Home|Index Japanese Archaeology last revised:
June 3, 2006

Yayoi Culture

by Charles T. Keally

1. Definition of Yayoi

The Yayoi Culture is defined as Japan's first rice-farming and metal-using culture, and it is identified archaeologically with certain types of artifacts, especially pottery styles. But traces of metal artifacts and rice usually are not found in Yayoi sites, especially in the early ones, so pottery styles are generaly the main bases for identifying Yayoi sites. Also, the definition has been confused by a number of finds of rice, and even of rice paddies, in Jomon sites dating around 1000 B.C. (uncalibrated radiocarbon years ago), several centuries earlier than the pottery styles and other artifacts used to identify Yayoi sites. And recent finds of keyhole-shaped mound tombs (the defining trait of the Kofun Culture) older than A.D. 300 have confused the other end of the Yayoi period, overlapping by half a century or more with pottery styles that have been identified as Yayoi.

Some archaeologist argue that we should keep the original definition of Yayoi and include as Yayoi much of what has to now been identified as Latest (or even terminal Late) Jomon. But other archaeologists are defining Yayoi by the pottery styles that traditionally have been used to identify Yayoi sites, and they have added rice farming to the description of the Latest Jomon culture, particularly in Kyushu. At the late end, most archaeologists seem to be dropping from "Yayoi" what used to be terminal Yayoi and are putting those late 3rd-century materials into the beginning of the Kofun Culture.

2. Yayoi Chronology

Traditionally, the Yayoi culture is divided into three sub-periods, each with a number of pottery phases, which differ by region. The exact dating of these sub-periods and phases is not clear, largely due to inadequate numbers of radiocarbon dates. But there is the additional problem that Yayoi radiocarbon dates fall in a range that is very difficult to calibrate meaningfully. Traditionally, the period is dated 300 B.C. to A.D. 300.

in northern Kyushu
on the Kanto Plain
in Aomori
in Hokkaido
Early Yayoi
500-100 B.C.
Itazuke I
Itazuke II
Latest Jomon
Esan I
Middle Yayoi
100 B.C.-A.D. 100
Inakadate 1
Inakadate 2
Esan II-IV
Late Yayoi
A.D. 100-300
Kohoku B, C

However, this traditional chronology now is rather inconsistent with available facts and practice. First, uncalibrated radiocarbon ages suggest the beginning of Early Yayoi dates to about 400 or 500 B.C. Addition of an Earliest Yayoi (in western Japan, the Yamanotera and Yausu pottery types) would push this date a few centuries older. And new finds of mound tombs suggest Yayoi ends about A.D. 250 instead of 300. Further, recent excavations in Kanto have uncovered a few Early Yayoi sites in that region, although the traditional chronology suggests there are none. The best known of the Early Yayoi sites in Kanto is the Nakayashiki site in the southwestern corner of the Kanto Plain. This site has an uncalibrated radiocarbon age of about 400 B.C. for pottery thought to belong to the later half of Early Yayoi.

The First Calibrated Radiocarbon Dates for Yayoi:
At the Japanese Archaeological Association's general meeting in May 2003, Harunari and others presented a set of calibrated AMS radiocarbon dates for the beginning of the Yayoi Period, the beginning of rice farming culture in Japan. These dates suggested that the Yayoi Period began close to 1000 BC, about 400-500 years earlier than generally thought. Some archaeologists accepted these dates, some vehemently opposed them, and others suggested they were a bit too old. Three years later, the opponents seem to be saying these dates are 100-200 years too old, but they still strongly oppose these early dates.

Harunari and the research team seem to feel the dates are basically correct. Some archaeologists, however, argue that the marine reserve effect has not been adequately accounted for, and that cooked food (the dates are for charred adhesions on potsherds) will give dates that are a bit too old. The stronger opponents argue that the dates disagree too widely with the dates derived by "archaeological methods" -- typology, typological comparison, trade wares, and other "archaeological" as opposed to natural scientific methods.

I feel the dates are basically correct. When I first established this web site in 1997 I had the following statement on Yayoi dates: "Calibrated ages take the beginning [of Early Yayoi] back to 800 or 900 B.C." I was using this estimate for the calibrated date for the beginning of Early Yayoi in my classes already in the late 1970s.

