Reconstructed Jōmon structures.

The Jōmon Culture

Jōmon — Japan's Earliest Known Culture

Possibly as early as 40,000–50,000 BCE, but anything before 35,000 BCE is very tentative after the Japanese paleolithic hoax was exposed in November 2000.

The first people arrived in Japan around 35,000 years ago, walking south from far eastern Siberia. A lot of water was in the form of ice in glaciers. That lowered the sea level to the point that Hokkaido, Japan's large northern island, was connected to Sakhalin, now an island running along the coast of Russia, and that was connected to the Asian mainland. And, the strait between Hokkaido and the then-connected other main islands of Japan was very narrow, or possibly closed.

Those people were highly mobile hunter-gatherers. Around 14,000 BCE they established what is now called the Jōmon culture. They were still primarily hunter-gatherers, but they had established some early agriculture practices. And, they settled in locations with plentiful food sources and formed sizeable communities.

"Jōmon" means "cord-marked", describing their distinctive form of pottery. It's among the earliest pottery in the world, if not the very oldest. Later they developed the world's first known lacquerware. They also created figures of now unknown ritual or religious purpose.

The Sannai-Maruyama Site on the edge of Aomori is the largest Jōmon settlement discovered in Japan. It was occupied roughly 3900–2200 BCE. It's walking distance from the Shin-Aomori Station.

Map of Japan at the Last Glacial Maximum in the Late Pleistocene about 20,000 years ago, from, originally from Davison A, Chiba S, Barton NH, Clarke B. (2005) 'Speciation and Gene Flow between Snails of Opposite Chirality' (in English). PLoS Biology 3 (9, e282). doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0030282

Japan at the Last Glacial Maximum during the Late Pleistocene about 20,000 years ago: orange = above sea level, white = unvegetated. Thin black lines show current coastlines. From a paper in PLoS Biology.

The Jōmon period was enormously long, roughly 14,000 to 300 BCE. Of course it evolved through its nearly 14,000 years of development, and archaeologists and anthropologists divide it into several phases, but there were common threads throughout. Primarily the dependence on hunting, fishing, and gathering of wild plants, plus limited forms of agriculture. But also their evolving styles of functional pottery and ritual objects.

Archaeology is dominated by models created by English and German men who were investigating early Greece and the lands described in the Bible. Terms such as "Middle East" and "Far East" only make sense if you're in Britain or northwestern Europe. Similarly, the terms "Stone Age", "Bronze Age", and "Iron Age" assume that specific progression of technologies. The time periods usually associated with them have to do with when those technologies were used in the area spanning Britain through Mesopotamia. Even in that limited region, there was a lot of variation.

The rest of the world doesn't necessarily follow that model. The Jōmon have been compared to cultures of the west coast of the Americas, especially of the Pacific Northwest. All of them had high cultural complexity supported by hunting, fishing, and gathering, with limited use of agriculture.

The timeline of Jōmon cultural development is:

13,000 BCE Settlements begin to form.
7,000 BCE Settlements become divided into areas with varying purposes.
5,000 BCE Settlement divisions diversity.
3,000 BCE Hub settlements appear.
2,000 BCE Ritual centers and burial grounds appear.
1,500 BCE Ritual centers become separated from burial grounds.

Getting to the Sannai-Maruyama Site

I walked from my hotel to Aomori Station and took a local train from there to Shin-Aomori Station, the Shinkansen station. From there it's a pleasant walk to the site.

The path leads through a cemetery.

Buddhist tombstones and memorials in Sannai Cemetery.

A classic Buddhist grave marker is a gorintō, a Five-Ringed Tower, a stone form of pagoda. The five segments are labeled with Sanskrit letters in the Siddhaṃ script representing the Buddhist cosmology. Jewel-shape or Space at the top, cube or Earth at the bottom. The five elements plus wisdom make up the universe. From top to bottom:

Shape Represents Siddhaṃ Japanese
Jewel Space 𑖏 / kha kuurin
Hemisphere Air 𑖮 / ha fuurin
Pyramid Fire 𑖣 / fa karin
Sphere Water 𑖪 / va suirin
Cube Earth 𑖀 / a chirin

Don't worry, this won't be on the test.

