A Local Perspective on Life in Tsukuba, Ibaraki, Japan.

THE WORLD OF HANIWA Exhibition in Mito Highlights the Kanto Regions Distinctive Haniwa Figurines (until Nov. 24th)


A poster for the exhibition

A poster for the World of Haniwa Exhibition outside the entrance of the Ibaraki Prefectural Museum of History in Mito. Haniwa are the various types of unglazed hollow ceramic objects- shaped like houses. weapons, or animal or human figures- which were arranged, half-embedded in the ground AROUND and ON TOP of Japan`s proto-historic burial mounds- but NOT inside the burial chambers from the 3rd to 7th centuries in Japan.+

By Avi Landau

Autumn is undoubtedly the most comfortable time of year in Japan for most human activity. In fact, it is the ONLY season to which the Japanese ascribe NICKNAMES testifying to the various activites which its pleasant conditions are conducive to. The most popular of these is SHOKUYOKU NO AKI ( 食欲の秋ー Good Appetite Autumn)- but there are also SUPOTSU NO AKI ( スポーツの秋ー Sports Autumn) and DOKUSHO NO AKI ( 読書の秋ー Book-reading Autumn- because of the longer nights spent indoors with a book).And then there is GEIJUTSU NO AKI ( 芸術の秋-Arty Autumn), because after the stiflingly hot and humid conditions of summer, in fall we all have more stamina and patience for visiting museums.

A warrior type haniwa (National Treasure)

This clay figurine depicting a warrior (found in Gunma Prefecture) is probably the most sophisticated of all the HANIWA ever discovered in Eastern Japan. It has been designated a   National Treasure. While warrior and other types of haniwa have been found on and around burial mounds ALL-OVER Japan, here in the Kanto region many other types have been found which are unique to this area- depictions of common folk including farmers, breast-feeding mothers, naked women, monkeys, fish and even one unique flying squirrel

It is in the month of November, Japan`s most pleasant  autumn month, that the National Holiday of Culture Day falls- and traditionally in this month there are many excellent special exhibitions held at Japan`s ever-growing  number of museums- and not just the famous ones- which ALMOST ALWAYS have superb special shows- but even at the smaller, lesser known venues (I have said it before; though Japan does not have a museum with a world class permanent collection on par with the likes of the Louvre, Brittish Museum, The Metropolitan, or the Palace Museum in Taipei, the endless parade of first-rate special exhibits makes Japan a paradise for art-lovers!).


Just looking at the listings this month has made my head spin, and getting to the exhibits that I have been able to get to has left my legs sore and my vision blurry. Two of several the shows that I DID get to were particlarly interesting, as they made it clear to me, after having seen both, how dramatically the FUNERARY CUSTOMS of Japan`s ruling classes changed in the Kanto area with the introduction of Buddhism in the 7th, 8th and 9th centuries. .

Mother with child

The unique Mother with Child Haniwa. Rustic, almost primitive looking- it reminds me of the DOGU figurines had been made in this part of Japan by the  people of the Jomon Period, thousands of years earlier people While the figurative haniwa found in western Japan depict soldiers, those found in the Kanto area portray a wide variety of people- including farmers and other common folk

Let me quickly summarize what I mean. For hundreds of years before  the new religion of Buddhism was taken up by the ruling classes, Japan`s elite, local rulers and strongmen, had been buried in stone burial chambers in tumuli of varying sizes- from the not-very-large-at-all to Egyptian-pyramid-sized (in terms of mass), which the Japanese call KOFUN (古墳). They were built from the mid-3rd century (starting in the Kinai area around Nara, Osaka and Kyoto and then spreading over the centuries as far north as Iwate Prefecture and as far south as Miyazaki) all the way up to the 7th century.

While the burial chambers of the KOFUN themselves were often decorated with murals and filled with precious objects (bronze weapons and mirrors, equestrian trappings, etc. in keeping with the social status of the deceased), there were also earthen-ware cylinders and much more famously unglazed earthen-ware  depictions of various things- houses, weapons, soldiers, animals and birds, which were ARRANGED AROUND AND ON the tumuli.

