When the Yoshinogari area in northern Kyushu was excavated in 1986, the extent of the ruins led to great excitement that it might be the site of an ancient Yamatai kingdom mentioned in Chinese chronicles. People flooded to visit, and in 1992 it was decided to turn it into a historical park celebrating the Yayoi era (300 BC – 300 AD).
Reconstructed houses have been erected on the very sites of the ruins (which lie beneath them, buried under a protective covering). There’s also an excavated mound on display with genuine burial jar fragments. The result is a surprisingly informative display of Yayoi life, done in consultation with leading experts in the field of archaeology and ancient architecture. As such it enables one to see the latest thinking among Japanese specialists about their past.
There are five main areas: one where the rulers lived; one for politico-religious ceremonies; one a burial site for the ruling elite; one where ceremonial objects were made; and one a market centre with storehouses. The population of this small kingdom is estimated at 5,400.
The overall effect is to show how the move from a nomadic lifestyle to rice-growing communities in Yayoi times led to vested interests and the need for defense, weapons and watchtowers.
It was in Yayoi times that proto-Shinto developed. Like other aspects of Yayoi culture, religious belief derived from the Chinese mainland, as transmitted through Korea. The park’s literature constantly refers to the Chinese situation in the assumptions made about Yoshinogari culture and lifestyle.
One area – Nakanomura – is believed to have been where priests made ritual objects. It’s also believed that they brewed alcohol and raised silkworms in the same compound. In the Kojiki Amaterasu spends her time weaving, and the significance of silkworms and religious ritual is something that Michael Como has explored in Weaving and Binding – Immigrant Gods and Female Immortals in Ancient Japan.
In another of the park’s areas – Kitanaikaku – it is supposed that prayers to ancestors were held. A high priest communed with ancestral spirits and pronounced on matters of state, including setting the dates for important events such as festivals and harvesting. Perhaps it was in just such a village that the famed shaman-queen Himiko lived.
On the roof of religious buildings, as well as on the entrances to the compounds, are wooden bird statues. ’In the Yayoi period, a bird seems to have been a symbol or God’s messenger that brought spirits of crops and exorcised the evil spirit,’ says the park’s literature.
For me personally the most striking object in the whole complex was the shaman’s pillar standing before the burial mound. Here the ancestral spirits – the kami – would have been drawn down for the embryonic nation’s most important rites. The simple pillar reaching up to the clouds is a forerunner of the shinbashira of Ise and the onbashira pillars of Suwa. The legacy of Japan’s shamanic past is thus built into the very fabric of today’s architecture. Even the way of counting kami is with the word for pillar!