The mountains south of Aomori were visible in the distance, with snow remaining near their peaks in late April.

Buddhist tombstones and memorials in Sannai Cemetery.

There's a large white stupa in the classical design.

Large white stupa in Sannai Cemetery.

And, of course, a place to buy tombstones and monuments just beyond the south edge of the cemetery.

Buddhist tombstones and memorials in Sannai Cemetery.

Then you head downhill, past ramps on and off the expressway, and under the bridge carrying the Shinkansen line.

Bridge carrying the Shinkansen line.

The museum at the site entrance is a short distance beyond that.

Museum of Jōmon artifacts at the Sannai-Maruyama Site.

Jōmon Artifacts in the Museum

I had one full day in Tōkyō at the beginning of this trip. I started at Tōkyō Station, buying my Shinkansen ticket to Aomori. Then I went to the National Museum in Ueno Park to see the prehistoric archaeology collection, including many Jōmon artifacts. But the collection at the museum here at the site helped me further.

It started with a movie that, among other things, demonstrated what "cord-marked" really means. They initially formed the pottery with a smooth exterior surface. Then the artist would take a piece of coarsely wound cord, maybe 5–7 mm in diameter and a hand-width long, and place it against the wet clay surface. Move your hand back and forth to roll the cord against the pot, and you create the distinctive textures in the clay.

Jōmon period cord-marked pottery.

Here you can clearly see the cord-marking.

Jōmon period cord-marked pottery, detailed view.
Jōmon period cord-marked pottery, detailed view.

The Jōmon used animal bone and antlers to make many objects, including fishhooks and these needles.

Jōmon period bone needles.

The Jōmon made many human or at least humanoid figures, surely for some ritual or religious purpose that we don't understand. Below is an example found here. The best guess anthropologists can make are that the two upper protrusions on the body represent breasts, so it's a female, and therefore this has something to do with asking the gods for fertility and safety in childbirth. (Although that's a pretty standard interpretation of human figures, and ignores the equally prominent third protrusion.)

Jōmon period ritual figure.

Japan is a volcanic archipelago, so obsidian or volcanic glass is available in places. It's only found in certain locations, none in the immediate vicinity of the site, and its chemical make-up can vary. That led scientists to conclude that the Jōmon people had trade routes through Hokkaido and Honshū, and also between the islands. This black obsidian spearpoint is about 18 cm long.

Jōmon period obsidian spear point.
Jōmon period arrowheads.

They made arrow points from a variety of minerals. Some of the arrow points were obsidian.

Jōmon period obsidian arrowheads.

The Jōmon Settlement

A tunnel leads from the museum through a berm into the site. The settlement was built along Okidate-gawa, the Okidate River, which flows to the northeast through today's city of Aomori and empties into the harbor and thus into Mutsu Bay and the Tsugaru Strait.

Overview of the Jōmon settlement.

The site was first occupied around 3900 BCE as a seasonal camp. It gradually evolved into a continuously inhabited settlement, with a major structure design change around 2900 BCE. Food storage structures with elevated floors began to be built. Later, large six-column towers began to be built.

The settlement was abandoned around 2300-2200 BCE, probably because the local food sources could no longer support the growing population during a significant cooling trend.

There are several middens, the results of discarding items into a specific area.

Primitive Mythology: The Masks of God, Volume 1
Amazon 1608689034

Some middens, however, have been interpreted as being associated with a "sending away" ritual. Tools, weapons, and household items would be intentionally broken before being placed in these "sending away" areas.

This interpretation is based on an analogy to Ainu rituals performed into the 19th century CE for killed bears and deceased members of the community. For the people, the "sending away" includes personal items whose spirits would join those of the people, providing for them in the afterlife.

