Funerary objects meant to be seen
Haniwa (“clay cylinder” or “circle of clay” in Japanese) are large hollow, earthenware funerary objects found in Japan. Massive quantities of haniwa—many nearly life sized—were carefully placed on top of colossal, mounded tombs, known as kofun (“old tomb” in Japanese). During the Kofun Period (c. 250 to c. 600 C.E.), haniwa evolved in many ways—their shape, the way they were placed on the mounded tombs and, presumably, their specific function or ritual use.
We don’t know much about haniwa or the Kofun Period because there was no writing system in Japan at the time. However, there is general agreement that haniwa were meant to be seen. That is, instead of being buried deep underground with the deceased, haniwa occupied and marked the open surfaces of the colossal tombs. However, it is unlikely that they were readily visible to any person who happened to pass by since the tombs were sacred, ritualized spaces that were usually surrounded by one or more moats. As a result, close visual contact with haniwa would not have been easy for unauthorized visitors. So who was the intended audience of haniwa? Let’s explore further.
Monumental tombs and early Japan
Unlike many other ancient civilizations, we cannot rely on written records to inform us about the names or locations of the earliest kingdoms in Japan. Yet study of kofun indicate that a powerful state had emerged by around 250 C.E. This state is identified by various names (such as the Yamato polity), and was generally centered in what is now Nara, Kyoto, and Osaka prefectures.
We know that a powerful state emerged since vast resources were needed to construct these monumental tombs—starting with the economic means to sacrifice valuable flat land that could otherwise be used for farming and growing rice. Hundreds of workers were also necessary, and archaeologists excavating kofun have recovered pottery from neighboring locations such as present day Nagoya—suggesting that people came from elsewhere to Yamato to serve the needs of this early state.
Three periods in tomb-building practices
- Early Kofun period: c. 250 C.E. – c. 400 C.E.
- Middle Kofun period: c. 400 – c. 500 C.E.
- Late Kofun period: c. 500 – c. 600 C.E.
The colossal tombs reach a maximum size during the Middle Kofun period, and a well-known example is the Daisenryō kofun (also referred to as the Emperor Nintoku tomb) in Sakai city, Osaka prefecture (image, left).
This is the largest, extant kofun and one of the world’s largest funerary monuments, measuring roughly 486m in length, 36m in height, and may have had 15,000 haniwa placed on top.
This trend towards building kofun that were increasingly larger seems to reflect the increasingly powerful rulers of this kingdom; however, by the Late Kofun period the size of the tombs begin to shrink in size. This may have resulted from the unsustainable practice of using up valuable farming land for tombs. Another factor may have been the arrival of new immigrant groups, primarily via the Korean peninsula, who could effectively challenge the authority and dominance of the Yamato monarchs.
Evolution and placement of haniwa
The earliest haniwa, from c. 250 C.E. to around the 450s, were simple forms and most were cylindrical. There were also haniwa whose upper section was not cylindrical but made to replicate shapes based on ritual or military objects.
Haniwa in the form of animals, people and buildings
Haniwa modeled after residential or other kinds of buildings were also made and these were often located above the burial chamber in the rounded section of the tomb. While the outer perimeter might still be predominated by cylindrical haniwa, a few house-shaped haniwa in the center might resemble a miniature village.
What role did haniwa play?
This now leads us to the question of function and intended audience. What role did haniwa play? Who or what was the intended audience? No one knows for sure, but a number of theories have been proposed. It is also important to remember that function and meaning changed over time and place. The most common understanding is that haniwa were initially used to define the perimeter of the sacred tomb, separating and magically protecting the deceased from the profane space of the living.
As for stylistic aspects, the anthropomorphic (human-shaped) haniwa have a distinct appearance, consisting of a small head and blank, minimalist face with cutout openings for eyes and almost no attempt to portray a body with any degree of realism. Yet, oddly, there is a tremendous amount of detail on accessories and wardrobe, often appearing as lifelike replicas of actual weaponry, metal ornaments, and clothing. This somewhat bizarre contrast between the general and the specific is puzzling. One theory suggests that faces and heads were kept small and plain to keep each haniwa as light as possible on top, preventing the clay figure from toppling over. The large holes that perforate various sections may have had a similar function, to reduce overall weight and to facilitate uniform drying of the wet clay as a way to prevent cracks. In this sense, although physical, bodily attributes could be compromised, the correct tools and wardrobe that both identify and empower individuals to fulfill their job requirements were of utmost importance.
Closeup of the Warrior Haniwa
This national treasure (TNM J-36697) is one of several haniwa unearthed from the vicinity of Ōta city in Gunma prefecture, which tells us that this was an advanced, regional center for haniwa manufacture (Gunma is located to the north of Tokyo, quite far from Nara). This haniwa offers viewers a rare opportunity to see the detailed armor and weaponry (sword, bow, and quiver) of an ancient clay warrior from this region during the late Kofun period.
Starting with the visorless helmet, especially fascinating is the series of small, evenly spaced half-spherical rivets that appear on a raised section on top of the helmet, in addition to raised strips that connect the sides and front to a narrow band that circles around the forehead and continues behind the head. These rivets are believed to represent metal rivets, suggesting that the warrior’s head was protected by a metal helmet. Attached to the helmet are thick protective ear flaps, seemingly made of padded fabric or leather, while a sheet of thinner material wraps around the rest of the head and neck. Rivets also appear on the narrow quiver, containing four or more arrows, strapped to the warrior’s back.
The short-sleeved body armor that flares outward near the hips does not have rivets, but is covered by thin, vertically incised markings. Two large looped ties found on the chest suggest that this armor was laced together; whether the armor was made by stringing together thin iron plates is unclear based on the visual evidence, but remains as a possibility.
Standing upright with a mask-like, emotionless face (two narrow slits for eyes, an even more narrow slit for the mouth, and a protruding nose), you might not feel immediately threatened by this warrior. Yet, after observing how this haniwa warrior is, in fact, extremely well-armed with his formidable armor, a weapon in each hand, and supply of arrows on his back—clearly prepared to quickly strike down any enemy that comes his way—you might become a bit more apprehensive.