These burial mounds have come to characterize a very long period of Japanese history- which is named after them- the Kofun Period (300-710)- and also help to shape the present Japanese landscape (especially here on the Kanto Plain)- where almost every wooden hill that you see has been left with its trees intact ony because it is in fact a KOFUN burial mound!

In other words, in the emerging Yamato State, before the absorption of Buddhism, men of high status were buried with their bodies intact, along with symbols of their power, in large (and sometimes huge) tombs which required large amounts of man power and space in order to construct.

With the acceptance of Buddhism, however, adherents of the new faith, did without any of this:

They were cremated and their bones and ashes interred in the ground in earthen-ware urns (though many did invest money in the construction of temples- an act which would help in the ttainment of good karma).

A rare haniwa depicting a monkey

A rare haniwa depicting a monkey. While horse,dogs, deer and bird haniwas have been found in western Japan- monkey haniwa have only been found in the Kanto region.

The two exhibitions which so strongly brought home to me this great shift in funerary customs were:

The World of Haniwa at the Ibaraki Prefectural Museum of History located in Mito (about an hour by car from Tsukuba).


Ancient Cremation and Prayer- Kanji Characters on Funerary Urns- at the Kamitakatsu Shell Mound Park`s History Museum in Tsuchiura – about a 15 minute drive from Tsukuba Center.

In this article I will try to convey what I learned at the HANIWA exhibition, which will sadly end on Sunday November 24th.


At home I have this replica of what is probably the most famous of the various haniwa designs which was discovered in Saitama Prefecture

At home I have this replica of what is probably the most famous of the various haniwa designs the original of which was discovered in Saitama Prefecture

When Japanese sculpture is mentioned, most non-Japanese naturally think of  Buddhist statuary, some of it sublime and divinely beautiful ( I am especially fond of certain wooded, as oppossed to bronze, images).

The Japanese themselves , however, when statuary is mentioned,might perhaps see in their minds eye HANIWA, the unglazed earthen-ware figurines (many extremely cute- and cute is what the general Japanese public seems to crave for ) which they have seen in their school textbooks, on television as animated characters, or made into toys or stuffed animals.

The most popular of the human-shaped HANIWA is the dancer with open mouth which I have pasted above. Another nearly universally known HANIWA is one of the many such figures depicting a horse.

Ento Kei Type Haniwa

Though the animal and human shaped haniwa are the best known (and loved) the most common haniwa are these cylindrical Ento Kei Type

One of the first things that I learned at the Mito exhibition was that the earliest type of HANIWA to be placed on and around burial mounds, and by far the most commonly produced type over the centuries- was a simple cylinder. These were first used in the 3rd century and were still used for burials  in the 7th century- though over the years different types of HANIWA came into use in addition to the cylinders.

These cylinders appear in two types- the ENTO-KEI (円筒形) pictured above, and the ASAGAO (morning glory) TYPE (朝顔形) pictured below.

Though nobody is sure exacly what these vase-like objects were used for, the best bet seems that held offerings of some sort.

Anyway, it was because of these cylinders- out of which all the other shapes eventually  derived that the earthenware objects which decorated the burial mounds came to be called HANIWA ( 埴輪)- literally meaning CLAY RING.

In fact, the most commonly found HANIWA are these clay jars

In fact, the most commonly found HANIWA are these clay jars

I was surprised to learn that for the first 50 years of KOFUN and HANIWA making, in the vicinity of Nara in the early 3rd century, the tumuli was decorated  with these cylindrical vessels ALONE.

It was only in the tombs dated  to the mid-3rd century that the first FIGURATIVE haniwa appeared- those depicting ROOSTERS!

It was not for another hundred years that other types of haniwa- those depicting various houses and buildings as well as weapons and other military equipment or royal regalia appeared-

and not for another 150 years, in the mid 5th century that other animals and humans were finally depicted in haniwa.

The fact that for so long only the cylindrical vessels and ROOSTER haniwa adorned the tombs of great men might come as a surprise to you.

But remember, the rooster crows at the break of dawn, welcoming the sun- and the Sun Goddess AMATERASU is considered to be the divine ancestor of the Japanese Imperial Family.

It is also possible that the name of  the distinctive gates that mark the entrances to Shinto Shrines (to this day)- TORII – might derive from the words THERE ARE CHICKENS HERE (TORI IRU). Early painted depictions of Japanese shines also often show roosters and hens within the sacred precincts.

