Kofun (tumulus) (古墳)

A kofun generally refers to old grave which has a tumulus. In the East a lot of kofun were constructed as graves of powerful people in ancient times.

In Japanese history, tumuluses constructed between the third and seventh centuries are particularly referred to as 'kofun' and other tumuluses constructed in other periods are referred to as funkyubo (grave mound or tumulus).

Summary of Kofun

According to Toyotane MATSUMOTO, gozoku (local ruling family) who constructed irrigation ponds and actively managed rice paddies, constructed their graves at places from where people can see the territory they developed. Kofun is chronologically and particularly classified according to the size, decoration, surface shape, as well as the construction and shape of the main part, which is the most important part of entombment. For construction of most tumulus, sandy soil and cohesive soil were alternately tamped down using method called the hanchiku method (a method of making the core of a podium), which was used to make the banking part harder, and according to surveys which were conducted during the repair of buildings of the Asuka and Nara periods, the method was generally used to develop a solid base of large buildings in ancient times.

Origins of Kofun

Considering size, shape and other aspects of a kofun, it is clear that a kofun is not a replacement for graves of the Yayoi period, rather an institution of tombing which has greatly changed. A kofun was burial method for a few specific people and differ greatly from graves of other constituent member-groups at that time. In addition, kofun can be seen unequally in many places. More specifically, the origins of kofun show that they were not just a change in institution of tombing or funereal conception but also an issue related to society and politics in general.

There have been disputes regarding the origins of kofun since before World War II. Yukio KOBAYASHI considered the issue as one of political history concerning the period of the development of the ancient state of Japan. He specifically offers two theories - Densei-kyo mirror theory and Dohan-kyo mirror theory. Shuichi GOTO, Dairoku HARADA and Koichi MORI raised questions regarding the two theories, Tadashi SAITO posed questions regarding Densei-kyo mirror ron and the explanation of the fact that Dohan-kyo mirrors were owned by more than one owner, Akira NAITO criticized the theories systematically and theoretically, Sadao NISHIJIMA insisted that the establishment of a political relationship between the YAMATO Administration and heads of local governments cannot be explained only in accordance of mirrors.

Locations and Numbers

With 16,577 tumulses, Hyogo Prefecture has the largest number of kofun in Japan. This is followed by Chiba Prefecture with 13,112, Tottori Prefecture with 13,094, Fukuoka Prefecture with 11,311, Kyoto Prefecture with 11,310 tumulses, and nationwide, there are a total of 161,560 kofun (according to a survey carried out by the Agency for Cultural Affairs at the end of March in 2001).


Beginning with the round barrow shape and square tumulus which are the basic shapes, there are many kinds of kofun such as hakkaku-fun (octagonal tumulus) (Noguchino Ono-haka) and candy-wrap (keyhole shape with one more handle) shape mound (Kushiyama Kofun and Tatetsuki Kofun). In addition, there are the zenpo-koen (keyhole-shaped tomb) mound, zenpo-koho (square front, square back) mound, soen (double round) shape mound and soho (double square) shape mound, which all have two tumuli. Major kofun usually have two tumuli. There are many different shapes of mortuary spaces where the dead are entombed.

A representative of a zenpo-koen (keyhole-shaped tomb) mound is Daisen (大山 also written as 大仙) Kofun in Sakai City, Osaka Prefecture.

Because such a long time has passed since their construction, most kofun have trees growing on them, but the true state of a kofun at the time of completion was without trees. Such examples are Goshiki-zuka Kofun and Mori Shogun-zuka Kofun, which have both been restored to their original states.

Mortuary Spaces

There are two types of mortuary spaces of kofun - pit type and horizontal tunnel type.

