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Haniwa warrior in keikō type armor, Ōta, Gunma Prefecture, c. 6th century AD. Height: 131.5 centimetres (51.8 in). Location: Tokyo National Museum, designated a National Treasure of Japan[1]

The Haniwa (埴輪) are terracotta clay[2][3] figures which were made for ritual use and buried with the dead as funerary objects during the Kofun period (3rd to 6th centuries AD) of the history of Japan. Haniwa were created according to the wazumi technique, in which mounds of coiled clay were built up to shape the figure, layer by layer.[4]

The Haniwa were made with water-based clay and dried into a coarse and absorbent material that stood the test of time. Their name means “circle of clay” referring to how they were arranged in a circle above the tomb. The protruding parts of the figures were made separately and then attached, while a few things were carved into them. They were smoothed out by a wooden paddle. Earth terraces were arranged to place them with a cylindrical base into the ground, where the earth would hold them in place.

During the Kofun period, a highly aristocratic society with militaristic rulers developed. The cavalry wore iron armor, carried swords and other weapons, and used advanced military methods like those of Northeast Asia. Many of them are represented in haniwa figurines for funerary purposes.

The most important of the haniwa were found in southern Honshū—especially the Kinai region around Nara—and northern Kyūshū. Haniwa grave offerings were made in numerous forms, such as horses, chickens, birds, fans, fish, houses, weapons, shields, sunshades, pillows, and male and female humans. Besides decorative and spiritual reasons of protecting the deceased in his afterlife, these figures also served as a sort of retaining wall for the burial mound.

Because these haniwa display the contemporary clothing, hairstyle, farming tools, and architecture, these sculptures are important as a historical archive of the Kofun Period.

Haniwa Figure of a Shamaness, 5th–6th century. Earthenware. This haniwa represents a Shinto priestess who would have presided over the funeral ceremony of a Yamato chieftain. The figure is fragmentary: the arms are missing and, like almost all extant haniwa, it has been reassembled from shards. Brooklyn Museum


  • The origin of haniwa 1
  • Later development of the haniwa 2
  • Significance of the haniwa 3
  • In modern society 4
  • See also 5
  • References 6

The origin of haniwa

The origin of haniwa started during the latter part of the Yayoi Era around the Kingdom of Kibi. During this time special earthenware figurines and bowls started to appear on top of the tombs of leaders. The early sculptures exceeded 1 meter (3 feet) in length. They consisted of a cylindrical portion which represented the torso, and a skirt-shaped portion at the base, which represented the legs. Many times a special insignia or pattern would be displayed on the torso. Sometimes an obi would be placed around the torso portion of the sculpture. These sculptures are thought to have been used as part of a funeral ritual. Other than the Kibi area, the only other place these sculptures were found was in the Izumo province.

During the latter part of the 3rd century AD, these sculptures started to appear on top of the imperial grave mounds in the Kinai region. During this time more elaborate haniwa would appear along with earthenware bowls. It is believed that the movement of these sculptures and haniwa from the Kibi region to the Kinai region is indicative of an increase in the importance.

Later development of the haniwa

During the earlier part of the Kofun period (later 3rd century AD) the only earthenware haniwa were of the cylindrical variety; however, towards the early 4th century AD, shield and other tool-shaped haniwa started to appear. Additionally, during the middle Kofun period (mid-5th century AD) shrine maiden, horse, dog and other animal-shaped haniwa were introduced. As the practice of having ceremonial burial mounds declined in the mid-6th century AD, haniwa became rarer in the Kinai region; however, the haniwa were still made in abundance in the Kantō region.

It is not uncommon for some haniwa to be painted with red dye or other colors. Besides the cylindrical haniwa (Enkei-haniwa), another common type was the house-shaped haniwa (Keisho-haniwa). Other things that fell into the category of Keisho Haniwa were those shaped like humans, animals, and swords. The details on the haniwa help to give information about the elite buried in the tomb, as well as valuable knowledge of the tools or other objects people of that time utilized. The military haniwa inform archeologists of the different armour and weapons, as well as the status symbols of these military branches.

Significance of the haniwa

Haniwa horse statuette, complete with saddle and stirrups, 6th century
Haniwa chicken statuette. Note the large Haniwa horse in the background.

Originally, the cylindrical type haniwa were set on top of the funeral mounds, so it is believed that they had a purpose in funeral rituals; however, as the haniwa became more developed, they were set towards the outside of the grave area, and it is thought that they were used as boundary markers to mark the borders of the gravesite.

There is a theory that the soul of the deceased would reside in the haniwa, as the earlier haniwa were placed on top of the funeral mounds. There are haniwa that are equipped with weapons and armor, and these are also thought to be containers for souls. The armor and weapons would serve the purpose of driving away evil spirits and protecting the buried ruler from calamity. Because the horse and animal shaped haniwa were normally neatly arranged into a line, it is believed that they were part of a sending-off ceremony.

In modern society

A modern-day depiction of the haniwa in popular culture

Although the religious implications of the haniwa have largely declined in modern society, the sculptures are still prized by many for their aesthetic and historical significance. The works of Shojiro Ishibashi, for example, were heavily influenced by the haniwa.[5] They have been accepted as "Pure Art", according to Time magazine.[6] Beyond simple appreciation as artistic sculptures, modern popular culture has, in some cases, even portrayed the haniwa as containing an actual sentient entity and not just as a simple empty sculpture. The most common portrayal depicts the haniwa with a rounded, pot-like shape, bearing two deep eyes, a wide mouth, and two featureless "arms" on opposite sides of the "pot".

The portrayal of living haniwa has—since the late 1990s—become widespread, being featured in trading cards, video games such as the Animal Crossing and Kirby series, and television. In many of the depictions, the haniwa is primarily presented as a ghostlike, malevolent creature, without attempting to retain the historical aspect of the haniwa's religious nature. In Animal Crossing, haniwas are called gyroids, and are furniture only found buried in the ground.

See also

  • Ushabti – Ancient Egyptian burial sculpture.


  1. ^ 埴輪 挂甲の武人(Japanese)
  2. ^ Evans, Toshie M. (1997). A Dictionary of Japanese Loanwords. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 50.  , Extract of page 50
  3. ^ Kleiner, Fred (2009). Gardner's Art through the Ages: Non-Western Perspectives (13th ed.). Cengage Learning. p. 92.  , Extract of page 92
  4. ^  
  5. ^ The Ceramic Sculpture of Isamu Noguchi
  6. ^ Art: The Haniwa Rage

Park, T. (1988). Haniwa figure of a horse. Art Education, 41(5), 25.

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