Article excerpt

Ten days in Japan must count among the archaeological treats of a life-time--especially if you are the guest of the team putting together a World Heritage bid--and so get to see lots of sites. My invitation arrived because I am supposed to know something about burial mounds (the subject of the bid) but even within this narrow remit ten days is scarcely long enough. Japan sports 200 000 mounds, coming in all shapes and sizes: round, square, scallop-shaped and flat-topped. Cream of the crop is the zempo-koen-fun, which (seen from the air) is shaped like a key-hole and surrounded by one or more moats. It grows to immense size: more than 150m long is common, and the largest, Nintoku-tenno-ryo Kofun (presumed burial of the emperor Nintoku) is 486m long and 35.8m high. Examples cluster in southern Japan, and many of the largest cluster in two districts of modern Osaka, Mozu and Furuichi. They first appear around the third century AD and peak in the fifth, this being also the time that imports show a rise in contact with China and Korea. In archaeological tradition, they offer an example of a state forming out of an Iron Age background; in historical tradition, the arrival of the first emperors. From a distance the huge kofun look like castles or hillforts and it is clear from those few that have been investigated and restored to their original condition, that they were much more than monumental graves. A flat-topped circular mound is abutted by a long rising stone-clad apron, the whole earthwork descending to its moat in two or more terraces. It looks not unlike an outdoor theatre. Since the principal burial is normally inserted into the top of the mound rather than lying underneath it, it is evident that these giant flat-topped leviathans functioned as places to gather and grade large numbers of people before--and probably after--they were used to bury illustrious ancestors. The edges of the terraces and moat were originally furnished with long rows of standing haniwa, pottery cylinders or models of boats, horses and people. As if the size and grandeur of the kofun were not sufficient to earn the world's admiration, their likely role as assembly places for socially stratified clan groups must make them outstanding candidates for World Heritage inscription, on any intellectual standard.

Of course, this being the real world, the determining standard is not intellectual, but conceptual. A most impressive presentation of kofun, together with much of Japan's astonishing repertoire of burial mounds, is to be seen on Kyushu island, particularly in the rural archaeological park at Saitobaru, where 333 mounds are exquisitely displayed around a state-of-the art museum that any major city would envy. By contrast, the World Heritage hid is focused on mounds in the Osaka conurbation, and owing to their legendary association with early emperors, the majority are in the care of the Imperial Household Agency, regarded as sacred ground and fenced off. Today they resemble large woody hills pushing up through the urban fabric--while outside their fence, and often hard up against it, are the houses and industries of Osaka Prefecture's 8.8 million people. With this degree of encumbrance and encroachment, combined with so little access, the Osaka mounds may struggle to meet UNESCO criteria.

And here is a paradox: the maintenance of the imperial tradition has preserved the mounds, but excluded the public. World Heritage principles would prefer a conserved core area where public access was easy, rather than numerous dispersed mounds peaking like bushy islands in a sea of hotels, factories, flats, offices, flyovers, traffic and dangling wires. But are they right? Behind these principles still lurks the leitmotiv of 'cultural property', trophy sites as demanded by governments who mostly initiate the bids. The result is the promotion of elite enclaves, often built around a myth, the unstated purpose of which is to attract tourists and emphasise nationhood. …