Haniwa (埴輪) is a collective term for the unglazed earthenware cylinders and hollow sculptures that decorated the surface of the great mounded tombs (kofun) built for the Japanese elite during the fourth to seventh centuries. Haniwa (埴輪) statues were as tall as 1.5 metres and were made in a variety of forms: houses, human figures, animals, and a multitude of military, ceremonial, and household objects. But the basic and most common shape was the simple cylinder, averaging 40-50 centimetres in diameter and 1 metre in height Haniwa means clay (埴 hani) ring (輪 wa).

Unlike tomb figurines from other parts of the world, haniwa were erected on the exterior surface of the tomb mound rather than buried in the chamber with the deceased. Half-embedded in the earth for stability, the cylinders stood in rows on or around the mound; they may have been joined together by rope or wooden poles threaded through holes in their upper walls. Haniwa sculptures, stabilised upright on similarly embedded cylindrical bases, highlighted the patterns made by the rows of cylinders, occupying the corners or interiors of the rectangles or dotting the tomb mound, which was marked off at the edges by the rows of cylinders.

The coil and slab building techniques used to create haniwa, as well as the scraped surface finish, occurred in common with haji ware. The tomb sculptures were manufactured from the same iron-bearing clay as utilitarian pottery and fired in the same reduced-oxygen atmosphere at low temperatures, producing a warm buff colour. Appliqués were used for such features as noses, ears, clothing, and ornaments, but the eyes and mouths of human and animal figures were characteristically cut through to the hollow interior. Details of form or costume together with decorative motifs of zigzag, diamond, herringbone, or chokkomon (直弧文 “straight-curved pattern”) was incised on the clay surface. Pigments of red, blue, or white highlighted these patterns, and the faces of many haniwa figures were painted in iron-red pigment with enigmatic designs possibly representing tattoos or unique ritual makeup.

Archaeologists now recognise two principal patterns of haniwa placement on the tombs, each associated with a different kind of burial facility. The first was prominent during the fourth and fifth centuries and accompanied pit-style graves dug into the summit of the tomb mound. Haniwa cylinders and sculptures of houses, pieces of military equipment like shields and quivers, and ceremonial parasols were grouped in rectangular patterns around the graves. This placement pattern has been found mainly in and around the Kinai Region (畿内, Kyōto-Nara-Ōsaka), the centre of the early Kofun culture. The second pattern was associated with a corridor-type stone burial chamber that was introduced from the continent in the late fifth or early sixth century. At the same time as this introduction, haniwa production ceased in the Kinai and blossomed in the Kantō region of eastern Japan; thus the second placement pattern is mainly known from the Kantō tombs, and consists of the cylinders and sculptures lined up on the slopes of the tomb or outlining the contours of the tomb mound.

The Kinai ceremonial and military haniwa appear to have performed the ritual function of defining the sacred precincts of the burial and providing protection for its occupant. These haniwa are stately in appearance and very large. The uniformity of subject matter and surface treatment suggests that the haniwa manufacturers operated under prescribed rules or customs that allowed for little individuality of expression. In contrast, Kantō haniwa are lively and expressive, reflecting the frontier blend of military and common folk. Soldiers in full military dress, their mounts decorated with lavish horse trappings, contrast with dancing farmers and women balancing jugs on their heads or carrying babies on their backs. The simple symbolic house of Kinai haniwa developed into entire estates in the Kantō, including granaries, storehouses, and even barnyard animals.

Haniwa Origins

According to a legendary account in the chronicle Nihon shoki (日本書紀 “The Chronicles of Japan”, 720 CE), haniwa originated as substitutes for sacrificial victims—attendants of the deceased who were buried alive in the tomb mound. Historians have since recognised this as a fiction; despite the modem archaeological excavation of thousands of mounded tombs, there is no evidence of an ancient practice of burying sacrificial victims alive or dead. It has also been demonstrated that the earliest haniwa were not human figures but cylinders followed later by haniwa houses and military and ceremonial objects.

The cylinders developed from an hourglass-shaped jar stand that was popular during the preceding Yayoi Period (ca 300 BCE- ca 300 CE). The jar stand appears to have played a role in the burial ceremonies of Yayoi society, possibly holding vessels filled with ritual offerings. As the jar stand became a permanent fixture of the tomb mound, it lengthened and filled out into a cylindrical shape, finally losing its function of providing a stable base for jars. Sculptural haniwa may have originated in the Chinese custom of lining up large stone statues of men and animals along “spirit paths” leading to essential tombs. However, great differences between Chinese tomb figures and haniwa in materials, manufacturing techniques, placement on the graves, and historical development of subject matter all argue against direct transmission of customs or skills from China to Japan. At most, Chinese tomb figures may have played a limited conceptual role in stimulating the production of haniwa sculptures.


  • Imamura, Keiji, Prehistoric Japan: New perspectives on insular East Asia, University of Hawaii Press 1996
  • Nussbaum, Louis-Frédéric, Japan Encyclopedia, Harvard University Press 2005

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