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13 janvier 2020

'Izumo and Yamato: The Birth of Ancient Japan' at Tokyo National Museum


Tokyo - The year 2020 marks 1,300 years since the compilation of Japan's oldest official history, The Chronicles of Japan (Nihon Shoki). The history contains two narratives: one of sacred lzumo inhabited by the gods of Shinto and ruled over by Ōkuninushi; and one of mortal Yamato, a place of human governance ruled over by the emperor. In partnership with their present-day counterparts, Shimane Prefecture (Izumo) and Nara Prefecture (Yamato), this special exhibition brings together rare and remarkable artifacts to explore these two foundational pillars of ancient Japan—the seat of sacred power in Izumo and the seat of political power in Yamato.

The Chronicles of Japan (Nihon Shoki)

Totaling thirty scrolls in length, The Chronicles of Japan is one of Japan's earliest historical accounts. The first two scrolls tell of Japan's creation at the hands of the gods. The remaining scrolls trace the line of imperial succession, beginning with Emperor Jimmu and ending with Empress Jitō in 697. The chronicle was completed in 720 and presented to Empress Genshō.

Izumo and Yamato

The opening scrolls of The Chronicles of Japan describe two worlds. One is the sacred world of the Shinto gods at Izumo Shrine, ruled over by the god Ōkuninushi. The other is the human, political world in Yamato, ruled over by the emperor.


The Chronicles of Japan (Nihon Shoki), Volume 2 (detail), Nanbokuchō period, dated 1375–1377, Atsuta Shrine, Aichi. Important Cultural Property. (On exhibit from February 11 to March 8, 2020). Courtesy Tokyo National Museum.

The Colossal Inner Sanctuary at Izumo Shrine

Ancient legends tell of the founding of Izumo Shrine, renowned as one of the oldest shrines in Japan. It is dedicated to Ōkuninushi, the ruler of the sacred world of the Shinto gods. Allegedly, the shrine's inner sanctuary once stood at a height of 48 meters, and in the year 2000, enormous cedar pillars were discovered on the shrine's grounds. The Sacred central pillar (No. 12) and Central pillar at front of inner sanctuary (No. 13) supported the inner sanctuary during the Kamakura period (1185–1333) and attest to the majestic appearance of the once-towering shrine. Many valuable objects have been passed down at Izumo Shrine, including elaborate cosmetic boxes, armor, and paintings that once adorned the shrine.

This section features the colossal pillars that supported the inner sanctuary in the Kamakura period as well as Izumo Shrine's many ancient treasures. 




Cosmetic box with deer in autumn field, Kamakura period, 13th century, Izumo Shrine, Shimane. National Treasure (On exhibit from February 11 to March 8, 2020)Courtesy Tokyo National Museum.


Armor with red and white lacing, Muromachi period, 15th century, Izumo Shrine, Shimane. Important Cultural Property (On exhibit until February 9, 2020)Courtesy Tokyo National Museum.


Central pillars at front of inner sanctuary. Excavated from Izumo Shrine, Izumo City, Shimane, Kamakura period, dated 1248, Izumo Shrine, Shimane (In the care of the Shimane Museum of Ancient Izumo). Important Cultural PropertyCourtesy Tokyo National Museum.


Izumo Grand Shrine Main Hall, Shimane Prefecture. National treasureCourtesy Tokyo National Museum.

Izumo: The Origin of Ancient Rituals

Izumo developed a distinct local culture through its early exchanges with mainland Asia across the Sea of Japan. Until the mid-Yayoi period (ca. 2nd century-1st century BCE), rituals performed in Izumo featured the use of bronze artifacts (like those found at Kōjindani ruins and Kamo Iwakura ruins). From the late Yayoi period (ca. 2nd century—3rd century), Izumo became the first region to stop performing ceremonies with bronze artifacts and replaced them with ceremonies held at massive burial mounds with elongated corners. These distinctly-shaped tombs were found along the southern and northern coast of the Sea of Japan surrounding Izumo, pointing to a local ritual culture that differed from that of the Yamato region. 

This section explores the origins of Izumo's ancient rites by tracing the changes in ritual objects dating from the 5th century BCE to the 3rd century CE.



Comma-shaped bead (magatama). Excavated from Nishidani Tomb no. 3, Izumo City, Shimane, Yayoi period, 1st–3rd century, Department of Archaeology, Shimane University (In the care of the Izumo Yayoinomori Museum). Courtesy Tokyo National Museum.


