Takamatsu Zuka Kofun
An Ancient View of the Sky from a Tomb in Asuka, Japan

By Steve Renshaw and Saori Ihara

April, 1996

[This article also appears in Startimes, April, 1996.]

A primary center of power in Japan in the 6th and 7th centuries, Asuka Village lies about 12 miles south of Nara in the Kinki District. The modern traveller to the area is quickly struck by the mix of urban sprawl and ancient temples and tombs. It was in one of these tombs that a major archaeological discovery was made in the early 1970's. From an Edo Era painting showing the mound with a tall pine tree atop, the tomb was called Takamatsu Zuka Kofun (Tall Pine Ancient Burial Mound).

[Looking North to Takamatsu Zuka Kofun]
Takamatsu Zuka Kofun is aligned with celestial north. This view from due south shows the bamboo covered mound of the tomb. The doors are to chambers of relatively recent origin; inside are housed temperature maintenance and dehumidifying equipment used to protect the small tomb's delicate paintings.

Dating indicates that the tomb was built in the latter part of the 7th or early part of the 8th century. It measures 1 meter wide, 2.7 meters deep, and a little more than a meter high. In these rather cramped "quarters", archaeologists found a little universe. Even in death, the tomb's "resident" could "see" and be a part of the heavenly realm.

Inside the tomb, on the East wall, the sun was painted in gold leaf; on the west wall, the moon appeared in silver. Also adorning the walls were male servants and female consorts in dress of the era still there to provide for the deceased.

[Women Attendants]

As was and is the case with most burials in China, Korea, and Japan, the tomb was aligned with the cardinal directions. Gods of these four directions, whose Chinese origins are somewhat lost in obscurity, were also found on the walls in complementary configuration: the Black Tortoise of the North, the Azure Dragon of the East, and the White Tiger of the West. Intrusion through the south wall some time after the tomb was built had obliterated what was probably the Red Bird of Summer.

[Inside Tomb Looking North Toward Genbu]
Facing North inside Takamatsu Zuka Kofun with "Genbu" (The Black Tortoise of Winter) painted on the wall.

Careful inspection of the ceiling revealed a series of dots, also in gold leaf, each about a centimeter in diameter. The dots were in clusters connected by red lines.

[Ceiling Showing Connected Stars]

In the middle was "Shibien", the North Pole, with what was known to ancient Chinese as the "Purple Palace". This association consists of the crosspiece (Alpha UMi, "Center of the Heavens"), the emperor (5 UMi), the empress (FGW Struve 1694), the crown prince (Beta UMi), and the bastard child (4 UMi). Also present were the four protecting ministers (51H Cep, 2 Cep, 39H Cep, and a still unknown corresponding star). Circling this realm of "Tentei" (emperor) were the 28 "shuku" (moon "mansions") in a more or less ecliptic hugging arrangement similar to that known in China more than 2000 years before the tomb was made.

[Representation of the Ceiling Moon Stations]
Moon Stations with lines connecting stars can be seen on the ceiling of Takamatsu Zuka Kofun

As the name implies, "shuku" were associations of stars where the moon was said to reside each night in its trip around the earth. Each shuku had a reference star through which imaginary lines from north to south poles could be drawn to delineate areas of the sky. Used in astrology and divination, the "shuku" were divided into four groups of seven, each group corresponding to one of the four cardinal directions. Though the particular stars chosen for both reference and associations within "shuku" underwent minor change, most retained a relatively consistent form through dynastic upheaval and diffusion to Korea and Japan. They were as familiar to Asian astrologers as zodiacal signs were (and are) to Western counterparts. Such were the "shuku" found in Takamatsu Zuka Kofun.

Moving around the ceiling, from east to north to west to south, familiar patterns emerge to Western eyes. In the East Palace of the Azure Dragon, portions of Virgo, Libra, Scorpio and Sagittarius can be seen. Moving to the North Palace of the Black Tortoise, the eastern "dipper" of the Sagittarius teapot is easily visualized followed by portions of Capricorn and Aquarius. The last two stations of the North are recognizable as the square of Pegasus. In the West Palace of the White Tiger, a "slipper" can be seen made from stars of Andromeda and including M31. Moving past two stations in Aries, the next "shuku" are respectively the easily recognizable Pleiades, Hyades, Maissa, and stars centered around Orion's belt.

The intrusion which destroyed what was probably the Red Bird of the South also obliterated much of the "shuku" related to that direction. Still, one can see bits of the seven stations. Completing the circle are a "well" made of the "lower" portion of Gemini followed by associations in Cancer, Hydra, Crater, and Corvus.

Mystery still surrounds Takamatsu Zuka Kofun [see The Controversy Continues]. Only a few scholars knew of the tomb's existence in the Edo era (1603-1867), and most believed it was that of the emperor Monbu. Modern excavation revealed no inscription, and Monbu's tomb was later determined to be to the East. Tombs similar to "Tall Pine Ancient Burial Mound" have been found in both China and Korea, and the period in which the tomb was constructed was also one in which scholars from Korea had been invited to the royal court. Who was buried in Takamatsu Zuka Kofun? Was it an emperor or royal prince? Or could it have been someone else, perhaps a scholar or "astronomer" from Korea spurning a return to turmoil in his own country and finding a new home in Japan, that was given this "celestial" burial?

Regardless of who was buried there, Takamatsu Zuka Kofun is one of the few known sites in Japan with a record of ancient views of the heavens. While the tomb is sealed from public view, full scale models with remarkable fidelity can be seen and "crawled through" in the museum near the tomb's Asuka site as well as the Nara Exhibition Hall for History which is located above Kintetsu station in that city.


Hara, M. (1989) Seiza no Bunkashi (Cultural History of Constellations). Tamagawa Sensho, Tokyo.

Hirose, H. (1975) Nihonjin no Tenmon Kan (The Japanese View of Astronomy). NHK Books, Tokyo.

Nojiri, H. (1994) Nihon Seimei Jiten (A Dictionary of Japanese Names for Stars). Tokyo Dou Shuppan, Tokyo.

Sugaya, F. (1994) Nihon no Kodai Iseki (Ancient Japanese Ruins) Vol. 7, Nara Asuka. Hoikusha, Osaka.

Uno, S. et al (1991) Nihon Zenshi (Japan Chronik). Kodansha, Tokyo.

Watanabe, T. (1987) Kinsei Nihon Tenmon Gakushi (A View of Japanese History of Astronomy in Modern Times) Vol II: Techniques of Observation. Koseisha Kosaikaku, Tokyo.

Discussion (in English) of "shuku" as well as similar burial sites in China may be found in E. C. Krupp's two fine volumes:

Krupp, E. E. (1983) Echoes of the Ancient Skies: Astronomy of Lost Civilizations. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Krupp, E. C. (1991) Beyond the Blue Horizon: Myths and Legends of the Sun, Moon, Stars, and Planets. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Please send comments to

Steven L. Renshaw

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