Jomon revivalInterest in Japan’s indigenoushunter-gatherers grows
Modern reinterpretations of the wildly imaginative forms and designs seen in the era’s earthenware, tools and jewelry
ALEX K.T. MARTIN
From his hilltop studio in the suburbs of Tokyo, Taku Oshima is reviving an ancient form of body art tradition he believes was practiced by the indigenous hunter-gatherers that inhabited Japan thousands of years ago.
Lines, circles, dots, spirals, and other geometric shapes and patterns are emblazoned on the bodies of his clients. The bold, intricate tattoo designs created by Oshima are immediately recognizable for their enigmatic motifs and solid planes of black ink.
“Archaeological evidence suggests the Jomon people keenly embraced body modification, including dental transfiguration and piercing, as a form of expression,” Oshima says, referring to the earliest culture of prehistoric Japan thought to have lasted roughly between 16,000 years and 3,000 years ago.
“Based on past research, I’ve come to believe they engaged in tattooing as well. They may not be the simply dressed, modest people that Japanese history books portray them to be,” says the 49-year-old master of blackwork, a contemporary form of tattoo art inspired by ancient tribal roots.
Oshima is among a growing number of artists, researchers, filmmakers and other Jomon aficionados casting a new light on the period’s rich culture and mystique represented by the wildly imaginative forms and designs seen in the era’s earthenware, tools and jewelry — artifacts that provide insights into the religious and spiritual dimensions of the people who settled the islands of Japan for more than 10,000 years.
Along with his friend and photographer, Ryoichi “Keroppy” Maeda, Oshima has been involved in Jomon Tribe, an art project focusing on tattoos featuring patterns from the Jomon civilization, a vast expanse of time that constitutes the Neolithic period before farmers from the Asian continent arrived and displaced the native hunter-gatherers.
Much remains a mystery about the Jomon people.
To this day, tens of thousands of ceramics with the period’s namesake cord markings (Jomon) and dogu — humanoid forms shaped and decorated in clay — have been unearthed from numerous settlements stretching from Hokkaido to Kyushu. Tokyo is no exception: Oshima’s house — located in Hachioji, a city west of the capital — is in close proximity to the Tama New Town development area where 964 archaeological sites dating from the Jomon Period up to the Edo Period (1603-1868) have been discovered.
Jomon artifacts are rife with symbolism, with images of fire, water, fertility and animals portrayed in ornately decorated pots, pitchers and other clay figurines. And while there is no known physical evidence pointing to a culture of tattooing, researchers have suggested it was likely that the people of Jomon were inked.
A section dealing with the Japanese people in the “Records of the Three Kingdoms,” written by Chinese bureaucrat Chen Shou in the late third century, describes how the men of Wa (the oldest recorded name of Japan) tattooed their faces and painted their bodies in pink and scarlet. The document, called the “Gishi Wajinden,” explains that the tradition derived from how these people decorated their bodies in order to protect themselves from large fish when diving underwater for food.
And, in 1969, archaeologist Jun Takayama published a book proposing that designs etched into the bodies and faces of Jomon-era dogu figurines were depicting tattoos.
“While it’s difficult to discern whether the patterns engraved on the bodies of dogu are representing clothing, accessories or tattoos, there’s a fair chance that the facial marks were tattoos,” says Oshima, adding that tattoos have a long history in Japan, having been practiced among the indigenous Ainu of Hokkaido and natives of Okinawa.
The women of the Ainu, a tribe considered to be descendants of the Jomon people, bore tattoos around their mouths and the back of their hands as a sign of beauty and adulthood. On the southernmost Ryukyu Islands, women had the back of their hands and fingers tattooed. Known as hajichi, they were marked to ward off bad luck and to get along with their mothers-in-law, the logic being that any woman who could endure the pain of getting inked could tolerate their in-laws.
These indigenous Japanese tattoo cultures were outlawed during the Meiji Period (1868-1912), however, making the art form a vanishing tradition. To protect their heritage, Oshima offers free tattoos to those interested in complete replicas of Ainu and Ryukyu patterns.
“Thankfully there is academic literature documenting these tattoo designs that I can use for reference,” he says.
For Jomon tattoos, however, Oshima takes artistic advantage to ink full-body designs based on various patterns and motifs seen in Jomon relics.
“I’ve taken a leap and assumed they must have had tattoos all over their bodies,” he says.
