Puzzle of the past:
Who is buried in Kusakabe's tomb?

By William Wetherall

A version of this article appeared in
Far Eastern Economic Review, 125(31), 2 August 1984, pages 31-33


Only examination-weary history students in the United States fall for it: "Who is buried in Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's tomb?" A Japanese version of the joke might be: "Whose honourable cadaver graces the vault of Prince Kusakabe's Mausoleum?" And no doubt it too would leave many puzzled.

But to some Japanese the loose ends of their early history is no joking matter. Those on the payroll of the mausolea and graves section of the archives and mausolea department of the Imperial Household Agency (IHA), for example, are duty-bound to defend official tomb identifications which were made in the middle of the 19th century and based on shaky oral and written traditions.

A scholar who helped "authenticate" the tombs is reported to have said, "We had a number of imperial burials to locate, and a somewhat larger number of small hills and mounds to work with; unfortunately, we had more mounds than we had emperors, so inevitably there were a few mounds left over."

One of the rejects was Takamatsuzuka, a comparatively small round tumulus in Nara prefecture's historical Oke-no-tani (Valley of the Imperial House), which centres on the so-called "sacred line" running due south from the site of the ancient Fujiwara capital in modern Kashiwara city. The mound had been a contender for the mausoleum of Emperor Monmu (AD 697-707), but lost out to a larger tomb in the same area.

When opened in 1972, Takamatsuzuka's horizontal chamber-- though robbed in the past--revealed the most exquisite polychrome murals ever found on the walls of a Japanese tomb. And their unequivocally Korean style cast serious doubts on some cherished chapters of conventional Japanese history--chapters which minimise the role of Koreans and their culture in the early formation of Japanese society. Moreover, a number of discoveries (in both Japan and Korea) since Takamatsuzuka make the early history of Northeast Asia one of the most exciting enigmas in the archaeological world. The most recent Japanese find--involving another non-IHA tomb--deepens the rift between the agency and those who disagree with its identifications.

IHA is the curator for some 900 imperial-family graves, including the mausolea of more than 100 emperors, a handful of empresses, and a number of crown princes who did not live long enough to reign. One such prince was Kusakabe, who died in 689 at the age of 27 before he could succeed his mother, Empress Jito (686-697), who had succeeded his father, Emperor Tenmu (672-686). Jito reigned until Kusakabe's son, Emperor Monmu, was old enough to ascend. It was a politically important period fraught with intense rivalry, especially within the imperial family: more than one of Kusakabe's half brothers, if not the crown prince himself, were victim of palace intrigues.


Kusakabe's "official" tomb was identified in 1862 on the basis of vague historical references and dubious local testimony. It is called Okamiya Tenno Ryo (Emperor Okamiya Mausoleum), reflecting the prince's posthumous title. But less than 300 m away--within the grounds of the Kasuga shrine in present-day Takatori--was another candidate for the prince's tomb, a small round mound called Tsukamyojin. When excavated in April this year, Tsukamyojin measured 18 m across--the same size as Takamatsuzuka some 2 km north--but only 3 m high compared to Takamatsuzuka's 5-m rise. Hence the surprise when excavators unearthed a burial chamber measuring about 3 m long by 2 m wide b 2 in high-some four times the volume of Takamatsuzuka's approximately, 3 m by 1 m by 1 m dimensions, and of notably finer masonry,

Tsukamyojin was marked by a stone vigil lantern--people living near the shrine claim the lantern has been lit every night since it was erected in 1851. Local folklore has it that informants directed the government to what later became IHA's Okamiya Tenno Ryo, fearing they would be evicted from their land if they espoused the belief that Kusakabe had been buried in Tsukamyojin.

Excavators at the Nara prefecture Kashiwara Archaeological Research Institute took the local stories at face value, in much the same way as German Homerist Heinrich Schliemann (1822-90) was guided by the Iliad and the Odyssey to the treasures of Troy and Mycenae. And their efforts--like Schliemann's--have paid royal dividends of a kind. The excavation uncovered a horizontal stone chamber of a unique design found mainly in Korea. Although the ceiling of the vault had been plundered along with most of the grave's accessories, it appeared from the structure of the double walls that it had been gabled like a house roof. All that remained inside the tomb were fragments from a lacquered "imperial class" wooden coffin; 50 of the 10-cm iron nails that had held it together; a circular gilded-bronze coffin fitting; and six teeth which dental pathologists have determined to be from a person aged in the 20s or 30s. Shards from associated ritual vessels date the mound back to the late seventh century.

