Haniwa: Archaeology can be cute!

I used to live in Kansai during my first years in Japan and the initial weekends were naturally spent exploring the famous sights of Kyoto and Nara. But though I loved Gion et al, it was after I started trying the slightly less-travelled roads that my historical curiosity was really piqued. One of these saunters was a trip to Asuka, one of Japan’s former capitals and located in an area full of burial mounds.

Cycling around these ancient tombs one autumn ignited an interest in Japanese archaeology, which later extended to queuing for hours in the rain to see the murals at the Takamatsuzaka Tomb.

While PingMag’s eye is usually on things in modern Japan and elsewhere, sometimes it pays dividends to go back in time. And with Japanese archaeology, there are certainly plenty of fantastic “things” to examine in ancient tombs. Today we are going to take a look at some of them.

Our story begins with the pottery of the Jomon period (c.12,000 to 300 BC). This was the Neolithic Stone Age in the Japanese archipelago (we have to be careful not to say “Japan” at this point) and is famed for its pottery — the earliest in the world — which sometimes had animal or human face motifs. But probably most accessible for contemporary folk are the dogu clay figurines.

haniwa doguA Jomon-era dogu from Kamegaoka, Kizukuri, Tsugaru-city, Aomori Prefecture.
Important Cultural Property
Image via Tokyo National Museum Image Search archive.

Their role is uncertain and whether they are supposed to be effigies of people, gods, mythical creatures or even ancient astronauts is up for debate, but regardless, their charms are indisputably universal.

Dogu continued to be made into the Yayoi period (300 BC to 300 AD), the era in which we start to see rice farming and agriculture, plus iron and metals introduced. It was during the late Yayoi period that haniwa also first appeared. There terracotta figures began to proliferate as tomb artifacts and as the Yayoi era gave way to the Kofun “burial mound” period (250–538 AD), the number of tombs exploded — and thus, so did the number and variety of haniwa.

By the Kofun era there is now a distinct civilization and it would come to centralize around the Kansai region, such as Asuka and Nara. During the fourth and fifth centuries, haniwa were mostly located at tumuli in western Japan but they became more common in eastern Japan in the sixth century, when they can be found a lot in Kanto and especially Gunma area burial mounds.

haniwa japan A house haniwa from Saitobaru in Saito City, Miyazaki. A complex structure with several annexes and gables, and multiple entrances.
Important Cultural Property
Image via Tokyo National Museum Image Search archive.

haniwa japan A boat haniwa also from Saitobaru that resembles a kind of gondola and gives an idea of what ocean-faring vessels were like before the Nara period.
Important Cultural Property
Image via Tokyo National Museum Image Search archive.

haniwa japan A more typical cylinder haniwa excavated from Tenri in Nara Prefecture.
Important Cultural Property
Image via Tokyo National Museum Image Search archive.

haniwa japan A haniwa as a quiver from a burial mound in Gunma.
Image via Tokyo National Museum Image Search archive.

haniwa japan A monkey haniwa
Important Cultural Property
Image via Tokyo National Museum Image Search archive.

haniwa japan And to balance out the haniwa zoo, a bird.
Image via Tokyo National Museum Image Search archive.

Placed on top of or around the mounds, haniwa were typically unglazed cylindrical jar-like shapes made from clay, though there were some stone and wooden ones. Some are also surprisingly tall, over one meter in height.

Most people know haniwa in their iconic humanoid versions, but actually the motifs are incredibly varied — including warriors, maidens, horses, shields, quivers, houses, birds, armor, hats, swords and more.

haniwa japan boar A wild boar haniwa from Tenjinyama, Isesaki City, Gunma Prefecture. Though simply enough rendered it is actually quite an accurate representation of the animal, complete with snout and tail. The crack is from damage during the firing process. These kinds of boar haniwa were often excavated alongside dogs and hunters, suggesting it formed part of a hunting scene.
Important Cultural Property
Image via Tokyo National Museum Image Search archive.

haniwa japan A horse with a saddle
Important Cultural Property
Image via Tokyo National Museum Image Search archive.

The horse haniwa are important because it was during the late fifth century that horse tacks and metal accessories were being imported from the Korean peninsular, and horses were signs of military power.

The human and animal earthenware figures appeared in the latter half of the fifth century and likely represent scenes related to burial rites. The humanoid haniwa are sometimes standing up or sitting on the lower part of the cylinder or jar, and they might be holding something like a cup or instrument.

haniwa japan Three musicians playing their instruments
Image via Tokyo National Museum Image Search archive.

haniwa japan A seated miko maiden from Kokai, Oizumi-machi, Gunma. These kinds of seated figures were often in pairs of male and female figures. Note the comb above the forehead, the earrings, necklace, bracelet and anklets. She also has a pouch and mirror. Quite a get-up!
Important Cultural Property
Image via Tokyo National Museum Image Search archive.

haniwa japan And by way of contrast, a warrior.
Image via Tokyo National Museum Image Search archive.

Not all burial mounds contain haniwa but they were also not necessarily placed at the biggest barrows either. The haniwa might not then only simply be a reflection of power or wealth, but some other aspect of the deceased person. It has also been suggested that they were symbols in a power transfer ritual or were part of a “sending off” ceremony in the funeral. Did these horses and warriors and birds protect the dead in the afterlife? Or were they just early works of art — that is, decoration for the dead? Since some were set up around the burial mound, they could also have been a kind of wall marking the parameters of the tomb.

In terms of style, some haniwa are very realistic and detailed — houses with gables or warriors with intricately rendered armor. Others are more simplistic and minimal, with little attempt to fill in the spaces.

haniwa japan This warrior is fairly basically sculpted.
Image via Tokyo National Museum Image Search archive.

haniwa japan Whereas this one, a National Treasure excavated from Gunma, is finely detailed. This kind of haniwa provides us with valuable insights into what armor and weaponry was like in ancient Japan.
Images via Tokyo National Museum Image Search archive.

haniwa japan haniwa japan haniwa-16

Some of the haniwa are out of proportion and it is tempting to describe them — and dogu — as a type of early déformer or SD or chibi, though it is hard to say. They are not caricatures and we also cannot tell for certain if they are actually meant to be gods or people, and so if the representation is accurate or not.

haniwa japan This haniwa could be said to be an early example of déformer or chibi art in Japan with its (his?) out-of-proportion legs.
Image via Tokyo National Museum Image Search archive.

One thing is for sure, though. Haniwa are cute. Especially compared to, say, the Terracotta Army in China, even some of the martial haniwa are more cute than fierce, like ancient mascot characters. Some even have huge smiles on their faces!

haniwa japan Image via Tokyo National Museum Image Search archive.

haniwa japan Image via Tokyo National Museum Image Search archive.

haniwa japan dancing These dancing (or singing?) haniwa from Nohara, Kumagaya in Saitama, are very famous.
Image via Tokyo National Museum Image Search archive.

For more information on haniwa, we recommend readers visit the permanent collection at the Tokyo National Museum in Ueno (one of whose mascot characters, To-hakukun, is, of course, a dancing haniwa). For digital archaeological fun, we point readers towards the e-Museum, an online database of National Treasures and Important Cultural Properties of Japan.

All images courtesy of Tokyo National Museum’s online archive.