But there are some problems in the recent AMS dates. Two of them are ones already noted -- the marine reserve effect and the effect of cooking. Are these effects being considered fully? Another problem that is commonly noted is the "2400 problem" -- radiocarbon ages between about 2400 and 2500 years can be "calibrated" only as "somewhere between 400 BC and 750 BC." But this problem does not affect the calibration of the oldest Yayoi dates. Another problem I see is that the dates given in the reports do not agree with each other. Particularly, some of the uncalibrated radiocarbon dates given by Harunari et al. 2006 (p. 77) do not seem to calibrate to the dates given by Harunari 2006 (p. 322). Further, I get the impression that some archaeologists are not clear about whether they are discussing the dating of the beginning of Earliest Yayoi or of Early Yayoi.

Yayoi AMS dating
Period Pottery Phase Median Date Range n= comments
Latest Jomon Kurokawa 1010±40 BC 970-1055 BC 5 2860-2480 uncalBP (n=13)
1300-930 BC
Yamanotera 865 BC   1 2880-2570 uncalBP (n-4)
930 BC
begins in late 10th c. BC
Earliest Yayoi Yuusu I       2670-2570 uncalBP (n=8)
890 BC
10th c. BC
Yuusu II 845±50 BC 790-905 BC 5 2810-2600 uncalBP (n=8)
begins ca. 900 BC
9th c. BC
found with Tohoku Obora C2 800-900 BC
Yuusu IIb 840 BC     2660-2510 uncalBP (n=6)
Early Yayoi Itatsuke I   790-795 BC 2 2750-2520 uncalBP (n=5)
810-750 BC
from beginning 8th c. BC
begins ca. 810 BC
Itatsuke II       Itatsuke IIc ends beginning 4th c. BC
395-200 BC
Middle Yayoi Sugu
      Sugu I 400-170 BC (300-200 BC)
Sugu II 200-40 BC


3. Origins of Rice

Exactly when, how and why rice farming first came to Japan is still one of the major controversies in Japanese archaeology. Rice has been found in sites dating about 1000 B.C., at the end of Late Jomon and the beginning of Latest Jomon. These sites, as far as I know, are all in Kyushu, except one, which is in Hachinohe on the Pacific coast of Aomori Prefecture, at the northern end of the central island of Honshu. Rice farming spread all over western Japan around 400-500 B.C. (uncalibrated radiocarbon age) and is also found in a number of sites in Aomori Prefecture, apparently spreading up the Sea of Japan coast along the Tsushima Current, together with the spread of one of the oldest recognized styles of Yayoi pottery, Ongagawa. Recent studies of plant opal (phytoliths) from Jomon sites claim possible evidence of domesticated rice in western Japan as early as 3000 B.C. or earlier, in Middle and possibly Early Jomon.

There is general agreement that the ultimate origin of rice is the east-central lowlands of China. A southern route via the Ryukyu islands into southern Kyushu seems generally out of favor. I think both the Chinese archaeological and environmental evidence argue strongly against a northern route via northeastern China and northern Korea, although some archaeologists do favor that hypothesis. The present evidence neither confirms nor denies either a direct route to Kyushu from China or a route via southern Korea.

If I understand Dr. Wilhelm Solheim's hypothesis correctly, he proposes boat-people plying their trades along the Chinese coast, seeking wider markets and eventually arriving on the coasts of Korea and Japan. There they set up seasonal settlements. These settlements later became permanent, and the settlers farmed rice for their own use. This practice soon spread to the native peoples -- the Jomon people in Japan -- who added rice farming to their subsistence base while teaching the colonists aspects of their native way of life. As the colonists became well adapted to the new lands, their populations exploded, supplemented by immigrants from the Korean peninsula, perhaps trying to escape the turmoil caused by the collapse of the Chinese Chou Dynasty and the establishment and expansion of the Han Dynasty. There are many other hypotheses.

4. Metal

The first metal objects to come into Japan were practical iron tools from Korea -- knives and axes -- which are found in the oldest Yayoi sites in the western part of the country. One iron object has also been reported in a Latest Jomon site in Hokkaido, which would date to around the beginning of Yayoi in western Japan. Bronze objects came later and were predominantly ritual objects, first mirrors, swords and spears from Korea, then mirrors from Han China. Eventually most of these objects were manufactured locally in Japan, rather than being imported. The bronze swords and spears produced later in Japan are mostly very large and clearly not for practical use as weapons. The ritual dotaku bronze "bells" appear to be mostly a local innovation produced locally.

