Takamatsu Zuka Kofun
The Controversy Continues

By Steve Renshaw

Supplement to Takamatsu Zuka Kofun, added April, 1997

What is so significant about Takamatsu Zuka Kofun is the fact that it clearly shows the influence of Chinese and Korean astrology and divination on Japan in the Asuka Era. The discovery of the tomb created much excitement throughout Japan in 1972, and a panel of Japanese archaeologists and historians held a symposium in Asuka Village on March 21, 1997 to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the tomb's discovery. At issue were the same controversial questions which have been raised since its discovery in 1972:

1. When exactly was the tomb constructed?
2. Who was buried in the tomb?

The significance and implication of answers to these questions basically concern determination of the tomb's "place" within a period of great change in Japan. The Asuka Era was a period in which the great "key hole" shaped tombs with their array of "Haniwa" pottery gave way to much smaller and decorative construction. It was a time of both positive and negative interaction with China and Korea. It was also a period in which power became centralized in the Yamato plain partly due to the regulation of rice cultivation and also to the use of social techniques to balance an infusion of Buddhist and Confucian principles with the more native "gods" and practices of Shinto. Archaeoastronomically, it is in this period that one can see an almost haphazard north-south alignment of tombs and other structures in the Asuka area of the Yamato plain give way to more precise geomancy, readily evident as one moves historically forward in time and geographically further north toward Nara and Kyoto. Significantly, the "inhabitant" of Takamatsu Zuka Kofun was placed within a "universe" which reflected a Chinese infused "cosmology" and myth precisely linking heaven with earth. If the tomb's occupant were of imperial or at least Japanese lineage, this would provide evidence that such a "cosmology" may have been accepted and relatively firmly in place in Japan at the time of the tomb's construction. On the other hand, if the occupant were an envoy or "exchange" scholar from China or Korea, such a "cosmology" might only have been the "universe" of this one "foreign" individual.

In short, symposium participants sought answers to questions which could provide additional evidence for understanding the transformation which occurred when "foreign" ideas and technology became part of the Japanese "psyche", a transformation that led to a huge "burst" of unique and creative adaptation of Chinese principles so evident in the later Nara and Heian eras of Japan. Unfortunately, the panel of scholars did little to resolve questions. If anything, they showed that the list of "candidates" for the tomb's occupant has grown rather than shrunk in the past 25 years (now to over 50). With regard to the date of the tomb's construction, research was reported regarding the tomb painter's use of white lead based pigment; analysis of similarity between the tomb's decorative metal fittings and artifacts found at the San Gatsu Dou (March Hall) in Nara's Todaiji temple complex was also presented. Both reports tend to give weight to a post-700 A.D. date for the tomb's construction. However, it was pointed out by one historian that the occupant was not cremated but rather buried "full body", a fact which he claimed supported a pre-700 A.D. date for the tomb's construction. [Given the variety of contemporaneous practices in China and Korea, I'm not sure this burial "behavior" would necessarily preclude a later date even though cremation and use of much smaller tombs for "royalty" did become the more common practice in early 8th century Japan]. At any rate, definitive answers regarding the tomb's occupant and date seem somewhat more elusive now than they did 25 years ago, even given the additional accumulation of "evidence".

There are other mounds in the Kinki area which, if excavated, might shed more light on questions and issues related to Takamatsu Zuka Kofun. Unfortunately, archaeological investigation in Japan is a somewhat complex matter. While it was reported in 1996 that fiber optic probes indicate that a similar tomb with similar paintings may be nearby, archaeologists are awaiting purchase by the city of Asuka from the land's present owner before excavation can begin.

Such complication is true of many sites in Japan. Several ancient tombs remain untouched because they are still considered to be under the sacred protection of the imperial family. Other intact sites, some of which may have significant archaeoastronomical impact, remain unexcavated because archaeologists are now having to spend virtually every resource rescuing less archaeologically rich but nonetheless valuable sites from highway and urban development (up to 1000 "rescues" per year as reported in archaeological literature). They do this in hopes that the perhaps richer intact sites will remain for future exploration.

Please send comments to

Steven L. Renshaw

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