The Jomon Period (縄文時代 Jōmon jidai, ca 11000 BCE-ca 300 BCE) is generally identified with hunting and gathering ways of life, especially the intense utilisation of marine resources in shellfish collecting and deep-sea fishing. The name of this period derives from the jōmon (cord-markings) that were found on much of the pottery made during this era.


Dogū (土偶) figurine from Tōhoku exhibited at the Tokyo National Museum
The Jōmon Period followed the palaeolithic and Mesolithic periods and preceded the rice-cultivating stage of the Yayoi Period (ca 300 BCE-ca 300 CE). Nowadays, it is estimated to have had a duration of more than 9,000 years, with a slow development that can be attributed to limited exterior contacts. It was characterised by a nonmetal-using, hunting and gathering, and probably very limited agricultural society. The Jōmon Era witnessed early contributions to Japanese culture, such as shamanistic practices, views of nature and higher life, and fishing and shellfish gathering techniques. Specific linguistic features may be rooted in Jōmon times.

There is disagreement among archeologists over whether the Incipient or Subearliest Jōmon (ca 11000-ca 7500 BCE), marked by the first appearance of pottery, sets the stage for the Jōmon culture, or whether this was still part of the Japanese mesolithic, and Jōmon started with the earliest shellfish gatherers on the east coast close to Yokosuka at the Natsushima Shell Mound (夏島貝塚 Natsushima kaizuka). These were the earliest or initial Jōmon people (ca 7000-ca 5000 BCE), who built simple surface shelters supported by thin poles and used bullet-shaped pots covered with a simple cord-marking.

A gradually warming climate increased the food supply, and Early Jōmon (ca 5000-ca 3500 BCE) people developed small villages consisting of several pit houses of a square shape. They cooked and stored food in cord-marked, flat-bottomed pots and wicker baskets, and used stone awls, all-purpose tanged scrapers, and chipped and sometimes polished axes. Bone needles and thimbles have been recovered in sites. Mulberry bark was often woven into clothes. By the middle of the period, many pits for storing food were being dug inside and outside the shelters.

Middle Jōmon (ca 3500-ca 2500 BCE)

The Middle Jōmon Period is unique in several aspects. According to some theories, Japan had been stimulated from outside, and the yam and the taro (corms and tubers) were introduced from South China; other theories hold that there is some connection with the painted pottery culture of China. Many large sites in the Kantō and Chūbu regions consist of numerous house pits yielding vast quantities of pottery, and other remains, indicating that a lot of time was spent on handicraft and thus suggesting economic stability. These communities multiplied at an altitude of 800 to 1,200 metres on the southern slopes of the Shinshū Mountains (modern-day Nagano Prefecture) and were usually two kilometres or more apart from each other, and always close to springs and food sources.

Nuts were the primary source of food in the fall, especially walnuts and chestnuts. Horse chestnuts were collected in September and acorns in October and November. Fruit included wild grapes, "mountain peaches", and akebi (Akebia quinata, Chocolate Vine or Five-leaf Akebia), a vine with a pomegranate-like fruit. Berries, mushrooms, parsley, and bracken were gathered. Butterbur provided a condiment. Bones of deer, bears, rabbits, squirrels, racoons, pheasants, and ducks, caught with traps and snares, were found, together with various fish remains.


Dogū figurine excavated at the Tatsugi Shell Mound in Tonemachi, Ibaraki Prefecture
Pebbles and cobbles clustered in Middle Jōmon sites are heat-blackened, reddened, and cracked from their use in cooking. Starches were steamed on wicker trays held in cup-shaped rims of pots. The starch had been leached out of lily bulbs and tubers in springs, ground in stone mortars of scoria, and made up into cakes like lumps of bread. Charred oval pieces of small bread have been found at Idojiri in Nagano, and at Okinohara in Niigata.

While these sites were generally large in scale, skeletons found at the Ubayama shell mound in Chiba Prefecture suggest an average of five occupants to a pit house, and pottery typology indicates that a hamlet usually consisted of five or six houses. The typical pit house featured a superstructure supported by five or six posts over a central fireplace, most likely devised for the cooler temperature of mountains and later adopted at lower altitudes. Digging the soil, cutting trees, and extracting roots must have taken its toll, as skeletons from Middle Jōmon shell mounds show that a large percentage of people suffered from fractures, in particular, right forearm fractures among the male population. Some villages had stone platforms, probably for ceremonial purposes, as well as storage pits supplemented by large decorated storage vessels. Pottery vessels in mountain sites were shaped for specific uses. The use of various symbolic motifs reflected the contact with the supernatural: female figures and stone phalli appeared; lamps, incense burners, and clay drums were used in ceremonies.

