The Japanese government has nominated a group of 49 ancient burial sites in southern Osaka Prefecture for UNESCO World Heritage status.
While the proposal has lifted local hopes for a boost in international prestige and tourism appeal, it has also raised politically sensitive questions about what the sites, called kofun, really are, who are buried within, and how to explain their history and meaning.
The nominated sites are known as the Mozu-Furuichi Kofun Group. They lie in two areas, in the city of Sakai just south of the city of Osaka along the coast of Osaka Bay, and in Fujiidera and Habikino in the southeast part of the prefecture. They include the 1,594-foot Nintoku-tenno-ryo (Nintoku Mausoleum) kofun, one of the world’s largest burial mounds.
The Mozu-Furuichi kofun are believed to have been built from the late fourth to late fifth and early sixth centuries, during the Kofun Period, which lasted for about 400 years beginning in the second half of the third century.
Kofun are found over much of Honshu and Kyushu and were built in many different shapes, including keyhole, square and circular shapes. Sizes range from 33 feet to over 1,312 feet.
Kofun also have slightly different designs. Some are surrounded by only one moat, while others have two or three. Burial mounds might have one, two or three tiers.
The generally accepted historical explanation for the kofun mounds is that, as Japan’s ancient Yayoi culture was based on wet rice farming, settlements around rice paddies grew, and with them, local political structures known as kuni (today’s word for “country”) arose. It was these local groups that began constructing kofun.
But for whom? History and legend are mixed. The Imperial Household Agency has designated 895 sites from Yamagata to Kagoshima prefectures as Imperial mausoleums and tombs, including 188 burial mounds for senior members of the Imperial family. Citing a need to preserve the “serenity and dignity” of the tombs, entrance by the general public is forbidden and access by archaeologists is severely restricted.
In December 2014, the agency offered a guided tour to academics and reporters around a previously off-limits kofun called Tannowa Nisanzai in the far south of Osaka Prefecture, not part of the Mozu-Furuichi group. While the Imperial Household Agency officially classifies it as an Imperial grave, some archaeologists believe it was built for a local chieftain.
Getting the tombs designated as a World Heritage site would likely lead to increased international interest in who, exactly, is buried in them.
For its part, Osaka prefecture was careful in explaining the kofun in its English-language materials. Brochures and the website promoting the Mozu-Furuichi group introduce kofun as places where “people of high rank, that is the elite, in those days were buried in kofun tombs. Many powerful rulers, such as (the) great kings of the Yamato Government, had this type of mound constructed.”
An explanation in one of the brochures is that it “is considered to be the tomb group where tombs for the ruling elites, including great kings and their vassals, were concentrated. It is said that the differences in the scale and form of mounds as well as the structure of burial facilities depend on the social status and family background of the deceased, representing the sociopolitical hierarchy of the time.”
In many kofun of the group, burial goods similar to those found in other parts of Asia, such as earthenware figures known as haniwa, bronze accessories and weapons have been excavated over the centuries.
“These excavated artifacts show the influence of the Korean Peninsula and China, proving that Japan had active exchanges with other East Asian countries at that time,” the brochure reads.
The English-language website for the Mozu-Furuichi Kofun Group goes further, saying they could be seen “as a collection of tombs of the Kings of Wa over seven generations, together with their family members and vassals. As such, they could rightly be called the ‘Royal Tumulus Complex.’ “
World Heritage candidate
Announcing its decision that the group had been selected as Japan’s World Heritage candidate for the current fiscal year, the Cultural Affairs Agency explained its choice by saying the group is centered on Nintoku-tenno-ryo, the largest keyhole-shaped kofun in the country, considered to be the grave of an ancient Japanese king, and that the group includes many kofun of different sizes and designs, thus representative of others around Japan.
There are seven giant keyhole- shaped kofun in the group, with five having a double or triple moat. They are thought to have been built by ancient sovereigns who were later known as tenno (emperors), according to the group’s official website. It adds that there was plenty of evidence to suggest that these seven kofun are the tombs of ancient Japanese sovereigns.
UNSECO asks a number of questions about the proposed site’s uniqueness, creativity, connection to living events and traditions, and structural integrity. But what’s most important, the prefecture says, is value.
“To get on the World Heritage list, the candidate site must be of ‘Outstanding Universal Value,’ and meet certain criteria. A detailed written history of the site is less important to getting on the list than proving it has value,” said Hiroshi Yamagami, an Osaka prefectural official involved with the bid.
The final, official bid documents would be submitted to the U.N. agency by January. The final decision to grant or reject World Heritage status would come from UNESCO next summer, Yamagami said.
For Sakai, getting the Mozu-area kofun listed is expected to lead to an economic windfall. A city estimate says the economic impact could be 100 billion yen for Osaka Prefecture, including about 33.8 billion yen for Sakai, mostly in the form of increased visitors.