While it’s difficult to discern whether the patterns engraved on the bodies of dogu are representing clothing, accessories or tattoos, there’s a fair chance that the facial marks were tattoos … I’ve taken a leap and assumed they must have had tattoos all over their bodies”
Above: Ceramic artist Genya Murakami works on a Jomon-style vessel. COURTESY GENYA MURAKAMI
Jomon artifacts first came to light in 1877, when Harvard-trained biologist Edward Sylvester Morse took a train from Tokyo to Yokohama. As he passed through Omori, a district that crosses over modern-day Shinagawa and Ota wards, he looked out the window and saw a mound that he recognized as a prehistoric shell midden built by numerous generations of clam-diggers.
Three months later, Morse returned to the site with assistants and excavated pottery, stone tools, bone tools, and animal and human bones. On the shards of pottery he found were curious rope-like marks that he translated into Japanese as Jomon, a term that now encompasses the whole of the Jomon Period, which is classified into six sub-periods.
Morse’s dig was followed by excavations across the nation that saw discoveries of village-like settlements dotted with Jomon-style pit houses and spectacular pottery and figurines, including the so-called fire-flame vessels and the famous “goggle-eyed” dogu from the Kamegaoka site in Aomori Prefecture.
The unique and varied designs of Jomon pottery and figurines caught the eye of artist Taro Okamoto, inspiring him to create, among other artworks, the famous “Tower of the Sun” sculpture for the 1970 Osaka Expo. Meanwhile, the world of Jomon was introduced overseas by the collection of Sir Robert James Sainsbury and his wife, Lisa.
Interest in the culture soon spawned a movement in the 1970s to reproduce the ancient techniques of Jomon-style ceramics at the Kasori Shell Mounds Museum in Chiba Prefecture, where clay-making, molding and open-firing of pottery are studied to this day.
Genya Murakami, a 32-year-old ceramic artist, grew up next to a Jomon-style pit house-turned-atelier in Hokkaido built by his father, Ifurai — a pioneer in contemporary Jomon pottery who participated in the Kasori sessions before relocating to the northernmost island.
“We strived to live self-sufficiently like the people of Jomon. We pumped groundwater and had a farm nearby where we grew vegetables. There was no electricity in the pit house, so we used lamps,” recalls Murakami, who decided to follow in his father’s footsteps when he was in his early 20s.
“I spent the first three years replicating Jomon dogu and earthenware in exact detail,” he says.
Jomon pottery is built up from the bottom, using coils upon coils of clay made from soil gathered from the volcanic ash layer, which is mixed with water and sand and then left sitting for six months to a year before being handled.
The main tools used to model the vessels are bamboo spatulas and ramie cords. Hundreds of patterns can be created by impressing the cord onto the clay in different ways, such as winding them around thin bamboo, Murakami says. Shells and stones are then used to polish the interior and surface. Finally, the pots are fired by an outdoor bonfire, a process that typically lasts from dawn to dusk.
Jomon pottery is thought to have served multiple functions, including storing food and cooking. Murakami says he believes the elaborate ornamentation featured in the earthenware reflected their ceremonial nature.
“These were made to celebrate life and rebirth, and may have been an embodiment of the prayers people offered to the animals and plants they killed and consumed,” he says.
Numerous interpretations have been made regarding the motifs used in Jomon artifacts. Naoyuki Oshima, a visiting professor at the Sapporo Medical University and former chairman of the Hokkaido Archaeological Association, has proposed that all Jomon relics featured designs symbolizing regeneration and rebirth, including the moon, water, the womb and snakes.
Moreover, Oshima argues that methods used in traditional archaeology are inadequate in grasping the mind of the Jomon people and, to do so, one had to branch out to other fields such as cultural anthropology, religion, folklore and even brain science.
“Archaeologists, for example, say pit houses were real homes inhabited by families, which is based on the presumption that the concept of marriage existed back then,” Oshima says. “But I began to question these premises. Archaeologists base their thinking on the law of contradiction that encompasses ideas such as rationality, economic efficiency, dichotomy, hierarchy, ancestor worship and animism. But would a civilization based on values like manners and morale survive 13,000 years? I believe the people of Jomon had a fundamentally different way of thinking and understanding the world around them.”