Joseph Campbell's Primitive Mythology describes the Ainu beliefs and rites, citing the "Ainus" article in the 1908–1926 Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics. (Volume 1, pages 239–252)

About 2,000 clay figures, tools, pieces of lacquerware and baskets, and other objects made from wood, bone, and antlers were found in the mounds containing ceremonial objects. There were also objects made from obsidian, jade, asphalt, and amber, all of which had to be obtained through trade.

Adults were buried in pits, infants were placed in jars before burial.

Overview of the Jōmon settlement.

Reconstructed dwellings and community structures are based on physical remains found here and elsewhere, accompanied by experiments of what does and does not work with the original materials found.

Wood decays, but the bases of columns were preserved because they were waterlogged by being embedded in the moist soil of the site. Chestnut trees were used as a source of both food and building material. The wood lasts in a wet environment.

Scientists have found evidence of over 500 pit dwellings across the site. This is after only about 40% of the site has been excavated, the rest preserved for possible future investigation.

The dwellings are based on shallow pits, about a meter deep, with vertical wooden supporting poles placed in holes, at least four for small dwellings, six or more in an elliptical shape for larger ones.

Reconstructed conical dwelling built from wood poles and bark pieces.

Some small dwellings, like the one seen above and below, are conical.

Reconstructed conical dwelling built from wood poles and bark pieces.

The perimeter of the cone is just outside the perimeter of the shallow pit, about three meters in diameter.

Entryway to conical structure built from wood poles and bark pieces.
Shallow pit and fire hearth within conical structure built from wood poles and bark pieces.

Some of the pottery was used for cooking, and was placed directly into the fire in the central hearth.

Other reconstructed dwellings, especially the larger elliptical ones, are based on a sturdy wooden frame with thinner poles lashed to it. Then bundles of thatch are lashed to this framework. Soil is allowed to accumulate, plants grow, and the structure becomes covered with turf. These are typically about 3×4 meters inside.

Reconstructed dwelling built from wood poles and thatch bundles, with turf growing over it.

The layers of turf over thatch provide good insulation.

Reconstructed dwelling built from wood poles and thatch bundles, with turf growing over it.
Entryway to dwelling with turf growing over it.
Entryway to dwelling with turf growing over it.

There isn't a vertical chimney, smoke leaves through openings just below the peak of the roof.

Interior of dwelling with turf growing over it.
View out through entryway of dwelling with turf growing over it.
Large structures covered with thatch.
Large structures covered with thatch.
Overview of Jōmon settlement.
Thatch-covered dwelling with turf growing over it.

Some structure locations have a regular array of larger support post holes, but no pit and no sign of a floor having been at ground level. These must have supported structures with elevated floors, like this one. There is evidence that food was stored in these elevated structures, which the residents started building after about 2900 BCE.

Large structure with floor elevated above ground level.

Here's a view into the interior.

View into large structure with floor elevated above ground level.

The most distinctive reconstruction at this site is the large six-column tower. There was a rectangular array of support holes for the six large vertical columns. They were significantly larger than any others, about a meter in diameter, and spaced precisely 4.2 meters apart. There was no pit or hearth remains associated with these columns. A watch tower? A beacon visible from Mutsu Bay? Something associated with rituals? No one knows. But it's big and would have been quite sturdy. And, there were others at the site, dating to different time periods.

Multiple large structures with floor elevated above ground level.

The structures here were largely built from Japanese chestnut trees, Castanea crenata. The Jōmon collected the nuts for food, and harvested some trees for building material.

Six-column three-deck structure.
Multiple large reconstructed Jōmon structures.
Six-column three-deck structure.

The largest reconstructed building was huge, 32 meters long and clearly a communal space. It's believed that large structures like this one were used for meeting places and workshops, and possibly some of them were subdivided into living spaces.