Late Jōmon (ca 2500-ca 1000 BCE)

Around 2400 BCE the Chūbu climate became too damp, and the population dispersed to the foothills or moved elsewhere. Late Jōmon people settled in larger groups along the east coast and used the same locations for extended periods, their debris forming extensive shell middens. Fishing techniques and tools, such as the toggle harpoon used in particular in Tōhoku, improved significantly. Other regions, however, failed to introduce those innovations, and the Kantō rivers and bays supported fewer people. The northern population developed elaborate ceremonies aimed at ensuring their survival. In Late Jōmon, ceremonial sites consisted of stone circles, which were used in burial and fertility rites. A notable example is Ōyu (大湯環状列石 Ōyu kanjōresseki) in Akita Prefecture, where thousands of stones form two large pairs of concentric circles.

These stone circles are the most substantial evidence for community ceremonies, illustrating the cemetery principle of burial. Already in Middle Jōmon, the dead had been placed together in the middle of the shell mound, rites that indicate a fear of the dead and their spirits.

In Late Jōmon, the country reached cultural uniformity for the first time: artefacts and techniques spread across the archipelago, as the deteriorating conditions drove the population out of the mountains, further south and north in search of better locations for survival. The consistent use of tools, such as polished stone axes, tanged arrowheads, and pottery with its distinct cord-markings and uniform ornaments, smaller vessels, and clay figurines of pregnant women suggest an increasing systematisation of life and artistry.

Dogū figurines
Clay images of humans and animals between three and thirty centimetres high were already made as early as the Initial Jōmon Period and had become quite numerous by Middle Jōmon. First crafted as flat, two-dimensional images, they were given three-dimensional volume in Late Jōmon; the figurines discovered in Late Jōmon sites throughout Japan belong to the latter group. In the Final Jōmon, larger figurines with distinctive faces appeared. Clay images continued to be made into the Yayoi period, but are not to be confused with haniwa funerary sculptures of the ensuing Kofun Period (ca 250-538 CE).

Most of the figurines represent human females, with large breasts and stomachs, symbolising pregnancy and fertility, much like the mother-goddess figures of Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Europe. As most figurines are found broken, it has been suggested that they were meant to be broken, possibly receiving the effects of wounds, illness, or disaster in their stead as a substitute for actual persons.

Latest or Final Jōmon (ca 1000 BCE-ca 300 BCE)

Final Jōmon saw a significant reduction in population, except for the very north of Japan, and a return to stronger regionalism. While northern Japan consisted of a more ritualised and organised society, the south fragmented into more mobile and informal groups. With very few exceptions, such as the midden found in Yoshigo, Aichi Prefecture, where a large number of skeletons has been found, many large Middle and Late Jōmon shell mounds show few remains dating back to the Final Jōmon, reflecting the dwindling population.

The physical types of Jōmon lack regional homogeneity, as the early people who originated from widely separated locations seldom mixed with each other, as shown in a large number of pottery types. They were small in stature and short in lifespan, but with the improved living conditions and diet in Middle Jōmon physical features seem to have improved as well.


Dogū figurine from Ebisuda Tajiri Kabukuri, Ōsaki, Miyagi Prefecture
In the far north, where rice cultivation was not introduced until much later, the surviving Jōmon-like stage is usually termed Zoku-Jōmon, or Continuing Jōmon or Post-Jōmon. Then, there were metal-using cultures in the northern islands, the Satsumon Culture (擦文文化 Satsumon Bunka) in Hokkaidō of the eighth and later centuries and the Okhotsk Culture along the northern littoral, in Sakhalin and the southern Kurils.

In conclusion, in the Jōmon period, the population increased significantly due to the use of coastal resources and the steadily warming climate, which resulted in rising water levels, the growth of more diverse flora and marine life. During early Jōmon, the average temperature reached above today's levels. Kyūshū and Shikoku, separated from Honshū, developed their distinctive variations of tools, pottery, housing, and ways of acquiring food. In Middle Jōmon, the temperatures stabilised; abundant nut crops in central Honshū provided stability. A subsequent deterioration in climate forced the population to leave the mountains of central Japan and settle in the coastal plains, mainly in the Kantō and the Tōhoku regions, depending heavily on shellfish-gathering, fishing, and limited cultivation of vegetables. Regional differences became less distinct. In the Late and Latest Jōmon, the population could no longer be sustained except for Tōhoku and started to decline at an alarming rate, dropping to just fifty per cent of the peak reached in the Middle Jōmon.

The Latest Jōmon witnessed the introduction of rice cultivation in Kyūshū . Rice was first grown in dry riverbeds or swamps and later, when the Yayoi pattern of agriculture took hold, by transplanting seedlings into paddies. It would take several centuries before the Japanese society was organised into agricultural communities with sufficient water management and community ceremonies. New burial mounds, weaving techniques, and metallurgy would eventually lead to the Yayoi Period.


  • Imamura, Keiji; Prehistoric Japan: New perspectives on insular East Asia, University of Hawaii Press 1996
  • Mason, R. H. P., Caiger J. G.; A History of Japan, Tuttle rev. edition 1997
  • Nussbaum, Louis-Frédéric; Japan Encyclopedia, Harvard University Press 2005
  • Papinot, Edmonde; Historical and Geographical Dictionary of Japan, Tuttle 1972
  • Sansom, George; A History of Japan, 1615-1867, Stanford University Press 1963

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