Oshima focused on an idea posited by French scholar Lucien Levy-Bruhl called the concept of participation. The “primitive” mind, Levy-Bruhl argued, was not an inferior version of our “civilized” mind but operated in a distinct mode of thought that didn’t address contradictions and didn’t differentiate the supernatural from reality.
Based on that concept, Oshima argues that Jomon pit houses, shell mounds and stone circles were all designed from the image of the womb and functioned as symbols of regeneration. These places could be characterized by the word “topophilia,” he says, a term that refers to the love or emotional connections to certain physical locations. The people of Jomon would visit these sites to pray and celebrate life and rebirth, he says, akin to modern-day institutions such as the Grand Shrines of Ise in Mie Prefecture.
“There were only an estimated 260,000 people at the peak of the population,” Oshima says. “We should assume that in such a sparsely populated hunter-gatherer society, people interacted and communicated in a very different manner from what we are accustomed to.”
Oshima, 69, admits that his theories may be radically different from those adopted by mainstream academia. But the difficulty in penetrating the Jomon mind may be what attracts so many to the mystery-laden era.
Jomon expert Naoyuki Oshima says all Jomon relics feature designs symbolizing regeneration and rebirth. COURTESY OF NAOYUKI OSHIMA
Archaeologists base their thinking on the law of contradiction that encompasses ideas such as rationality, economic efficiency, dichotomy, hierarchy, ancestor worship and animism. But would a civilization based on values like manners and morale survive 13,000 years?”
Filmmaker Nobutaka Yamaoka released a documentary last year titled “Hooked on the Jomon,” in which he interviewed experts on the period from various fields, including archaeologist and renowned Jomon scholar Tatsuo Kobayashi, graphic designer Taku Sato and Murakami’s father, the ceramic artist Ifurai.
“I had no interest in the period until I heard that Jomon people buried their dead children beneath the entrance to their homes,” he says. “The custom was so drastically different from ours that I became curious about who these people were.”
Yamaoka, 54, spent five years visiting museums and archaeological sites dotting the nation and talking to academics, artists and other fans of the culture. The more he learned, however, the more questions he harbored.
“And that’s the beauty of it,” he says. “Rather than analyzing and trying to understand the period based on our own standards, accepting what we don’t know and the fact that people may have lived in a completely different world 5,000 years ago is, in a sense, liberating.”
In this regard, Yamaoka says the way in which the Jomon Period is portrayed in museums, books and archaeological sites may be doing a disservice to the era’s potential as a cultural draw.
“Despite the florid designs featured in Jomon pottery, jewelry and other artifacts, reproductions of pit houses, for example, come off as being very discreet and low-key,” he says. “I think it would be beneficial, in terms of breaking the stereotype and arousing interest in the period, if we portray the culture in a more vivid, colorful light,” he says.
That’s what Akihide Mochizuki has been doing with Jomonzine, a free magazine he launched in 2015. Each issue features a cover girl imitating a dogu figurine pose, and includes travelogues, comic strips, Q&As and even serial fiction — all related in one way or another to the prehistoric period.
“There appears to have been no significant social hierarchy during the Jomon Period, and that may be one reason the era lasted for more than 10,000 years,” the 47-year-old says. “In that sense, I thought it would be interesting and not too far-fetched to feature Jomon culture in the context of modern popular culture.”
What’s more, interest in the ancient society appears to be growing.
There have been dogu-inspired origami, cookies, candies, notebooks and neckties sold. Approximately 350,000 people visited the Tokyo National Museum last year when it hosted a Jomon exhibition, far exceeding its initial goal of 100,000. Yamaoka’s documentary also coincided with the exhibition, giving it a much broader run than he expected.
And on Thursday, the government decided to recommend 17 Jomon sites in northern Japan as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage candidate for 2021.
“The perception of Jomon being a primitive, obsolete period is changing,” Mochizuki says. “Many people are beginning to think Jomon is cool.”
Meanwhile, Oshima and Maeda’s second Jomon exhibition held in a gallery in Tokyo successfully wrapped up on Dec. 1.
“Tattoos tend to be discussed in the context of yakuza and the style developed in the Edo period and onward,” Oshima says. “What we’re trying to express, however, is that it existed long before in various parts of the world in the form of tribal tattoos.”
And Oshima’s Jomon-inspired designs appears to have struck a chord with Japanese descendants living overseas.
“I’ve received requests for Jomon tattoos from American Nikkei who are keen on getting my designs inked to celebrate their ancient ancestry,” he says.