35|Part 2 of — 2 Joko-To (上古刀)

Chapter 35 is a continued  part of chapter 2 | Joko-to (上古刀).  Please read chapter 2 before this section. 

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                             The red circle indicates the time we discuss this section.

The Kofun (古墳) culture appeared around the 4th, 5th, and 6th centuries.  Kofuns are massive burial places for powerful rulers.  Kofuns are often Zenpo-koen-fun (前方後円墳) which is, the front part is a square and the back is round.  If you look at it from the sky, it shapes like a keyhole.  The largest Kofun is the Nintoku Tenno Ryo (仁徳天皇陵) in Osaka.  This is the tomb of Emperor Nintoku.  The size is 480 m X 305 m, and the height is 35 m. Inside the Kofun, we found swords, armors, bronze mirrors, jewelry, iron, and metal tools.  Sometimes, iron itself was found.  Only the ruling class possessed the iron since it was considered a very precious item then.  Outskirts of the Kofun, a large number of Haniwa*¹ were placed.  There are several theories for the purpose of Haniwa.  One is as a retaining wall, and another is as a dividing line between the sacred area and the common area.  And there are several more theories. 

Originally, Haniwa were just simple tube shape.  Eventually, they became interesting clay figurines such as smiling people, smiling soldiers, dogs with a bell around the neck, women with a hat, farmers, houses, monkeys, ships, birds, etc.  Some of them were very elaborately made and very cute.  From the looks of them, people in those days seem to have been wearing elaborate clothes.  The Haniwa figurines are very popular among children in Japan.  We use to have a children’s TV program, a Haniwa is the main character. 

Haniwas suggest to us what people’s life was like then.  Their facial expressions are all happy and smiling.   According to the old Japanese history book, “Nihon Shoki” (日本書紀: The oldest Japanese history book completed during the Nara period.), Haniwas were the replacement of martyrdom, but it hasn’t been proven.

From another huge Kofun, Ogonzuka Kofun (黄金塚古墳) in Osaka, they found a sword and bronze mirrors, among other items. Refer 2 | Joko-to (上古刀).  The writing below is from my college day notebook.   

The professor explained how to determine the time a particular item had been made by reading half-disappeared characters on the items such as a bronze mirror or a sword.  For example, there was a sword, the hilt of it was made in Japan, and the blade was made in China.  It had a round hilt and, on it, showed some Chinese characters.  It said, “中平[ ]年.”   The third letter was not legible.  But we knew 中平 year was between 184 to 189 AD, and “年” indicated “year.”  Therefore it was made sometime between 184 to 189.  And this sword came out from the 4th-century tomb. 

Also, he explained that many nested Doutaku (銅鐸)*²  had been excavated from many places.  They were nested inside one another.  Doutaku was a musical instrument for rituals.  Therefore, scholars believe that the people then hid Doutaku in a hurry and escaped quickly when they were being attacked by their enemies.

In many countries, excavation may be time-consuming, tedious work, and often takes a long time to find anything.  But in Japan, it is not as hard as in other countries.   We often find things.  It may not be what you are looking for, but we excavate artifacts quite often.


Sitting Shrine Maiden*1,  Owned by National Museum.  This photo is public domain            腰かける巫女(群馬県大泉町古海出土)国立博物館蔵
                   滋賀県野洲市小篠原字大岩山出土_突線紐5式銅鐸Doutaku*2   Excavated from Shiga Prefecture   Displayed at Tokyo National Museum The public domain photo 滋賀県野洲市小篠原字大岩屋出土突線紐5式銅鐸  東京国立博物館展示

2 | Joko-to (上古刀)

Joko-to means swords made before the Heian period.  Joko-to is not part of the sword study.  The sword study starts from the Heian Period.  Joko-to is in the category of the archaeological field.

Jomon (縄文) period     9000 B.C.

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The Jomon period goes back to 9000 B.C.  This is the time of Paleolithic and Neolithic times. The characteristic of the time was the rope design (Jomon 縄文) on their earthenware. 

We found a stone sword made during this time.  This is one-piece, approximately 27 to 31 inches (70 to 80 cm) long.  This is not a Neolithic type scraper.  This stone sword was made for ceremonial purposes.