The pit type consisted of a hole which was made from the surface of a tumulus called a Boko (a tunnel to put a coffin in), where a coffin was placed at the bottom, and filled with sand again. Because of the structure, an added burial was impossible, and there was no space where people were able to move around. There are pit-type sekkaku (stone surrounding wooden coffins), nendokaku (clay surrounding wood coffins), and hakoshiki-sekkan stone coffins and wood coffins. Regarding the pit-type sekkaku, after placing a wooden coffin at the bottom, stones (building stone) are built up as walls and then ceiling stone is placed as a cover. The style was popular from the beginning to the middle of the Kofun period (tumulus period). For nendokaku, a wooden coffin placed at the bottom was wrapped in layers of clay which is considered a brief version of a pit-type sekkaku. This was popular from the middle of the beginning/middle of the Kofun period. Hakoshiki-sekkan consisted of making an enclosure with stones around the dead body like a box, and is the burial method from the Jomon period. The wooden coffin method was to simply place a wooden coffin and make no space in the tunnel; this is a burial method from the Yayoi period.

As for the types which have horizontal tunnels, mortuary spaces are built on the ground or on a surface during construction of a tumulus and the tumulus is then built on it. Other types include Yokoana-shiki sekishitsu (horizontal stone chamber) and Yokoguchi-shiki sekkaku (stone sarcophagus with side entrance). Yokoana-shiki sekishitsu consists of a tunnel part as a passage (called sendo) and a room part for entombment (called genshitsu). When looking at the rock chamber from above, if the passage is located at the center of the burial chamber, it is called Ryosode-shiki and if the passage is located toward right side or left side, it is called Katasode-shiki. There are a variety of coffin types, such as stone coffins, wooden coffins and kanshitsu (dry lacquered) coffins. After an entombment, the passage is blocked by Heisokuishi (piled stones) or Tobiraishi (door stone), but added burial is possible when the block is removed. This method became popular from the late Kofun period. Yokoguchi-shiki sekkaku was originally a stone coffin which was placed in a rock chamber and the stone coffin itself became a mortuary space; many of this type can been seen at the end of the Kofun period.


In the Kofun period, a dead body was placed in a coffin and then buried. There were wooden, stone and ceramic coffins and so on depending on the materials used.

A hollowed out wooden coffin is called a "Sakitake-shiki mokkan" (split bamboo type wooden coffin) and made of a big tree which is divided into two pieces; the inside of both pieces is then hollowed out and became a cover and body of the coffin. However, the term "Sakitake-shiki" might be inappropriate because a big tree cannot be easily spilt like bamboo.

A wooden coffin type called "combinational type" consists of four rectangle-shaped panels, a cover, bottom part, side plates for the right and left sides, and two small square-shaped panels, which are sometimes used as partitions.

Simple Funerals and Extravagant Funerals

In China, there are two opposing thoughts about funerals, simple funerals and extravagant funerals. These two thoughts were based on different views of life and death. To distinguish simple funerals from extravagant funerals, people have to check if there is a tumulus or not. In fact, a key distinguishing point is that if it is an extravagant funeral, the dead person can occupy the land forever.

The Laws of Funerals
In 646, a long Imperial edict was issued which is divided into four parts based on the contents, and the part stated at the top is "The Laws of Funerals". At the beginning, the values of the laws are stated. The edict was made from Chinese literature. The contents of a funeral are specifically stated in the last half. This is to make the size of a traditional grave smaller and simplified. Therefore, the funeral style encouraged here is generally called "Hakusousei" (a simple funeral). There is a theory that the background of the edict is related to Kochi Komin sei (a system of complete state ownership of land and citizens).

In East Asia

Between the middle of the third century and the late seventh century, a lot of major kofun were constructed in Japan, and at this time in Korea, a lot of kofun which have tumuli were constructed. In the Medieval period, some kofun were used as castles and some parts of a kofun were changed (e.g. Kurozuka Kofun).

The biggest Kofun in Goguryeo is Daioryo in Shuan City, China. This is a square tumulus made of piled stones with a length of 63 meters on each side, and around the tumulus, there is a dorui (earthen walls for fortification) with a length of 320 meters on each side. In addition, Kosei Taibo in Pyongyang is famous for wall paintings of the seventh century. This is a square tumulus with a side length of 60 meters.


