Archaeology Magazine Archive

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Japan's New Past Volume 50 Number 2, March/April 1997
by Walkter Edwards

For more than 1,200 years the Japanese believed that theirs was a land uniquely blessed among the nations of the earth, ruled by an unbroken line of emperors descended from gods. Even in 1868, when Japan emerged from more than two centuries of isolation imposed by the shoguns, regard for the emperor's sanctity remained beyond challenge, placing significant limitations on the study of Japanese history and archaeology. How these constraints were altered with wartime defeat, and the role of archaeology in Japan today, open a window on recent changes in the nation's beliefs about itself and its place in the universe.

According to Japanese myth, the sun goddess Amaterasu sent her grandson Ninigi to earth to establish an eternal dynasty. Alighting on the western island of Kyushu, Ninigi wed an earthly deity and built a palace where his line ruled for three generations. Ninigi's great-grandson Jimmu resolved to move the government eastward. Leading an army in heroic fashion, he fought his way into the heart of the Yamato region with help from heavenly deities, sent in the form of a sacred bird whose splendor was so dazzling it rendered his enemies helpless. Jimmu became the first Japanese emperor.

Today this fanciful account is regarded as a myth devised by the rulers of the ancient state of Yamato to justify its political ascendancy in the early centuries A.D. Postwar Japan has witnessed an archaeological boom; it is now one of the most thoroughly investigated countries in the world. Under conservation laws passed in 1950, sites threatened by construction must be excavated; the annual number of digs has grown from a handful in the early postwar years to 9,804 in 1994, 95 percent of which are the result of development. A contributing factor has been the high level of public attention focused on archaeology as a means of studying ancestry. Archaeological discoveries are highlighted in school history texts, and any new find seen to shed light on some aspect of the Japanese past is prominently reported in the media.

Against this backdrop of archaeological activity there stands a single exception: tombs remaining under the supervision of the Imperial Household Agency representing graves associated with the imperial line. In the past, this agency has flatly refused archaeologists access to the imperial burial mounds on the grounds that they are graves of private people and not to be disturbed. There have been public calls for greater access to imperial burials, but there is a lack of unity over the question of whether they should be excavated. There is also widespread dissatisfaction with the Imperial Household Agency's continued treatment of mounds as imperial tombs when the designations can clearly be shown to be wrong. Whether such dissatisfaction will lead to a more substantive modification of the agency's policy is one of two unanswered questions. The other, a more enduring one, is whether archaeologists will be able to resolve the major issues remaining in the study of the early Japanese state within the constraints that will inevitably be placed, in some form, on the investigation of imperial tombs.

Further debate over the fate of these tombs will no doubt turn on conflicting views of the emperor's private rights as an individual versus public obligations incumbent upon the imperial house as a state-supported institution. Whatever the outcome, it is remarkable that such debate has shifted from arguments about the sacred nature of the imperial line to secular claims about rights and obligations in modern society--a sign that the study of the Japanese past is now based solely on scientific inquiry.

© 1997 by the Archaeological Institute of America