In these pictures we're in its pit. The black planks at the base of the wall go up to ground level. Then you see the interior of the vertical thatched wall. The roof slopes inward above that. There were holes for large support posts down either long side of the pit, around the ends, and two down the centerline.

Interior of the largest reconstructed communal structure, large columns, heavy beams, interior of thatch roof overhead, dirt floor.
Interior of the largest reconstructed communal structure, large columns, heavy beams, interior of thatch roof overhead, dirt floor.

It seems that the Jōmon usually made a small cleared space distinct from the hearth to serve as an altar or similar. It often held a small vertical stone. In a more cirular dwelling it would be opposite the doorway. In a more oval structure, it would be toward one end. The above circle of stones suggests such an altar-like space.

Interior of the largest reconstructed communal structure, large columns, heavy beams, interior of thatch roof overhead, dirt floor.

The scale is impressive!

Largest communal structure with six-pole three-deck tower behind it.

An humidified enclosure protects a trench, keeping it from drying out and crumbling. It shows how artifacts are found all down through the layers.

Preserved trench showing thick layer of discarded material.

You might want to jump ahead to my visit to the Seiryū-ji temple complex with its Great Buddha statue. Or, continue with the development of Japan after the Jōmon and my visit to the nearby Aomori Art Museum.

Then What Happened?

Jump to:
Seiryū-ji Temple Complex and the Great Buddha

The Yayoi people began arriving around 500 BCE, crossing the strait from the Korean peninsula to Japan's large southern island of Kyūshū. They brought a Japonic language and wet-rice agriculture from coastal China, an intensive form of cultivation. Physical anthropology shows that they were distinct people, with the Jōmon being slightly shorter with longer forearms and lower legs, and wider faces with more deep-set eyes and raised brows and noses.

The Yayoi spread north through Honshū, mixing with and soon overwhelming the Jōmon people.

The period from 300 to 538 CE is considered the Kofun period, when the large keyhole-shaped tombs were constructed. Cultural import continued from China via Korea. The sharp cutoff at 538 is when early records say that Buddhism and a Chinese form of writing arrived in Japan.

The Yayoi had also brought a religion mixing worship of ancestors and local spirits or deities now referred to as kami. That seems to have mixed with some shamanism and local spirit worship practiced by the Jōmon. Then when the first Japanese "histories" were written in the early 700s, the Kojiki and Nihongi, they combined the existing religion with various myths and the purported genealogy of the dominant local ruler into a codification of Shintō featuring the Emperor's direct descent from the gods.

Things evolved — real power was in the hand of local and regional warlords and the Emperor mostly stayed in the capital as the top Shintō priest. Eventually there was a national warlord or Shōgun and the Emperor was effectively cloistered in the palace. The Shōgun cut off most foreign contact.

Then, in 1853–1854, the U.S. Navy forced the Shōgun to open Japanese ports to U.S. and other western merchants. Confidence fell, and in 1868 the Meiji Restoration deposed the Shōgun and returned power to the Emperor. The Meiji Emperor, just 16 years old at the time and enthroned the year before, was placed in power. The capital was moved from Kyōto to Edo and its name changed to Tōkyō.

Shintō had blended with Buddhism over the centuries. They were separated, including an overall suppression of Buddhism and a revision of Shintō doctrine re-emphasizing the divine nature of the Emperor.

Emperor Meiji ruled until his death in 1912. His son and successor ruled as the Taishō Emperor. However, he had severe neurological problems and ended all official duties in 1919. In 1921 Taishō's son, Crown Prince Hirohito, was appointed Prince Regent and took power. Taishō went into seclusion and died in 1926.

A Japanese Emperor is named by his parents at birth. While ruling, he is referred to simply as "The Emperor". A name is selected for his reign, and that becomes his posthumous name. So, at least in Japan, he was named Hirohito, became The Emperor, and is now known as the Shōwa Emperor. But outside Japan, he's usually referred to as Hirohito.

