Haniwa warrior in keiko armor (Kofun period), c. 6th century, excavated in lizuka-machi, Ota City, Gunma, Japan, terracotta, 130.5 cm high (Tokyo National Museum)
Speakers: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris
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.
Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:
[flickr_tags user_id=”82032880@N00″ tags=”haniwa”]
Dr. Zucker: [0:04] We’re in the Tokyo National Museum, looking at a haniwa figure of a warrior.
Dr. Harris: [0:09] Haniwa are clay objects — sometimes cylinders, sometimes, later in their development, figures and animals — that decorated the tops of tombs in Japan, beginning in the 3rd century through the 6th or 7th century.
Dr. Zucker: [0:24] These tombs could be enormous. The largest one is nearly five football fields long.
Dr. Harris: [0:29] Most of them were keyhole-shaped. The circular area at the top was mounded, and that’s where the burial chamber was.
Dr. Zucker: [0:36] These landforms were often surrounded by moats, and were originally cleared except for haniwa, which populated their tops.
Dr. Harris: [0:43] Populated is a really good word because on some of the largest of these tombs — obviously, meant for the most powerful people of this time — there could be between 10 and 20 thousand haniwa occupying the top of the tomb. Sometimes arranged in a circle around the outside, sometimes a cluster of figures toward the center.
Dr. Zucker: [1:03] Often around the form of a house. All this clay is low-fire and unglazed, and that gives it its characteristic reddish color.
Dr. Harris: [1:11] By low-fire, you mean it’s fired at a low temperature, so we are not talking about a very complicated technology to harden this clay.
Dr. Zucker: [1:19] Well, if you have 10 to 20 thousand of these to make when somebody dies, you need to do it quickly.
Dr. Harris: [1:23] Although I imagine, like in many other cultures, a ruler often made arrangements for their funerary objects for their tomb even while they were alive, so many may not have been made last minute, but this is all clearly for rulers and elites.
Dr. Zucker: [1:37] It’s also interesting to understand the evolution of haniwa. The simplest and earliest forms are cylinders. These seem to have developed into the houses that we spoke of, and that was followed then by animals.
Dr. Harris: [1:48] Then figures. The figures and animals are of a remarkable variety, so there’s a sense both of agriculture, of farming, of livestock. There are chickens, and ducks, and other kinds of fowl. There are wild boar. We also see horses and soldiers. We see musicians.
Dr. Zucker: [2:06] And women.
Dr. Harris: [2:07] In fact, there is one lovely female figure here, touching her breast with one hand and offering a cup with another, who is beautifully, luxuriously dressed, with a necklace and a bracelet. Her garment is both painted and incised. It’s a good reminder that many of these were painted.
Dr. Zucker: [2:21] Many of them are elaborate. Let’s look at one of the most elaborate, a larger warrior haniwa.
Dr. Harris: [2:27] The word elaborate is good for describing their clothing. The faces and bodies can be very simplified.
Dr. Zucker: [2:32] It suggests to me that the clothing represents their station in life, and that’s what was important. It wasn’t important who they were individually, but rather the part that they would play in the afterlife of the ruler.
[2:42] This particular figure looks like he’s doing a very good job guarding the tomb. He’s armed with a sword. He’s armed with what is probably the remnants of a bow. He’s got a quiver on his back. He’s completely covered in a Japanese style of armor, known as keiko, plates of armor that hang.
Dr. Harris: [2:58] You can see the details of how the armor was made.
Dr. Zucker: [3:01] You can even see that he’s wearing a wrist guard to protect his left arm from the string of a bow after he unleashes the arrow. When the bow string is loosed and snaps back, it can hit the arm and hurt.
Dr. Harris: [3:12] What’s wonderful here in this museum is that we have examples of the armor.
Dr. Zucker: [3:17] You can even see how the armor is constructed. Plates are joined together with metal rivets, and those are represented by small little buttons of clay on this haniwa.
Dr. Harris: [3:26] We’re talking about iron plates that have been either fastened together with rivets, or in other cases perhaps tied together with leather.
Dr. Zucker: [3:35] There’s a tremendous amount of specificity. If you look at the scabbard that holds his sword, you can see that it’s tied with a string that wraps around the back of his waist on either side, and you can even see the knot on his right hip.
Dr. Harris: [3:46] Speaking of ties, you can look down the backs of his legs and see how his armor was held together.
Dr. Zucker: [3:52] I love the way that the flaps that come down from the helmet to protect the sides of his face frame that face, and create a shadow that creates a dimensionality that is a little bit rare in haniwa, which tend to be quite flat and cylindrical.
Dr. Harris: [4:04] In fact, the word “haniwa” means clay “cylinder.” We know that the earliest haniwa were simple cylinders, but even as they develop into human figures, so much of the form remains cylindrical. Often the arms are simple cylinders. The legs are simple cylinders.
Dr. Zucker: [4:20] They’re so expressive nonetheless.
Dr. Harris: [4:22] What’s fascinating though is this combination of realism and abstraction. We talked about the level of detail in the armor, but in other areas when we look at the bodies of haniwa, the arms are too short, the legs are too short. They’re not realistic at all.
Dr. Zucker: [4:37] The emphasis instead seems to be on a kind of expressiveness.
Dr. Harris: [4:41] Although these may not look frightening to us, they may have looked serious and formidable during the Kofun period, the Old Tomb period, when these were made in Japan.