by Laura Miller
On July 6, 2019 it was announced that UNESCO had added 49 tombs in Japan to the World Heritage list. Called kofun, these earthen tumuli were constructed from the beginning of the 3rd century. There are several kofun shapes, the most distinctive being the keyhole shape. More than 161,000 kofun sites have been identified throughout Japan, and numerous intact sites have been excavated.

  However, kofun designated as belonging to ancestors of the imperial family are off limits to archaeologists. Even so, a few kofun not designated as under the jurisdiction of the imperial household were excavated and later determined by scholars to have most likely been the tombs of rulers. One notable type of artifact associated with kofun burial mounds are clay figures called haniwa. Haniwa were formed into the shapes of people, animals, tools, musical instruments, and dwellings. They were placed on the outside perimeter of the kofun.

Leading up to the UNESCO announcement civic leaders in Osaka created a mascot known as Haniwa Kachō (Section Chief Haniwa), and kofun-related merchandise started to appear in shops everywhere. Haniwa Kachō is often shown with an image of Japan’s largest keyhole-shaped kofun named Daisenryō Kofun. It is an enormous three-tiered tomb built in the 5th century, spanning an area larger than the Great Pyramid of Giza. Although customarily designated as the tomb of Emperor Nintoku (who may be a mythological figure) by the imperial household, that is merely conjecture. Promotion of the UNESCO listed kofun led to an increase in kofun and haniwa themed merchandise. 

During my fieldwork in the Kansai area of Japan in Fall 2019, I found things such as haniwa decorated soap, kofun-shaped pillows, and kofun-shaped curry rice.