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Haniwa: Ancient Japan's Terracotta Warriors

Updated on May 22, 2016
The Funizuka Haniwa king on display at Meiji Daigaku Museum, Tokyo.
The Funizuka Haniwa king on display at Meiji Daigaku Museum, Tokyo. | Source

Welcome to the Domain of the Haniwa!

One of the most fascinating, intriguing, and mysterious objects to emerge from ancient Japan is the haniwa (埴輪, meaning "clay ring" in Japanese). These terracotta figurines that decorated the tombs and burial mounds of Kofun-era Japan were originally used for funerary purposes. However, over the centuries, they have become "ambassadors" from the Kofun period that have taught those of us in the modern age about what life was like then. Also, in modern-day Japan, they have become cultural icons in their own right that have fascinated many and inspired a number of artists, Japanese and foreign alike.

But what are the history of these eerie yet fascinating figurines? What were their purpose during the Kofun period and what do they represent? What is their legacy in modern-day Japan? Read on and find out!

A Kofun-era Haniwa soldier on display at the Tokyo National Museum. This statue is a National Treasure of Japan.
A Kofun-era Haniwa soldier on display at the Tokyo National Museum. This statue is a National Treasure of Japan. | Source

What Are the Haniwa and Who Created Them?

The haniwa have their beginnings in the late Yayoi period in Japan. During this time, small statues about 3 feet (1 meter) in length appeared on the graves of nobility. These statues were made of earthenware, were cylindrical-shaped, and had legs at the base. Some of these statues had insignia or patterns on or around the torso.

It was during the Kofun period (meaning "mound" in Japanese. This is also known as the Tumulus period) in Japan that the haniwa as we know them came into existence. The Kofun period lasted from 300-500 AD. Kofun society was a highly militaristic, clan-centered society that, like their next-door neighbors in the Korean peninsula, buried their dead nobility in elaborate mounds.

Haniwa are very similar to the famous terracotta warriors found in Xi'an province, China. Haniwa figurines and statues were made of characters from all walks of life in Kofun-era Japan. The first haniwa were cylindrical-shaped, but over time horses, soldiers, clan chieftains, houses, kings, women, and military vehicles became the standard. Other figures from Kofun society such as funeral singers, royal attendants, and dancers have been found in the tombs as well. Often haniwa are in the famous "dancing haniwa" pose with their arms outstretched in a dance-like pose.

Haniwa served several primary purposes. First and foremost, they were used in the funeral rituals of the Kofun period and protected the deceased in the afterlife. Secondly, they were used as tomb decorations (much like tombstone wreaths we place on graves today) and often placed prominently on top of the tomb or mound so they could be seen from a distance. Third, haniwa were used as retainer walls to protect the burial mounds (called 'Kofun') from erosion and to mark the grave boundaries. Finally, haniwa were also of some spiritual and religious importantance to the people who lived in that era.

Another theory about the purpose of haniwa is that they contain the souls of the deceased. This could explain why they were placed on top of the burial mounds.

Haniwa also became a form of ceramic art, the legacy of which has lasted up to the present day. They offer a very detailed depiction of life during the Kofun period in Japan and tell many tales about the people who lived during that time. They are an important key to understanding the origins of the samurai and the nobility of ancient Japan.

A haniwa clan chieftain from around 500 AD discovered in Ibaraki prefecture, Japan on display at the British Museum.
A haniwa clan chieftain from around 500 AD discovered in Ibaraki prefecture, Japan on display at the British Museum. | Source

Characteristics of the Haniwa

Haniwa were built as their name implies: From terracotta clay rings stacked on top of each other from the base up. Haniwa were often built in a hurry to accommodate funeral ceremonies and to be seen from a distance. As such, they were built simplistically.

One of the most profound features of a haniwa statue is its smile. The haniwa's smile is one of the earliest examples of a smile in Japanese art. This smile is not necessarily there to express pleasure, but to ward off evil spirits by laughing.

Haniwa statues and figurines often wear clothing of the Kofun period and carry military implements of that time. Soldiers are depicted in full armor and carry swords and spears. Kings are decked in crowns and jewels. Horses wear bridles and are often pulling carts. They teach us much about the period of time they come from.

More often than not, horse and animal haniwa were placed in rows. Some have theorized that this was part of a "farewell ceremony" elaborately arranged for the deceased.

What Happened to the Haniwa?

When Buddhism was introduced to Japan, the Kofun period officially came to an end. As the Japanese people adopted Buddhism, the building of elaborate mounds for the dead nobility stopped and the people focused on building temples instead. People began cremating their dead rather than burying them in mounds.

Since no more mounds were being built, there was no longer any need for haniwa. They were no longer manufactured after the Kofun period.

Haniwa in Modern Art

Some 1700 years after the haniwa started to make their appearances on ancient Japanese graves, haniwa have become both an icon of Japan and an influence on modern art, both in Japan and abroad. Also, haniwa have become an art form in themselves! Their ancient qualities and minimalist, almost-blank appearance appeal to many artists and non-artists alike.

