Kansai’s Stupendous Piles

Kansai Stupendous Piles

Kansai is home to many of the largest kofun (burial mounds) in Japan. The region was home to many of the local kings, who were later incorporated into the imperial line, enshrined in some of these massive tombs. The two largest, Kondagobyoyama (425 m long) in Habikino and Daisenryu (486 m long) in Sakai are said to the tombs of Emperors Ojin and Nintoku. These are the fifteenth and sixteenth emperors in the imperial line and are thought to be the first two that are based on historical figures, rather than legend. Until they were acquired by the Imperial Household Agency in the Meiji period (in the 1870s). these mounds were often at the heart of local festivals.

Konda matsuri in the Edo period

These massive mounds prompted William Gowland, a British amateur archeologist working as an engineer for the Osaka Mint, to proclaim them ‘stupendous piles’. He is one of the key figures in establishing archaeology as a recognised science in Japan. His research increased awareness of the importance of kofun, and his photographs and analysis of them are now available in “William Gowland: The Father of Japanese Archaeology” published by the British Museum Press in 2003.

Photo of Ojin Tennoryo at Chikatsuasuka Museum

The Kofun Period (古墳時代) extends from the third century AD through to the late seventh century, and marks the transition of Japan being a number of Wa kingdoms to the unified state that had emerged by the beginning of the eighth century. There are few written records from the period, except for Chinese and Korean records of visits to the Wa kingdoms of the Japanese archipelago. Since there are no native Japanese records from this period, we are left to rely on ancient chronicles such as the Kojiki (古事記) and Nihon Shoki (日本書紀), compiled in the early eighth century, for stories about this period and earlier. However, even without written records, the rulers of the nascent nation were still able to construct these massive mounds, the largest of which took thousands of workers many years to complete. (The largest mounds are thought to have taken 15 to 20 years to build, assuming several thousand people worked on them.)

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