The orientation of the Kofun imperial tombs reflects the Japanese Emperors‘ self-understanding as descendants of the Sun Goddess Amaterasu

Aerial view of the so called Mozu-Furuichi Kofuns on a plateau above the Osaka Plain. Photo: Sakai City Government / Unesco World Heritage List

Scientists used high-resolution satellite images to better understand the monuments built from the 3rd to the 6th century AD

A kofun is a tomb or tumulus in Japan, sometimes as a large hill shaped like a keyhole and sometimes surrounded by a moat. Inside, some have a large stone burial chamber, stone paving and clay figures. A research group at the Politecnico di Milano used satellite images to analyze the impressive remains from the Kofun period from around 300 to 538 AD. The results show that the tombs are oriented towards the arc of the rising sun, the Goddess Amaterasu that the Japanese emperors linked to the mythical origin of their dynasty.

The Japanese islands are dotted with thousands of those ancient burial mounds. The most imposing are attributed to the semi-legendary first emperors, while the smaller ones probably belong to court officers and to members of the royal family. The so-called Daisen Kofun is one of the largest monuments ever built on Earth: it measures 486 m in length and about 36 m in height. It is traditionally attributed to Emperor Nintoku, the 16th emperor of Japan. It belongs to a group of tombs recently inscribed in the Unesco World Heritage List.

There are no written sources on these tombs, and excavations are rare and limited to the smaller ones, since the largest are considered the tombs of the first semi-legendary emperors and, as such, are strictly protected by law.

For these reasons, it is impossible to obtain accurate measurements of size, height and orientation.

A smaller Kofun. Photo: alisa_1988_08 / <a href=""target="_blank">Wikimedia Commons</a>, <a href=""target="_blank">Creative Commons License</a>

Now, Norma Baratta, Arianna Picotti and Giulio Magli of the Politecnico di Milano used high-resolution satellite images, which furnish simple but very powerful tools for remote sensing investigations. The scientists’ aim was to know more about the relationship between these fascinating monuments with the landscape and, in particular, with the sky. The team measured the orientation of more than 100 Kofuns and came to interesting conclusions.

The results – just published in the scientific journal „Remote Sensing“ – indicate a strong connection of the Kofun entrance corridors with the Sun’s movement at the sky. In particular, the Daisen Kofun is oriented towards the Sun rising at the winter solstice.

This orientation did not happen by chance: rather, it is in full agreement with the Japanese imperial tradition. Indeed, the mythical origin of the dynasty of the Emperors considers them as direct descendants of the Sun Goddess Amaterasu.

Remote Sensing

Unesco World Heritage List

Source: Politecnico di Milano

(25.01.2022, USA: 01.25.2022)