Following-in-death in early Japan

By William Wetherall

Doctoral dissertation (PhD in Asian Studies)
University of California, Berkeley, 4 December 1982
xxxiii, 608 pages

See Following in death in early Japan on "Wetherall" site for extracts.

Abstract as published in
Dissertation Abstracts International
Volume 44, Number 1, 1983
University Microfilms International Order No. DA8313017

Suicidal and homicidal following-in-death in Japan,
as seen from classical sources and archaeological findings
concerning life in ancient Asia, Mediterranean, and Europe

The Wei chih, a 3rd century AD Chinese history, reports that over one-hundred male and female slaves followed-in-death Queen Himiko, the ruler of the Wa, the dominant ethnic group in the Japanese archipelago. The practice of following-in-death [hsun in Chinese, sun in Korean, and jun in Japanese] is also imputed to a Korean people called the Puyo.

Following-in-death is a common theme in classical Chinese literature, and its practice in ancient China is corroborated archaeologically. The Shih chi, a 1st century BC Chinese history, reports incidents of following-in-death in early China, but states that the practice had been prohibited. Thus Chinese ethnographers, like their Roman counterparts, were able to attribute the practice of human sacrifice to a neighboring group as a sign of its barbarity.

The Nihon shoki, the first Japanese national history, similarly relates that following-in-death had been practiced in early Japan but was then outlawed. The Korean Samguk sagi also reports the practice and proscription of following-in-death in early Korea.

The Japanese and Korean histories are written in Chinese. Like their Chinese models, both associate following-in-death with an earlier period, as though to show that Sinified Japan and Korea had become civilized. In Japan, however, the practice is not archaeologically established, while the Korean evidence is ambiguous.

It is therefore concluded that following-in-death may not have been practiced in early Japan as stated in the early texts. If not, then the Wei chih account of Himiko's burial could be seen as an embellishment, while the Nihon shoki notices could be explained as legends, myths, and folk tales, some of them diffused from the continent, used first to affirm the Chinese account and then to remove its stigma.