Society of Antiquaries
  • donated his collection of artifacts from the Kofun period to the British Museum.


Archaeology was established as a discipline in universities a few decades later by Japanese scholars encouraged to study and return home with their knowledge and expertise. While  none of these founders were students of the men mentioned above, they were the generation  educated within the system that encouraged Western learning. There was no cohesive approach to introducing Western methods, as modern archaeology in the West was in the process of coming into its own. As such, the first Japanese archaeologist drew upon their academic interests and experiences with Western mentors to shape their practices and, by extension, the departments they helped establish. This process led to the development of regional characteristics at universities that persist to today. So, in order to better understand the early nature of the discipline, we need to look at the background of some these early archaeologists*.

*all Japanese names will be written with the family name first followed by the given name

Tsuboi Shōgorō (1863-1913) ____________________________

  • studied Zoology at the Tokyo Imperial University  
  • studied abroad in France and England from 1889-1892; he worked closely with Edward Tylor at the University of Oxford
  • helped establish the Anthropological Society of Nippon in 1884 and the Department of Anthropology at Tokyo Imperial University in 1893
  • Supported the development of physical and cultural anthropology
  • his work in part concerned cultural evolution within Japan, theorizing that mythic pre-Ainu groups (korpokkur) were Stone Age cultures
  • organized displays at World Expo’s and Fairs for Japan putting indigenous groups on display

Hamada Kōsaku (1881-1983) ____________________________

  • studied Art History at the Tokyo Imperial University
  • studied at the University of London under Flinders Petrie for three years learning relative dating methods and continued to promote Western methods throughout his life
  • identified the difference between the Jomon period to the Yayoi period 
  • offered the first lecture courses on archaeology in Japanese
  • became  the first Professor of Archaeology at the Kyoto Imperial University in 1916
  • authored over 100 works on Japanese archaeology
  • conducted excavations on the Korean peninsula and Manchuria during the Japanese occupation of both regions for the government

Harada Yoshito (1885-1974) ____________________________

  • studied Asian History at the Tokyo Imperial university
  • his background in Japanese and Chinese texts written in Classical Chinese led to an interest in corresponding archaeological artifacts and sites
  • was appointed lecturer of archaeology within the History department at Tokyo Imperial University in 1921
  • was required to study abroad the UK and France as part of his appointment to the position
  • preferred historical methods to anthropological ones and maintained archaeology lectures within the History department until the late 30’s
  • conducted excavations on the Korean peninsula and Manchuria during the Japanese occupation of both regions for the government


While exploring the origins of Japanese archaeology, one reoccurring element is the idea that the political climate of Japan had an impact on the development on the discipline. Archaeology was one of many modern Western practices that enabled the Meiji government to stand up to imperial powers of the day and become one in its own right. Nationalism and colonialism are tangled within the roots of the discipline. And this is not a trend unique to Japan. In present day Japan, some of these characteristics persist while awareness of this heritage has led to changes within the practice – which are better left for another post.


Further Reading

Habu, Junko. 1989. “Contemporary Japanese Archaeology and Society”. Archaeological Review from Cambridge 8, p. 36-45.

Harris, Victor and Kazuo Goto. (2003). William Gowland: The Father of Japanese Archaeology. London: British Museum Press.

Ikawa-Smith, Fumiko. 1982. “Co-traditions in Japanese Archaeology”. World Archaeology, Vol.13, No.3, pp. 296-309.

Miyamoto, K. 2017. “The Beginnings of Modern Archaeology in Japan and Japanese Archaeology before World War II”. Japanese Journal of Archaeology 4, p. 157-164.

Moos, Michael. 2007. “Introduction: Two Essays on Japanese Archaeology by Edwards S. Morse.” Bulletin of the Society for East Asian Archaeology 1. 

Morse, E.S. 1879. Shell mounds of Omori. Tokyo: University of Tokyo. 

Okamura, Katsuyuki, and Akira Matsuda. 2010 “Archaeological Heritage Management in Japan.” Cultural Heritage Management : 99-110.

Pearson, R. J. (1992). “The Nature of Japanese Archaeology”. Asian Perspectives, 31(2), p. 115-127.

Plutschow, Herbert. 2007. Philipp Franz von Siebold and the Opening of Japan: A Re-evaluation Folkestone, UK: Global Oriental.




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