In fact most haniwa look something like this

In fact most haniwa look something like this, in terms of shape. This particular piece however is rare because of the deer etched into it

I also learned at the exhibition that there are differences between the haniwa found in western Japan and those in Ibaraki and the rest of the Kanto region.

The most important of these regional differences is the fact that while in the west, around Kyoto, Osaka, and Nara, the human-form haniwa depict almost only soldiers- those in this part of Japan portray a much more varied and lively cast of characters- shamanesses, musicians dancers, farmers, hunters, and nursing mothers among them.

The details- clothes, accessories and types of weapon also vary between the regions.The Kanto region haniwa often seem to lack the tatoo-like body marking which characterize the  human-form haniwa of western Japan- while in the east what seems to be ritual face and body paint is appea quite frequently.


There are also animal haniwa found in the Kanto area depicting animals not found in haniwa anywhere else in Japan- by these I specifically mean monkeys, fish, and a single flying squirrel (found in Narita- near the airport!).

An artists rendition of what a KOFUN Burial Mound, decorated with HANIWA might have looked like- from a Japanese children`s book

An artists rendition of what a KOFUN Burial Mound, decorated with HANIWA might have looked like- from a Japanese children`s book. Kofun were built in several distinctive style, the most famous of which look like an old-fashioned key-hole when viewed from the sky

Most of what we know about life in Japan during the Kofun Period derives from haniwa. Luckilly these figurines DO give us plenty of details

Strolling through the exhibit I could almost picture what the people and houses the in this area looked like 1,500 years ago

Check out this house depicted in the photo below. Nobody is sure of just exactly what such a building was used for- perhaps as a meeting house or a place to stage ceremonies.

A HANIWA depicting a buiding of some sort

A HANIWA depicting a building of some sort

.There are over 5,000 ancient KOFUN burial mounds found in Japan- with hundreds within the Tsukuba City limits- but the particular site featured at this exhibition is the FUNATSUKA KOFUN burial mound located near the shores of Lake Kasumigaura in what is now Omitama City, not very far from the new Ibaraki Airport. (Incursions into this area by the forces of the Yamato Court (based near in western japan) made great use of the frsh water and good transport possibilites provided by the lake. )

At this Key-hole style Kofun constructed at the end of the 5th century, archaeologists from Meiji University found unusually large cylindrical ENTO-KEI haniwa, as well as, a wide variety of haniwa made into human form. There are warriors in armour, and men holding what look like shields, shamanesses amd even a sumo wrestler.

There are horses with all their trappings, dancing girls and a man with a quiver on his back- wearing on his head what looks like a European style crown (see photo). Each  character`s clothes, hats, accessories and other paraphenalia are individually rendered.

All together a surprisingly detailed world emerges- and this is only the beginning of the show.

Another unusual haniwa depicting three dancers on one base

Another unusual haniwa depicting three young dancing girls all  on a single base

Moving on through the exhibition where HANAIWA dug up in Ibaraki Prefecture (including a few from Tsukuba) and the surrounding and nearby prefectures of Chiba, Tochigi and Gunma, I found myself walking among a panoply of earthenware kings and chieftains- some standing tall, some seated on chairs- warriors- bearing shields, swords or quivers, hunters with their hawks, wrestlers with appropriately large bellies, men of certain rank prostrating themselves (for reasons unknown), shamanesses (MIKO) dancing with arms raised or reaching out – or making offerings, village women bearing gifts or water on their heads- a musician playing the koto, a mother with child at her breast- another women- completely nude- with exaggerated genitals………. showing traces of coloring….. as do the faces and bodies of many of these figures, suggesting the use of use of ritual make-up at that time……….

Each costume, hat, and jewerly, each weapon, fan or goblet shows an individuality.. and the ancient rites seem to come alive before me,

Then I enter another room- a terra cotta menagerie…. dogs, deer (remember the sacred messsenger of the God of the Kashima Grand Shrine- the most important in Ibaraki- is the deer), a single monkey, a rustic flying squirrel….  horses- fully outfitted for ceremony…. or battle.. and of course- plenty of roosters and other birds.