5. Origins of Yayoi Culture

Yayoi culture is found nowhere except in Japan -- it was not a continental import. But the constituent parts of the culture came from all over and at many different times. The rice-farming complex -- rice and paddie farming; and some architecture, tools, words, beliefs and rituals -- came from east-central China. The pottery was a direct descendant from the western Japan Latest Jomon that evolved originally under strong influence from the Korean Plain Pottery culture. This influence was already clear in the Latest Jomon pottery of Kyushu. Iron and bronze objects were primarily of Korean origin, but later styles were local Japanese developments and were manufactured locally. The first few bronze mirrors in Japan came from Korea, but the majority came from Han China. The Wei mirrors found at the end of Yayoi are controversially either Chinese- or Japanese-produced.

The origin of the bronze dotaku bell is controversial. It is found almost exclusively in Yayoi sites in or near the Kansai District, well east of the closest points to Korea. A few have been found in Korea, and the molds are found mostly in Kyushu. It appears to be one of those things originated locally from a vague idea of the small practical bronze bells of Korea.

Yayoi burials evolved from Jomon burials, but the mound and moat on later ones probably reflect ideas from the continent. The large jar burials typical of northwestern Kyushu are not continental and easily could have Jomon roots. The stone-slab cist burials, also centered in northern Kyushu, are continental in origin, but they might have entered Japan originally through the north during the Late or Latest Jomon period. Dwelling architecture evolved from Jomon styles. And a lot of other aspects of the Yayoi culture have Jomon roots or were originated in the Yayoi culture itself. Yayoi in eastern Honshu is effectively an increasingly acculturated continuation of the final Jomon culture there.

6. Development of Yayoi Culture

At first, Yayoi was a culture of peasant farmers living in small villages and supplementing their diet with the produce of the forests, streams and sea. With time, the population increased, more and more conflicts over land or water rights or whatever occurred, village leaders evolved into village chiefs, villages coalesced into chiefdoms, and fighting between chiefdoms became more common. By the last century of Yayoi, what were probably confederations of chiefdoms had developed, and this laid the foundations for the Japanese nation that appeared in the following Kofun period. One of these confederations was the famous and highly controversial Yamatai-koku of the third-century-A.D. Chinese Wei Records on Wa.

7. Yamatai-koku

One major question in Yayoi archaeology and in Japanese history is what exactly this Yamatai-koku was politically. The Wei Records report that this "nation" was ruled by a woman named Himeko, that it sent envoys to China, and that it was engaged in battles with some of its neighbors, some of the "100 nations in the land of Wa" (Japan). This question is a long way from solution. Empress Jingu in the Nihon Shoki records, written in the early 8th century, is probably the Chinese "Himeko" in the Japanese mythology.

The other major question is the location of Yamatai-koku. Over 50 different locations have been proposed, but the majority are either in northwestern Kyushu or in Kansai. Archaeological evidence is used extensively to support both hypotheses, and new archaeological finds bring new changes into the arguments every year. But the crux of the controversy is the directions and distances to Yamatai-koku reported in the Wei Records. Following these directions and distances simplistically and consecutively on today's map leads you out into the Pacific Ocean. Thus some archaeologists and historians argue that the directions and distances should not be followed consecutively, but rather separately from the same landing point in northwestern Kyushu. This places Yamatai-koku also somewhere in northern Kyushu. But if the directions and distances are followed consecutively following an ancient Chinese map, they lead to the Kansai area, since the ancient Chinese map of Japan is oriented roughly 90 degrees off of today's map. Most scholars seem to ignore the ancient Chinese map in their arguments. This controversy seems to have a lively future yet.

8. Regionalization

Yayoi was not a single, unified entity -- it was characterized by considerable regionalization. The regions and boundaries changed with time and are still poorly defined, at least in the literature. But grossly viewed, there were perhaps five major regions -- Northwest Kyushu, Setouchi, Kansai, Kanto and Tohoku -- each surrounded by less distinctive peripheral regions. Northern Kyushu was marked by jar burials and stone-slab cist burials, bronze spears and Han Chinese mirrors. Setouchi was marked by bronze swords. And Kansai was the center of bronze dotaku bells, and, at least at the end of Yayoi, by the "Wei" Chinese mirrors. Kanto was farming villages with iron but little bronze, and some retained Jomon traits mixed with an increasing body of traits from Yayoi culture west of the central mountains. Tohoku Yayoi perhaps should not even be called Yayoi -- it was a continuation of the Latest Jomon culture there, taking up some rice farming and a few other "Yayoi" traits.

Hokkaido on the northern end of the Japanese archipelago and Okinawa on the southern end are, for all practical purposes, not part of Yayoi Japan. The cultures in both regions (Epi-jomon in Hokkaido and Late Shellmound in Okinawa) are largely continuations of the preceeding cultures in those regions.

