Kofun Tombs

Peculiar Keyholes!

I like tombs. I think they’re fascinating and often times mysterious, somehow tickling a morbid curiosity with death and the afterlife that I don’t doubt occupy the minds of most humans from time to time. This week I thought it would be interesting to explore some of the more mystifying tombs that exist on our planet (and potentially others!), the Kofun tombs of Japan.

During the 4th, 5th and 6th century Kofun period of Japan, a series of over 100 tumuli were erected to house the remains of Japanese royal family members in the Osaka prefecture alone, and over 160,000 were discovered worldwide as of 2001, stretching all the way to South Korea. The most unique feature of these tombs are their shapes which were typically constructed in the form of a megalithic earthen keyhole, sometimes surrounded by a moat. Nobody knows exactly why this is the common shape that was chosen, however it is believed that the initial plans for these tombs were circular, but the flat keyhole shape allowed for builders to access the man-made island from land.


Image Courtesy of NASA Earth Observatory

Kofun-style tombs are especially interesting to me because of how little we know about them and their contents. Unlike the Pyramids, the vast majority of Kofun tombs remain unexplored, including the Daisen Kofun (5th Century) – the largest of the Mozu Kofungun which spans nearly 500 meters and has a circumference of 2.8km. This particular Kofun was built by an estimated 2,000 people over a period of nearly 20 years. It is speculated that the Daisen Kofunhouses the remains of Nintoku, the legendary 16th Emperor of Japan. The Daisen Kofun, along with other tombs as well, are also thought to contain many common items found in excavated tombs of other cultures such as pottery, weapons, jewelry, and other symbols of prosperity.

Left: Daisen Kofun (5th Century) Photo Copyright of National Land Image Information
Right: Toyohara Chikanobu Detail of Emperor Nintoku, Woodblock Print (1838-1912) 

The primary reason for the ban on excavating these sites lies chiefly within sanctions imposed by the Japanese Imperial Housing Agency (Government agency that handles housing and gravesites of the Imperial Families) as well as UNESCO’s designation of many of these tombs as world heritage sites. Another cause for this is rooted in Japanese culture. Reverence for grave sites, Yomi (the Japanese concept of the afterlife), and traditionalism are three major qualities of Japanese society that also contribute to the preservation of these sacred tombs.

While I don’t put too much personal stock in the entertainment of extra-terrestrial theories, I thought it would be fun to mention the fact that there has been a connection made between these keyhole like structures on Earth with a similar shape found on Mars, leading to the belief that these tumuli are somehow connected to an extra-terrestrial race of some sort.


Photo Courtesy of USGS

I admittedly have a selfish hope that someday we will be allowed to respectfully and legally explore these unique tombs, as they are so uniquely shaped and aesthetically different from so many other grave sites. I can only imagine what the inside is like until then.

I think I’m going to continue a small series of posts about tombs. Having a specified focus helps me feel less overwhelmed when it comes to decision making, and the more energy I put into challenging myself, no matter how insignificant it may be, the less challenged I feel by life and the tough circumstances that we’re facing right now. I hope everyone is staying safe, keep reading and keep thinking!

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