36|Part 2 of — 2 Jyoko-To (上古刀)

Chapter 36 is a continued and detailed part of chapter 2.  Please read chapter 2 before this section.  Refer 2 | Joko-to (上古刀)

timeline Yamato
                                     The red circle indicates the time we discuss this section.

Kofun (古墳) culture appeared around 4 to 6 century.  Kofun is a huge burial place for the powerful ruler at the time.  They are often called Zenpo-Koen-Fun (前方後円墳) that is, the front is square and the back is round shape.  If you look at it from the sky, it shapes like a keyhole.  The largest one is the Ninntoku Tenno Ryo (仁徳天皇陵) in Osaka, the tomb for Emperor Nintoku.  The length is 480M X 305M.  The height is 35M.  Inside the Kofun, we found swords, armors, bronze mirrors, jewelry, iron, metal tools.  Sometimes, iron itself.  The iron was only for the ruling class since it was considered very precious item then.  Outskirts of the Kofun, a large number of Haniwa*¹ were placed.  It is said they are for the retaining wall purpose or a dividing line for the sacred area.  Originally they were just a simple tube shape, eventually, it became very elaborate figurines.  Smiling people, smiling soldier, a dog with a bell around its neck, a female with hat, farmers, houses, monkey, ships, birds, etc.  Some of them are made very elaborately and very cute.  By looking at them, you realize people in those days wore elaborate clothes.  Haniwa is very popular among children in Japan.  We have a children’s TV program “Haniwa-kun”, Haniwa is the main character of the TV program.  Haniwa suggests to us what was their lifelike.  Their facial expression is all happy and smiling.   According to the old Japanese history book Nihon Shoki (日本書紀), it said Haniwa is the replacement of martyrdom, but it is not proved.

From another huge Kofun in Osaka, Ogonzuka Kofun (黄金塚古墳), we found a sword. Refer 2 | Joko-to (上古刀).  The writing below is from my old college days note.  The hilt of the sword was made in Japan and the blade was made in China.  This sword has a round hilt and on this hilt, it shows some character.  It said “中平 {?}年”.  The third letter is not readable.  But we know 中平 is from 184 to 189 AD, and “年” indicates the year, therefore it was made between 184 to 189.  And this sword came out from the 4th Century tomb.    The professor explained to us how to determine when a particular bronze mirror was made by reading the half disappearing character on the back of it.  Also, he explained to us that a large number of nested Doutaku*²  was excavated from one particular place, fit inside one another.  Doutaku is a musical instrument for a ritual.  Therefore scholars think people then were being attacked by their enemy, so they hid Doutaku in a hurry and escaped.

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


Sitting Shrine Maiden,  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

                        *2滋賀県野洲市小篠原字大岩山出土_突線紐5式銅鐸Doutaku   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.

timeline Jomon

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

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

timeline Yayoi

Around 300 B.C. Yayoi culture replaced the Jomon culture.  Yayoi characteristics show on their earthenwares.  They are rounder, smoother, simpler design, and the techniques were greatly improved after Jomon time.  They were named Yayoi culture because the items of this time were found in the Yayoi-Cho area (name of the place) near Tokyo University.  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 making their own bronze items in the late Yayoi period.  Although iron artifacts were hardly discovered, we have the evidence that the iron objects also existed then.


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) who was a shamanism priestess.  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 long sword (5 feet long).  Today, we still don’t know exactly where Yamataikoku was located.  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 where Yamataikoku really existed.

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

timeline Yamato

At the end of the Yayoi period, Japan was divided by 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 have enormous tombs called Kofun  (古墳) built 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 together are objects like armor, mirror, iron tools, and jewelry inside of the Kofun.  Outside of Kofun, it was a common practice to place Haniwa (clay figurine).   Those Haniwa are smiling people, animals, houses, and soldiers wearing swords and sometimes simple tubes shape Haniwa (埴輪).  We think they placed Haniwa as a retaining wall purpose.   Judging from the writings on the back of mirrors and swords, people were using Kanji (Japanese characters) around 5 to 6th century.

3 Japanese_straight_sword_KofunHilts 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

Asuka (飛鳥) period         593 —710

timeline Asuka

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.  His face 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 name of the Emperor, location, and numbers.  The number indicates the number of years the particular emperor was enthroned.  Those were all straight shape swords.

Nara (奈良) period        710 —794

timeline Nara

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 shape of the hilt resembles warabi whose stem curls up at the top.

warabite tachi

*2 The photo is from Creative common from word online pictures

Reference (photo)                                                                                                               *1Hilts 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.