A warrior with a shield

A warrior with a shield


Figure of a nude female. Such haniwa have only been found in eastern Japan

Figure of a nude female. Such haniwa have only been found in eastern Japan. It has been suggested that this figure might represent the goddess AME NO UZUME NO MIKOTO who with lewd and bawdy dances lured  AMATERASU the Sun Goddess out of the cave she was hiding in, bringing back sunlight into the world


A sumo wrestler haniwa attests to the antiquity of Japan`s national sport

A sumo wrestler haniwa attests to the antiquity of Japan`s national sport

After breaking out of my reverie, I found myself in the next segment of the exhibition: one introducing the three known HANIWA production sites which now lie within Ibaraki Prefecture. These are all in the center of the prefecture, with the largest being the Obata Kitayama Haniwa Production Site. More than 50 kilns used in the 6th century have been found there as well as the ruins of workshops and clay quarries.

The other ancient haniwa factories were the Umawatari Hanaiwa Production Site- with 19 kilns and the Moto Ohtayama Production Site with eleven kilns.

Many more such sites must still be undiscovered as these three locations cannot account for all the various HANIWA found in this region.

Perhaps a kneeling servant

Perhaps a kneeling servant- this reminded me ofan Assyrian artwork I had seen at New Yorks Metropolitan Museum


A unique haniwa depicting a flying squirrel

A unique haniwa depicting a flying squirrel

So much about Haniwa and kofun remains a mystery. This is compounded by the fact that NO excavations at all have been carried out at what are considered the most important of these tombs- those that might have been built to inter the remains of ancient emperors.

Conspiracy theorists claim that this is to prevent any discoveries of artifacts proving that the Imperial Family had its roots or strong connections with other nations besides Japan. But I guess it is actually done out of respect for Imperial graves- which is perfectly understandable.

The fact that the construction of these tombs, and the customs which went along with them seem to have arisen suddenly in the Nara , back in third century, suggest foreign influence- if not an outright invasion or influx of foreigners who began to rule the area.

Most Japanese feel uneasy about the idea of Chinese or Korean influence, and certain Japanese scholars have published papers PROVING that since tumuli in Japan are different in certain ways from those on the continent that they are uniquely Japanese.

However, looking at the National Treasure Haniwa Warrior (which I have pasted a picture of near the top of this post) one CANNOT help but be reminded of the famous Terra Cotta Warriors discovered in China.

And a visit to Kyongju, the ancient former capital of the Silla Kingdom in what is now the Republic of South Korea, and a look and its burial mounds will remind right away of Nara Prefecure and ITS (smaller) burial mounds,



And then there is the question of just who exactly is buried in these tombs. Many of the larger tombs western Japan have been given names such as the Emperor Nintoku`s Tomb or the Emperor so and so`s Tomb. None of these connections however were ever scientifically determined- they were designated as the tombs of various emperors by the Imperial Household Agency in the early Meiji Period.

There is also the question of what the relationship was between those CHIEFTAINS buried  in tombs way out on the eastern fringes of the Yamato Empire (the Kanto area). Were they actually relatives or representatives of the emperors, or were they  local non-Yamato leaders who had allied themselves with their more powerful neighbor to the west?

This haniwa warrior looks like a Eurpean king

This haniwa warrior looks like a European king

But from the exhibition in Mito I realized that it was much more than these larger questions concerning the KOFUN that need answering- it is the smaller things as well: almost each individual haniwa poses a riddle- what do they depict exactly, and why were they placed where they were? We might never know.

To be continued………………….

A deer

A deer


An old house on the grounds of the Ibaraki Prefectural museum of History

An old house on the grounds of the Ibaraki Prefectural museum of History


An old water-whell driven mill on the museum

An old water-wheel driven mill on the museum


The old Mitsukaido Junior High School has been relocated to the grounds of the Ibaraki Prefectural  History Museum

The old Mitsukaido Junior High School has been relocated to the grounds of the Ibaraki Prefectural History Museum- inside it is a Steinway Piano made in 1865.


The grounds of the Museum

The grounds of the museum in autumn


A Japanese postage stamp from the 1940`s

A Japanese postage stamp from the 1940`s. I guess this type of Haniwa served to promote as proof of Japan`s long military traditions during those militaristic mid-20th century years

Maybe this will help you get to the museum



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