The regionalization of Yayoi culture is reflected in the many pottery types identified by archaeologists. The number of types commonly used for the Middle and Late Yayoi on the Kanto Plain around Tokyo gives some idea of the complexity and flux of this regionalization.

Middle Yayoi
early Suwada Iwabitsuyama
middle Odawara
late Miyanodai Tatsumicho
Late Yayoi
early Yoshigayatsu Higashi Nakane
middle Kugahara Yayoicho Taru Chokojibara Usui Minami
late Maenocho Akaido Juodai

9. Yayoi People

The Yayoi people were quite distinct physically from the Jomon people, and they are clearly ancestral to the modern Japanese. The Jomon people are "southern," closely resembling peoples now in South China and Southeast Asia. The Yayoi people, in contrast, are "northern" and show a close relationship to peoples now in North China, Korea and Northeast Asia.

Theories on the origins of the Yayoi people fall into three large groups: that they are (1) decendants from the Jomon people, changed physically by changes in the diet and way of life, (2) immigrants from the continent [via Korea], and (3) hybrids of Jomon and continental immigrant peoples. The hybrid hypotheses range from very little inter-mixing to a lot of inter-mixing, and some suggest more Jomon genes are retained in the northeastern Japanese populations than in the southwestern ones. Some scholars argue for a slow trickle of immigrants from the continent, while others argue for waves of immigrants.

I think the best explanation is that a slow trickle of immigrants from the continent began near the end of the Jomon period (and continued throughout the rest of Japanese history); over the course of time, some inter-marriage with the native peoples occurred, bringing Jomon genes into the population; and then, as this was going on, the immigrant population in Japan, including those of mixed parentage, began to explode sometime already in Early Yayoi, swamping the Jomon gene pool. The Jomon population was very low in the final centuries of that period, so even a small number of immigrants could have overwhelmed the Jomon gene pool. Most of the immigrants probably came from the Korean peninsula, although an unknown number of them likely came from eastern China, and from deeper in northeastern Asia through Korea.

10. Villages and Lifeways

Yayoi villages typically have a number of squarish pit-dwellings with thatched roofs reaching to the ground and hearths in the center of the earthen floors. These dwellings were clearly in a direct line from Jomon pit-dwellings. But Yayoi villages also had raised floor buildings thought to be rice storehouses and predecessors of modern Shinto shrine architecture. These almost certainly came with rice from the area around the lower Yangtze River in eastern China. But recent finds of similar structures in much earlier Jomon sites might eventually require modification of this interpretation. Some villages also had ditches around them, generally considered to be part of defense works.

Not far from the village was a burial ground. The most common and wide-spread form of burial was a small trench in the middle of an area enclosed by a square ditch (moat). The area enclosed was anywhere from a few meters on a side up to 20 or 30 meters across. Low mounds covered the burials in the center. There is little doubt that these are the precursors of the later Kofun period mound tombs. The jar and cist burials usually pictured as representative of Yayoi burials are in fact mostly limited to a small region of northern Kyushu and not representative at all.

The main artifacts from Yayoi sites are pottery and iron-bladed wooden tools, stone adzes and reaping sickles, and iron knives. In addition to rice, Yayoi farmers cultivated peaches, and they also hunted and fished and gathered wild plants to supplement their diet. In western Japan by Middle Yayoi, surpluses were supporting a highly structured class society and, by Late Yayoi, a society with a powerful elite class at the top.

11. Chiefdoms

The first powerful clans, or chiefdoms, appeared in northern Kyushu where continental influences were strongest and most available. These chiefdoms remained strong, but by the 3rd century A.D., the real power emanated from the Kansai District, particularly from the Nara Basin. The dotaku bronze-bell Yayoi people whose culture had centered on Kansai, shifted their center eastward to Aichi and surrounding localities and then disappeared with the end of the Yayoi Culture. At the same time, Japan east of the central mountains was farming villages, with some large settlements and probably a few weak chiefdoms appearing as Yayoi closed. The following Kofun Period culture and the early Japanese nation developed from the Kansai Yayoi.

Burials under low mounds in enclosures surrounded by a ditch (moat) were common everywhere in Yayoi Japan. Most enclosures were square, but many late ones were round. By the 3rd century in the Kansai District, a number of new forms appeared, and one, the keyhole shape, is thought to be associated with the Yamato central power. The keyhole-shaped mound tombs define the boundary between the Yayoi and Kofun periods archaeologically, but in fact the differences in the common culture for a century on either side of this boundary are largely insignificant.

The following are some useful references in English on the Yayoi Period.

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