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 are megalithic tombsmarker or tumuli in Japanmarker, constructed between early 3rd century and early 7th century. They gave their name to the Kofun period (middle 3rd century - early-middle 6th century). Most of the Kofun have a keyhole-shaped mound ( ), which is unique to ancient Japan.


The kofun tumuli have taken various shapes through history. The most common type of kofun is known as a , which has a shape of a keyhole, having one square end and one circular end, when looked down upon from above. There are also circular type ( ), "two conjoined rectangles" type ( ), and square type ( ) kofun. Orientation of kofun is not specified. For example, in the Saki Kofun group, all of circular parts are looking toward the north, but there is no such formation in the Yanagimoto kofun group. Haniwa, terracotta figures were arrayed above and in the surroundings to delimit and protect the sacred area.

Kofun range in size from several meters to over 400m in length. The largest kofun is Daisen kofun in Sakai City, Osaka Prefecture, which has been attributed to be the tomb of the Emperor Nintokumarker.

The funeral chamber was located beneath the round part and consisted of a group of megaliths. In 1972 unlooted Takamatsuzuka Tomb was found in Asuka and some details were revealed. Inside the tightly assembled rocks, white lime cement plasters were pasted and drawn colored pictures depicting the court or constellations. Stone coffin was placed in the chamber and accessories, swords and bronze mirrors were laid inside and outside of the coffin.

Development history

Yayoi period

Most of the tombs of chiefs in the Yayoi period were square-shaped mounds surrounded by ditches. The most notable example in the late Yayoi period is Tatetsuki Mound Tomb in Kurashiki, Okayama. The mound is about 45 meters wide and 5 meters high, has a shaft chamber. Broken pieces of Tokushu-kidai, cylindrical earthenwares were excavated around the mound.

Another prevailing type of Yayoi period tombs is Yosumi tosshutsugata funkyûbo, square mounds whose four corners protruding outward. These tombs were built in the San'in region, coastal area of the Sea of Japan. Unearthed articles indicate the existence of alliances between native tribes in the region.

Early Kofun period

One of the first keyhole-shaped kofun was built in the Makimuku area, the southeastern part of the Nara Basin. Hashihaka Kofun, which was built in the middle of the 3rd century, is 280 meters long and 30 meters high. Its scale is obviously different from previous Yayoi tombs. During the next three decades, about 10 kofun were built in the area, which are now called as the Makimuku Kofun Group. A wooden coffin placed on the bottom of a shaft, and the surrounding walls were built up by flat stones. Finally megalithic stones placed as a roof. Bronze mirrors, iron swords, magatama, clay vessels and other artifacts were found in good condition in undisturbed tombs. Some scholars assume the buried person of Hashihaka kofun was the shadowy ancient Queen Himiko of Yamataikoku, mentioned in the Chinese history texts. According to the books, Japan was called Wa, which was the confederation formed by numerous small tribes or countries. The construction of gigantic kofun is the result of the relatively centralized governance structure in the Nara Basin, possibly the origin of the Yamato polity and the Imperial linage of Japan.

Mid-Kofun period

The trend of keyhole kofun first spread from Yamato Province to Kawachi, where gigantic kofun such as Daisen Kofun of the Emperor Nintoku were built, and then throughout the country (except for the Tōhoku regionmarker) in the 5th century.The spreading of keyhole kofun is generally assumed to be evidence of the Yamato court's expansion in this age. However, some argue that it simply shows the spreading of culture based on progress in distribution, and has little to do with political breakthrough. In recent years, as South Korea became more affluent after years of war and hardship, they started to allocate more resources into archeology and keyhole tombs were found in areas of ancient Gaya confederacy. These keyhole tombs discovered so far on the Korean peninsula were built from the 5th to the 6th century. Whether the Gaya keyhole tomb was due to a local chieftain influenced by Japanese culture or for a Japanese immigrant is debated. "Still now, many Korean and Japanese scholars have concentrated on the issue of who are the owners of the keyhole-shaped tombs in Korean peninsula."

Keyhole-shaped kofun disappeared in late 6th century, probably because of the drastic reformation in the Yamato court, where Nihon Shoki records the introduction of Buddhism during this era.

Late Kofun period

Recent research

The Imperial Household Agencymarker designates 740 kofun as the tomb of ancient imperial family membersand their relatives, although the accuracy of the designation has been disputed. These kofun are not opento the public, including archaeologists. Academic societies repeatedly petitioned for archaeological surveys of kofun for years, and in March 2008 the Agency permitted limited investigation of Gosashi Kofun which is designated as the tomb of Empress Jingū.

Aerial photos of the notable kofun groups

Image:Oyamato Yanagimoto kofun group.jpg|Oyamato, Yanagimoto and Makimuku Kofun Group, Nara Prefecture, 3rd centuryImage:Sakitatanamikofungun.jpg|Saki Tatanami Kofun Group and the Heijō-kyōmarker site, Nara Prefecture, 4th centuryImage:Furuichi kofun group.jpg|Furuichi Kofun Group, Osaka Prefecture, 5th century

Restriction of access to Gosashi

In 1976 Japan stopped all foreign archeologists from studying the Gosashi tomb which is supposed to be the resting place of Empress Jingū. Prior to 1976 foreigners did have access. In 2008, Japan allowed limited access to foreign archeologists, but the international community still has many unanswered questions. National Geographicmarker wrote that Japan "has kept access to the tombs restricted, prompting rumors that officials fear excavation would reveal bloodline links between the "pure" imperial family and Koreamarker." Experts still hope Japan will be more forthright in the future and see this limited access as the first step in the right direction. These controversies make interpretation of the Nihongi, Book of Song/Sui and Samguk Sagi inconclusive and until further analysis of restricted tombs and artifacts are evaluated, it is difficult to draw conclusions.


  • 飛鳥高松塚 (Takamatsuzuka, Asuka), 橿原考古学研究所編, 明日香村, 1972.
  • 前方後円墳 (Keyhole-shaped kofun), 上田宏範, 学生社, 東京, 1969.
  • 前方後円墳と古代日朝関係 (Keyhole-shaped kofun and diplomatic relations between ancient Japan and Korea), 朝鮮学会編, 東京, 同成社, 2002.

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