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Nara Feature 5: The Tomb of Emperor Suinin

Note: This Feature was made on October 10, 2001, as I visited the Yamato Area of old Japan. (MAP)


Emperor Suinin's tomb is one of the many sites located on Nara's quieter west side. It is between Kikoji and Toshodaiji. A walk down this road evokes the past in a way that few places can. You can read about my visit to Nara in my Logbook.

There was a time when the Japanese were into burial on a grand scale, so grand in fact that the period was named the Kofun Period, or the period of the great burial mounds. These tumuli were classically shaped like a keyhole. The burial was in the round portion, and the attached trapezoid may have been used for ceremonial purposes. (Whenever anthropologists and archaeologists don't know what something is for, they say it "may have been used for ceremonial purposes.")

This tomb has all the usual features: keyhole shaped (but obscured by the foliage), with a shrine gate at the foot, and a fully-encircling moat. In addition, there is a mysterious, small, round island in the moat. You can see it clearly in Google Maps's Satellite View. Perhaps it was for a stone lantern or other such approach marker, and its counterpart on the other side has been swallowed up by the encroachment of land into the moat?

By the way, Suinin reigned in a period so misty it is sometimes called "The Legendary Period." He was probably the 11th emperor, and late-third-century seems about right. (One homepage gives his reign as 29 B.C.E. to 70 C.E.--a reign of 99 years!)

2005: I've learned a bit more about Suinin since my return from Japan. For one thing, this kofun establishes a sub-type of the "keyhole kofun" mentioned above, based on a variation in the relative dimensions. You can read more about that on this extensive kofun page [2019: Sadly, it's defunct.].

Another thing: Some people credit him with the institution of using haniwa, or clay figurines, instead of the gruesome custom of "emperor-following," where an entire court would be sacrificed with the king--a common practice in Egypt, the ancient Middle East, China, etc. The famous clay figures of Xi'an would be a parallel custom in China. Others, I must add, believe these figures are just for decoration, or even fancy structural elements to maintain the integrity of the kofun's slopes. Perhaps the truth is a combination of these.

Anyway, here's the quote I found on a fascinating kofun homepage sponsored by the city of Sakai [2019: also kaput]:
"After Emperor Suinin witnessed the horrible sight of the Emperor's entourage being buried alive in the areas around the Emperor's tomb, he had this practice stopped and had clay images of people and horses instead lined up in the tomb, and this became the beginning of the practice of using clay figures, or "haniwa".
One end of the kofun, from the side

The gateway

The round island

Posted October 6, 2019

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