Ritual bell (dōtaku). Excavated from Kamo Iwakura ruins, Unnan City, Shimane, Yayoi period, 2nd–1st century BCE, Agency for Cultural Affairs (In the care of the Shimane Museum of Ancient Izumo). National Treasure. Courtesy Tokyo National Museum.


Swords, Ritual bells (dōtaku), and Halberds.Excavated from Kōjindani ruins, Izumo City, Shimane, Yayoi period, 2nd–1st century BCE, Agency for Cultural Affairs  (In the care of the Shimane Museum of Ancient Izumo). National TreasureCourtesy Tokyo National Museum.

The Birth of Imperial Authority in Yamato

Keyhole-shaped tomb mounds were built in the Yamato region (now Nara Prefecture) as symbols of power and authority. They also functioned as platforms for rulers to use when presiding over rites and ceremonies. As Yamato developed into a cohesive state, further signs of centralized authority appeared, such as large terracotta tomb figures (haniwa) from the Mesuriyama Tumulus (No. 51–7) and numerous mirrors buried in the Kurozuka Tumulus with sawtooth patterning on their rims and designs of deities and animals (No. 52–1). The Yamato rulers were also able to acquire rare goods and technologies from East Asia. They gave these luxury imports, and goods inspired by them, to regionally powerful families to win their allegiances. As a result, the Yamato rulers gained inclusion in the East Asian political sphere and were able to consolidate Japan into an early nation-state.

This section examines the historical context in which the Yamato court was founded. It also introduces the rich developments in form and design occurring from the 3rd century to the 7th century, seen in artifacts such as tomb figures (haniwa) and burial objects.



Cylindrical tomb sculpture (haniwa). Excavated from Mesuriyama Tumulus, Sakurai City, Nara, Kofun period, 4th century, The Museum, Archaeological Institute of Kashihara, Nara Prefecture. Important Cultural PropertyCourtesy Tokyo National Museum.


Seven-branched sword, Kofun period, 4th century, Isonokami Shrine, Nara. National TreasureCourtesy Tokyo National Museum.


Mirrors with patterned concentric bands and design of deities and animals; Mirrors with sawtooth patterns on rims and designs of deities and animals. Excavated from Kurozuka Tumulus, Tenri City, Nara, Kofun period, 3rd century, Agency for Cultural Affairs (In the care of the Archaeological Institute of Kashihara, Nara Prefecture). Important Cultural PropertyCourtesy Tokyo National Museum.


Triangle Enshrine Mirror, Excavated from Kurozuka Tumulus, Tenri City, Nara, Kofun period, 3rd century, Agency for Cultural Affairs (In the care of the Archaeological Institute of Kashihara, Nara Prefecture). Important Cultural PropertyCourtesy Tokyo National Museum.

Buddhism and Politics

In the mid-6th century, Japanese society was transformed by the introduction of Buddhism along with other influences from mainland Asia. Belief in Buddhism spread from the imperial court to powerful families in the provinces and Buddhist temples replaced burial mounds as symbols of political power and authority. By the latter part of the Asuka period (593–710), Buddhist temples had been built throughout the country. Envoys returning from China's Sui and Tang dynasties brought back information on the latest developments in Asia, and the imperial court used these developments to shape their emerging state. The court also actively engaged in constructing Buddhist temples and guardian sculptures, such as the Four Heavenly Kings, under the belief that their devotion to Buddhism would be rewarded with divine national protection.

This section introduces forms of art that arose within the context of an emerging Buddhist state ruled by an emperor. These works embody their creators' prayers for a peaceful society and national stability.


Jikokuten (Dhrtarastra), Asuka period, 7th century, Taima-dera Temple, Nara. Important Cultural PropertyPhoto: Nara National Museum, Sasaki Kyosuke. Courtesy Tokyo National Museum.


Healing Buddha Yakushi Triad (Purportedly)Asuka to Nara period, 7th–8th century (Ishii-dera Temple, Nara Prefecture, Important Cultural Property)Courtesy Tokyo National Museum.



Jikokuten (Dhrtarastra) of the Four Heavenly Kings, Heian period, 9th century, Manpuku-ji Temple (Ōtera Yakushi), Shimane. Important Cultural PropertyCourtesy Tokyo National Museum.