Imperial Tombs Finally Opened to Archaeologists…Sorta

It was quietly announced this week that researchers would be allowed to examine 11 ancient Japanese tombs, said to be the final resting places of Japan’s earliest emperors. 

The Japanese islands are dotted with thousands of kofun – hill tombs that house the remains of some of Japan’s earliest bigwigs.  While a few of these tombs have been excavated, most of the largest ones have never been touched, because local tradition has assigned them to be the tomb of one or another of Japan’s quasi-mythical early emperors; in the Meiji period, ownership of kofun associated with emperors, no matter how tenuously, was turned over to the Imperial Household Agency, which has not allowed archaeologists to even so much as set foot on them in over a century.

This prohibition has been unfortunate because contents of these tombs promise answers about one of the least understood and most controversial era’s in Japanese history, if only they could be examined.  Circumstantial archaeological evidence has increasingly pointed to Japan’s imperial family having strong connections to Korea, but without examining the contents of the tombs it has been hard to definitively confirm or deny these theories.

Alas, the current relaxation of restrictions–the result of a 2005 petition to the Japanese government by a consortium of concerned scholars from Japan and abroad–only eases the prohibition against walking on the hill tombs, but excavations of any kind are still forbidden, so it is unclear what new information, if any, can be gleaned by just walking around on top of these huge man-made hills.

Still it’s a step forward of sorts, if only a baby step.  I am still hopeful that one day we will not only know the contents of these tombs, but also that they will get the attention they deserve as some of the most amazing constructions ever built by man.  After all, the supposed tomb of Emperor Nintoku, which is among the 11 opened to examination, is the largest tomb ever built in history, about two times as big as the Great Pyramid by total volume. But hardly anyone even knows about it because nobody is allowed to go near it.


  1. I’m assuming that what they will be able to do is carry out extensive geophysical surveys which can tell them a lot about the internal structures of the tombs, perhaps also whether they have been opened by grave robbers etc.

    Although I’d heard that excavation was out of the question, not knowing much about this I was really surprised to learn that researchers hadn’t even been allowed anywhere near the tombs before. I wonder how many of the country’s tomb mounds this applies to?

  2. Dig up a tomb from last week – you’re a sick criminal.

    Dig up a tomb from last millenia – you’re a glamorous man of science!

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