Yayoi (弥生) period        300B.C to 300A.D (approximately)

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Around 300 B.C., the Yayoi culture replaced the Jomon culture.  Yayoi culture characteristics show on their earthenwares.  They were a rounder, smoother, simpler design, and the techniques were much improved since the Jomon time.  They were named Yayoi culture because the objects of this time were unearthed in the Yayoi-cho area (name of the place) near Tokyo University in Tokyo.  They also discovered bronze artifacts such as a bronze sword (Doken 銅剣), bronze pike (Do-hoko 銅矛), bronze mirrors (Do-kyo 銅鏡), bronze musical instruments (Do-taku 銅鐸).  Those were imported from China and Korea, but the Japanese started to make their bronze items in the late Yayoi period.  Although iron artifacts were hardly discovered, it is said that we have evidence that the iron objects also already existed then.


It is said that according to the Chinese history book, “Gishi Wajinden” (魏志倭人伝), around 300 A.D., there was a country called Yamataikoku (邪馬台国) that controlled about 30 small domains in Japan.  The head of the country was a female figure called Himiko (卑弥呼), a shamanism maiden.  She sent a messenger to the Chinese dynasty in 239 A.D., and she was given the title as the head of Japan (親魏倭王), a bronze mirror, and a longsword (5 feet long).  Today, we still don’t know exactly loction of the  Yamataikoku.  This Chinese history book “Gishi Wajinden” (魏志倭人伝) explains how to get Yamataikoku, but if we follow the book’s directions exactly, we end up in the middle of the ocean, south of Kyushu (九州).  We still have a big debate over the precise location of Yamataikoku.

Yamato (大和) period        300 A.D. — 593 A.D

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At the end of the Yayoi period, Japan was divided into small domains.  These domains were reigned by local clans called Go-zoku(豪族).  Around 400 A.D. most powerful Go-zoku united the country and named it Yamato-chotei (大和朝廷).  This is the first Japanese imperial court, the origin of the current Japanese Imperial family. They were very powerful to be able to build the enormous tombs called Kofun (古墳) for themselves.  In one of the famous kofun, Ogonzuka Kofun (黄金塚古墳) in Osaka, we found swords among other things.  The hilt of the sword was made in Japan, while the blades were made in China.  On the surface of the hilt, they depicted the design of a house.  The other objects we found from the Kofun were objects like armors, mirrors,  iron tools, and jewelry.                                                                                                Outside of the kofun, it was a common practice to place Haniwa (clay figurine).   Those Haniwa were smiling people, animals, houses, soldiers wearing swords, and sometimes simple tubes shaped Haniwa (埴輪).  We think they placed Haniwa as a retaining wall purpose or a dividing line for the sacred area.  Judging from the writings on the back of mirrors and swords, people used Kanji (Japanese characters) around the 5 to 6th century.

Asuka (飛鳥) period         593 —710

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At the end of the Yamato period, after a long power struggle, Shotoku Taishi (聖徳太子) became a regent in 593 (beginning of the Asuka period).  Shotoku Taishi established the political system and set up the first Japanese constitution (憲法17条).  He protected and encouraged Buddhism and built the Horyuji temple (法隆寺) in Nara.  The face of Shotoku Taishi had been on 10,000 yen bills for a long time.  During the Asuka time, we see Kanto Tachi (環頭太刀).  The shape of the hilt had a ring shape.   Kan (環) means ring and To (頭) means head.  Also, on the ring shape hilt, we see some inscriptions, such as the Emperor’s name, location, and numbers.  The number indicates the number of years the particular emperor was enthroned.  Those were all straight shape swords.

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Hilts of Japanese straight sword, Kofun Period circa 600 AD.   From Wikipedia Commons, the free media repository.  This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Nara (奈良) period        710 —794

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In 710, the capital city was moved to Nara, called Heijo-kyo (平城京).  The shape of Joko-to was straight, usually 25 inches (60 –70 cm) long.  They were suspended from the waist belt.  Some swords came from China, and others were made in Japan.  Many swords were found from Kofun and Shoso-in (正倉院) during the Nara period.  Shoso-in is a storage building where belongings of Shomu Emperor (聖武天皇) were stored.  Among those items, 55 swords were found there.  Those swords were called Warabite-Tachi. Warabi (Bracken) is the name of an edible wild plant that grows in Japan.  These swords were called Warabite-tachi because the hilt’s shape resembles warabi, whose stem curls up at the top.

warabite tachi

                        The photo is from Creative common from word online pictures