Hirohito, born in 1901 and in power as Prince Regent since 1919, became Emperor in 1926. Influenced by the older government ministers, he supported the continuation of the Meiji era militarism. The invasion of Manchuria in 1931–1932 was followed by the beginning of the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937. That continued and expanded into the Second World War, which ended in August 1945.

The Allies allowed the office of Emperor to continue, but Hirohito had to deliver what was called the Humanity Declaration. That was intended to put an end to what the Allies called "State Shintō" and the official view of the divinity of the Emperor. It was recorded and broadcast multiple times over radio, astounding the Japanese public who had never seen or heard the Emperor.

It was in extremely formal and archaic Imperial court Japanese. The Japanese people themselves couldn't make much sense of it. Differences in the Japanese and western concepts of "god" and the elaborate and archaic wording led to it not being the denial of divinity found in the English translation. But it was January 1946 and everyone was anxious to recover from the war. "Close enough", MacArthur decided.

Hirohito ruled until his death in 1989, the longest reign of any Emperor of Japan. His son Akihito didn't take the throne until he was 55 years old. He abdicated in 2019, and was succeeded by his son, Naruhito.

So, until 1989 we were effectively only two Emperors past the Meiji Restoration. Things changed significantly then, with Akihito having publicly stated while Crown Prince that the position of Emperor was like being a robot, and he had no interest in any god-like nature of the Imperial line. He had been the first Emperor to marry a commoner, he visited all 47 prefectures and many of the remote islands, and he made numerous statements of remorse for Japan's aggression and behavior toward civilian populations during World War II. Things were clearly post-Meiji.

The younger generations in Japan seem to have agreed with Akihito and Naruhito. Scientific investigation of prehistoric cultures in Japan is no longer discouraged or even forbidden, and the public is interested in the new discoveries. Science is good — before taking the throne, Akihito published 30 papers in Ichthyological Research on the taxonomy of the Gobiidae family of fish. After taking the throne, he published papers on the history of science in Japan in both Nature and Science.

The Sannai-Maruyama Site was known at least vaguely during the Edo period, before the Meiji Restoration of 1868. Travel journals spoke of old pottery fragments and clay figures.

As for modern scientific investigations, there were minor excavations in 1953–1967 and 1976–1987. However, especially during the first of those periods, there was a taboo about any discussion, let alone scientific research, that would contradict the myths of Japan's origins and the Emperor's descent from the creator gods.

The full extent of this site was discovered in 1992, when the local government was looking for a site to build a baseball stadium and the newly enthroned Emperor had made it clear that he didn't believe or support the ancient origin myths.

By that time, artists were already making new ceramics in the Jōmon style. In the following ten to twenty years the Jōmon cord-marking pattern became popular on clothing and accessories. Jōmon exhibitions at museums have been surprisingly popular.

The Art Museum

The Aomori Art Museum is a short walk beyond the Jōmon site. It's largely built below ground level, referencing the pit dwellings of the Jōmon.

Exterior of Aomori Art Museum.

It houses contemporary art, some of it surreal like this statue. The eyes were animated, moving in response to visitor motions.

Surrealist animated statue in the Aomori Art Museum.
Contemporary surrealist painting in the Aomori Art Museum.

Next❯ Seiryū-ji Temple Complex and the Great Buddha

Other topics in Japan:

Prehistoric Yamato
Amazon 1839059796
Fodors Japan
Amazon 1640975438
Tōhoku region, northern Honshū — Nikkō, Aizu-Wakamatsu, Mount Bandai, Yamadera, Mount Haguro, Aomori
Kansai region, central Honshū — Kyōto, Nara, Kōya-san, Ise, and Ōsaka
Inland Sea — Takamatsu, Naoshima and the art islands, Hiroshima
Kyūshū — Fukuoka, Nagasaki, Kagoshima and Sakurajima, Oita, Mount Aso
Kantō region — Tōkyō and nearby
Background and Logistics

International Travel Recommendations