In Japan a lot of kofun including the Emperor Nintoku Mausoleum which are considered as graveyards of the Imperial Family are under control of the Imperial Household Agency; thus, excavation and research are not easily permitted, and this is one of the reasons for delayed archaeological study. In addition, names such as "Emperor's Tomb" were determined in the Meiji period based on literature study by Confucian scholars and scholars of Japanese classical literature in the Edo period. In accordance with remarkable progress in archaeological study, detailed chronological studies have progressed, and so there are some contradictions between estimations by archaeologist and results of studies. Names of the Emperor's tombs are expediencies and not substantiated academically. The Imperial Household Agency used to restrict academic investigations of Imperial mausoleums, but laws of Imperial mausoleum control were altered after January 2007, and limited investigations are presently allowed.

Mass media in English-speaking countries say that the Imperial Household Agency refuses investigations of kofun designated as Imperial mausoleums because the Imperial Family are trying to hide evidence showing that they are originally from the Korean Peninsula.

Regarding environmental condition, cases of substances being brought by outsiders resulting in exposure are increasing, and the case of the deteriorated wall painting of Takamatsuzuka Kofun is a known example. Such examples and issues are closely related to regional promotion, and since there is no end to this kind of problem, minimizing environmental stress for kofun and landscape protection are future issues.

In addition, kofun are continuously destroyed. Kofun which were destroyed during the Kofun period are being discovered through excavations, and they are considered as a result of political intention. However, kofun were destroyed for land use after the Kofun period. A part of Ichiniwa Kofun (burial mound of Emperor Heizei) was destroyed during the construction of Heijo-kyu Palace in ancient times. Throughout history, kofun were continuously destroyed for agricultural land; in the Middle Ages, kofun were destroyed to build fortresses, and in modern times, kofun are destroyed for residential land (especially after World War II). The biggest kofun destroyed after World War II was Mozuotsukayama Kofun which was destroyed in 1949, that had the entire length of 168 meters. In recent years, there has been no major destruction of kofun because of preservation activities of Itasuke Kofun, and people share recognition that kofun should be preserved. However, there have been some cases of minor destruction of kofun such as the incident in which Hurue Kofun was destroyed in 2005, and here is also the possibility that minor kofun are secretly destroyed during construction.

Names of Kofun

Essentially, the remains are named after oaza (an administrative unit) or koaza (small administrative unit of a village) of the location. Toro Ruins and Karako-Kagi Site are such examples. Kofun are also usually named after a mountain or tumulus at the time of discovery, and such names are the same as the aza (an administrative designation of small sections into which some of the rural districts of Japan are divided) of the location. However, there are many different places with the same name across Japan, for example Hachiman-yama mountain, Inari-yama mountain, Otsuka-yama mountain, Chausu-yama mountain, Kuruma-zuka tumulus, Funa-yama mountain and Miya-yama mountain, and these names exist in many places and sometimes there are exactly the same names in a county or within an area of an old province; therefore, to distinguish the difference in those cases, usually the name of the oaza or higher rank names (such as the prefecture name) will be added to the original names, for example Inbehachiman-yama mountain Kofun, Inari-yama mountain Kofun, the Eta Funa-yama mountain Kofun and Mozuotsuka-yama mountain Kofun. In Iki city, there are kofun named after family names of land owners, such as Kakegi Kofun and Hirayama Kofun.

Study by William Gowland

There was a foreigner by the name of William Gowland who has contributed to the study of Kofun in Japan. He was invited as a specialist of melting copper methods and worked at the Mint Bureau and later appointed as an adviser to the chief of the Mint Bureau. In the 16 years from 1872 to 1888 in Japan, Gowland gradually advanced his research of kofun in his spare time. However, his study was not known among Japanese at that time. After he went back to England, he published "The Dolmens and Burial Mounds in Japan, 1897" and "The Dolmens of Japan and their Builders, 1889." The most attractive points of Kofun in Japan for Gowland were horizontal stone chambers which are built with massive rocks. He investigated 460 horizontal stone chambers and calculated the data of 130 of them by making survey maps. His study region was quite wide and he investigated areas in 15 prefectures, from Kyushu to the Kanto region.