Haniwa were brought to the American public's attention during the 1950s thanks to the late Japanese-American artist and architect Isamu Noguchi. Noguchi had his first encounters with the haniwa while visiting Japan in 1931. This experience was the inspiration for what he called "the sculpture of spaces" and would continue to be an inspiration for his work throughout the rest of his life. The inspiration from the haniwa are very evident in his 1947 sculpture Sculpture to be Seen from Mars, which bears a striking resemblance to the face of a well as the famous face on Mars which would be discovered 29 years later!

Also in the USA, a replica haniwa head was one of many ancient art replicas sold as part of a mail-order business by policitican/art entrepeneur Nelson Rockefeller during the 1970s. These replica haniwa were made by European craftspeople and was based on the original from Rockefeller's own collection. He sold well over 1,000 of these for $75 and it was his most popular item!

A modern-day haniwa statue at the Himeji Central Park in Himeji, Hyōgo Prefecture, Japan.
A modern-day haniwa statue at the Himeji Central Park in Himeji, Hyōgo Prefecture, Japan. | Source

Haniwa in Modern Japanese Society

In today's Japan, the haniwa has become a Japanese icon. Haniwa can be found on clothing, toys, posters, and more. Replica haniwa figurines can be found in souvenir shops in Japan. And haniwa can also be found advertising parks and businesses!

Since the 1990s, living haniwa have become popular characters in a number of Japanese anime and manga series. One of the most famous is the haniwa in the popular anime and manga series Yu-Gi-Oh. This particular haniwa is probably the most famous in the world!

Haniwa can also be found in a number of computer and video games from Japan and elsewhere in the world. The "Age of Empires" game series features some chapters set in Kofun-period Japan. And of course, "Final Fantasy Legend II" has a chapter titled "Legend of the Haniwa" where the Haniwas are holding the Seven Sword in the Center of the World. It's up to the player to take down the Haniwa and rescue the sword!

Haniwa have also made a number of movie appearances. In the Daimajin trilogy from 1966, the giant mountain god, or Daimajin, resides in a haniwa-type statue tucked away in the mountains overlooking the village he protects. In the 2001 film Onmyōji, the audience gets to see some of the spiritual aspects of the haniwa and their place in ancient Japanese society and culture.

In Conclusion

Haniwa come to us from a place and time that few of us in the West know anything about and are only beginning to understand as we learn more about Japan and Japanese history. Just as they have since the Kofun period, Haniwa will continue to teach the people of the world what life was like in Kofun-era Japan for many centuries to come. Also, their influence and presence in Japanese art and media will probably continue to be felt for many years to come.

We have learned much about haniwa statues over the years, but the aura of mystery surrounding these statues will no doubt hide many of the secrets behind the haniwa forever.


Submit a Comment
  • truefaith7 profile imageAUTHOR


    6 years ago from USA

    I would love to visit Miyazaki someday taken1358. It would be a fantastic experience! As for the Japanese sleeping experience, that's something else worth trying out and is a unique experience of its own!

  • profile image


    6 years ago

    thank you for my comment, truefaith7.

    Please come to my home town, Miyazaki, someday.

    If you want to sleep in the Tatami instead of bed, please see this website. Almost all of the Japanese sleep in Futon on the Tatami instead of bed.

  • truefaith7 profile imageAUTHOR


    6 years ago from USA

    Many thanks for your comments taken1358, and for sharing that haniwa with us. I'm so glad you enjoyed my Haniwa hub.:-D That is an amazing haniwa statue on that website. It looks so much like the haniwa of old! The craftsmen or women did a wonderful job on that statue. I would love to visit Miyazaki someday and see the Haniwa statues up close. It would be an experience I'd never forget!

  • profile image


    6 years ago

    I found the figure of Haniwa in the site, it is interesting. the bird on his arm can hunt other animal.

  • profile image


    6 years ago

    As a Japanese, I am happy to the article of Haniwa.

    I am living in Miyazaki, the palce of Haniwa.

    I was very moved to see a series of Haniwa in fact.

    Do you know where you buy it? If you come to Miyazaki, please see them.

  • truefaith7 profile imageAUTHOR


    6 years ago from USA

    Thank you very much Vanderleelie! It is fascinating how the Kofun-era artisans used the haniwa's smile for that purpose....and how a smile can have that much power. The culture surrounding the haniwa is very fascinating indeed!

  • profile image


    6 years ago

    A good explanation of the cultural significance of the haniwa sculptures of Japan. I am intrigued by the artists' use of a smile to deter evil spirits. Voted up, interesting and shared.

  • truefaith7 profile imageAUTHOR


    7 years ago from USA

    Glad you enjoyed the hub Greekgeek! I agree. Haniwa - and the Kofun period in general - are very fascinating. Good luck learning more about Japan! There's more to Japanese history and culture than meets the eye and always something new to learn!

  • Greekgeek profile image


    7 years ago from California

    Oh, fascinating! I'm trying to learn more about Japan than I've gotten from Miyazaki films and Final Fantasy games (which I'm embarrassed to love), and this is one more piece of the puzzle.


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