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'Japan' Arrived Later than Some Think
Gina Barnes, Professor Emeritus and Honorary Research Fellow, Durham University and Professorial Research Associate, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

'Japan' Arrived Later than Some Think

Durham University's Gina Barnes challenges prevailing views on mounded-tomb culture and the development of the Japanese state in the earliest historical period.

Vincent Lim Email VincentLim

We have a many-staged effort within the Japanese sequence, which is not unilineal and not teleological -- not headed toward a political state that the Japanese would like to believe had existed from early on and still supplies their imperial rule today.

The first Japanese state emerged in the fifth century, not two centuries earlier as many scholars have said.

Anthropologist Gina Barnes described how she came to that conclusion at a lecture on Oct. 31, 2007, at UCLA. Barnes says archaeological and other records from the Kofun period (250–710), the oldest epoch of recorded Japanese history, suggest that the first Japanese state emerged in a later period of history than some Japanese archaeologists believe.

"We have a many-staged effort within the Japanese sequence, which is not unilineal and not teleological—not headed toward a political state that the Japanese would like to believe had existed from early on and still supplies their imperial rule today," Barnes said.

The UCLA Paul I. and Hisako Terasaki Center for Japanese Studies, Center for Korean Studies, and Cotsen Institute of Archaeology sponsored Barnes's lecture that was based on her new book on mounded-tomb culture in early Japanese state formation. Barnes is a professor emeritus and honorary research fellow at Durham University as well as a professorial research associate in the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. The primary focus of her research over the course of her academic career has been Japanese archaeology.

Historical records from the Kofun period are hard to decipher without knowledge of archaeology. Some archaeologists say the record, including Chinese sources, indicates that various communities and chiefdoms began developing into states around the end of the third century, when large tombs began appearing.

Barnes said her research challenged prevailing notions of Japanese state development. She explained how triangular-rimmed bronze mirrors found in the tombs were shared among elites from different polities, but not in a way that would suggest a hierarchical relationship. Passages from the Nihon Shoki, one of the oldest written sources used by Japanese historians, illuminate how goods like triangular-rimmed bronze mirrors were used in elite identification. The mirrors seemed to be used to create social and political alliances among elites, not to demand allegiance. There was no clear hierarchical relationship among communities in the Early Kofun period, said Barnes.

According to Barnes, there was no clear polity formation in terms of the usual hierarchical size and rank distribution in the society until the mid-fourth century when the Early Kofun system actually began to collapse. It was not until the late fifth century that Japan had a state or an administrative political unit. She further said that even in the fifth century, the Japanese state included Osaka, Nara and Kyoto, but left out much of western and eastern Japan.

The Kofun period marked a time when there was social stratification—when elites began sharing a similar culture and system seperate from commoners—but it did not mark the beginning of the Japanese state, according to Barnes.

Contact with China

Barnes also explained how recent research suggests that there was more contact between China and western Japan during the period than thought. She explained how the symbolism of the Queen Mother of the West, which comes from Chinese mythology and Taoism, appeared in Early Kofun tombs.

The Queen Mother of the West was associated with jade, carried a staff and was supposed to hold grand, divine feasts. Jade substitutes—staffs and drinking cups made of jasper and green tuff—were found in Japanese tombs of the time.

"Japanese archaeologists and I myself had always thought [mounded-tomb culture] was an indigenous development with these localized artifacts that don't occur in China," Barnes said. "Now all of a sudden, they take on a completely different significance as emblems of a Queen Mother cult in the Early Kofun."


Read Gina Barnes' book, State Formation in Japan: Emergence of a 4th-century Ruling Elite (Routledge, 2007), for more information about the topics discussed in her lecture.