Figure of a Man

Japan, Ibarake Prefecture; Tumulus period, 6th - 7th century

Japan, Ibarake Prefecture; Tumulus period, 6th - 7th century

Figure of a Man
Japan, Ibaraki Prefecture
Tumulus period, 6th-7th century
Earthenware with traces of pigment
H. 56in.


Clay sculptures like this one were produced during the Tumulus or Kofun era (258-646 C.E.) in Japan. Kofun means "tumulus" or "old tomb", and this era is named after the enormous mounded tombs that were constructed for the ruling elite in the Kansai region during that time. The diffusion of these tombs from this area to other parts of Japan suggests the extension of political power. We know that during the Tumulus period, Japan, which had been divided into a series of loosely related domains, was gradually organized into a unified state with a center of government located in the present-day Osaka-Nara area.

These tombs were often keyhole shaped. They were built over pit-shaft graves, in which the burial chamber was usually located near the top of the mound. Grave goods, including iron weapons, bronze mirrors, and ornaments of jade and jasper, have been found in the burial chambers.

Clay sculptures like this piece, called haniwa, were distributed over the surface of the tomb mound. By the 5th century, tombs had increased in size and complexity. The most impressive appear to have been built for the imperial family. The largest tomb, which is near Osaka, is 90 feet high, almost 1600 feet long, and is surrounded by three moats. It is estimated that 20,000 haniwa were distributed over the surface of the mound.

Hani means "clay" and wa means "circle" and the earliest haniwa were thought to have been simple slabs or coils of clay. Eventually they ranged in shape from simple cylinders to detailed reproductions of architecture, military equipment, and human figures.

How to look at this work

This is a human figure with open eyes and mouth, standing on a jar. He wears a pointed hat that hangs over his ears and onto his shoulders. He wears a tunic and trousers that are tied under the knees. His hands are small in comparison to the rest of his body. He appears to be wearing a necklace. There is a comma shaped object on the front of his tunic. It is unclear what it might be---perhaps the hilt of a sword or a ritual or religious object. Who might this man be? Perhaps he is a warrior or a religious figure.


The question of the function of such objects is still debated. It has been suggested that they were intended to keep the earth of the artificial mounds in place. Scholars today think that most likely they served two functions: to separate the world of the dead from that of the living and to protect the deceased and provide their spirits with a familiar resting place.

In addition to serving as attendants to the deceased, these figures may have been symbols of their high status and importance.

How this object was made

Haniwa were made of earthenware. It is thought that they were made by the same craftsmen who made everyday ceramic ware, since the materials and techniques were the same for both.