While some scholars are confident that no other tomb in the area comes closer to meeting all the conditions that would have to be met by Kusakabe's mausoleum, most are taking a more cautious position: for one thing, there was no epitaph proclaiming it to be the tomb of Prince Kusakabe. Moreover, IHA's candidate has never been systematically explored-and may never be, if the agency persists in regarding its graves as something more sacred than historical truth or speculation.

As important as the question of who was buried in Tsukamyojin is who built it. A tomb of similar construction has been found in the area of Korea that was formerly Paekche--the Korean kingdom most closely related to the Yamato court. It was through this umbilical connection with Paekche (subjugated in 660 by a rival Korean kingdom) that Buddhism, and most other element of continental culture, entered Japan--often with the priests, scholars, scribes, and artisans who bore much-coveted knowledge.

Many Paekche refugees fled to Japan, but they were neither the first nor the last waves of Koreans to cross the straits. As late as the beginning of the ninth century, a well-known Japanese peerage identified nearly one-third of the aristocratic clans (with titles of nobility) living in the Heian capital at Kyoto and seven surrounding provinces as being of immigrant--especially Korean--origin.

Doshisha University archaeologist Koichi Mori--one of Japan's leading authorities on early East Asian tombs--sharply criticises IHA's policy of disallowing excavation of sites it legally protects as the alleged resting places of imperial-family ancestors. An ardent campaigner against IHA's a priori designations, Mori rejects the official appellations in favour of "secular" names" that do not presume knowledge of the identity of the person interred.


But IHA's refusal to permit the tombs in its care to be violated by scientific spades may be a blessing in disguise, if one shares the views of University of Washington historical-linguist Roy Andrew Miller. While siding with Mori's contention that the sacred tombs have been pillaged in the past (and that IHA's guard rails do little to prevent further vandalism), Miller believes that the bigger threat to such historical monuments may be the archaeologists themselves. They, he claims, unwittingly destroy more than they preserve by exposing buried artifacts to "the ravages of our polluted air, and to the uncertainties of the hit-or-miss procedures now available for preservation."

Burial mounds were so prominent in early Japanese society that the late-third up to mid-sixth centuries are known as the Kofun'(old tumulus) period. No book on Japanese cultural history is complete without an aerial photograph of a colossal moated tomb with the square fronts and round backs which give-it the appearance of an inverted keyhole of the old-fashioned "skeleton key" design. 'The sizes of these tumuli--built by the hundreds testify to the political and economic prowess of the Yamato rulers of the fourth and fifth centuries, the period in which most of the larger mounds were built. The largest examples run nearly 0.5 km in length and compare in volume with the pyramids at Giza in Egypt.

Japanese scholars tend to argue that the earliest round-mound tombs in Japan developed from local burial practices, while continental influences can be seen in the later square-mound tombs. But the keyhole tumuli long have been considered peculiar to Japan, despite certain Chinese tombs with double mounds which suggest their shape.

But the summer of 1983 brought reports from South Korea that a few keyhole tumuli had been found in Kyongsang Namdo province, facing the Japan sea on the southern tip of the peninsula. South Korean scholars dated the tombs to the third and early fourth centuries, making them as old--or older--than the oldest keyhole mounds in Japan. Mori has visited the controversial Korean tombs and agrees that they are indeed keyhole mounds. But he and other Japanese scholars are not convinced they provide the archetypal "missing links."

The Korean connection in Japanese history has always been known and it was even acknowledged in pre-World War II propaganda which maintained that the emperor was a direct descendant of the gods. But after the war, also, the intimacy of the connection has usually been denied with regard to the genetic roots of the imperial family. And so what has most shocked conservative historians is the strong suggestion that Takamatsuzuka and Tsukamyojin may have enshrined a Japanese prince--if not an emperor--of Korean ancestry.

The evidence is, as yet, too soft to compel unequivocal acceptance of the Korean view that everything of cultural importance in Japan came from the peninsula. But it does serve to remind Japanese, especially those who have trouble viewing their history in the context of greater Asia, that most of the wonders of the insular Yamato world--including its people--probably have continental origins.