Satellite Images Reveal Japanese Kofun Tombs all Aligned to Rising Sun

A team of scientists has mapped the alignments and orientations of hundreds of ancient Japanese Kofun keyhole-shaped burials, only to discover that not some of them, but all of them, face towards the rising sun on the horizon. But why?

With their size dependent on the social importance of the inhabitants, ancient Japanese tomb mounds are peppered across the island nation. Shaped like keyholes, the largest of these highly-protected sites are called Kofun, and can measure up to 1,600 feet (488 m) in length, 980 feet (299 m) across and as high as 118 feet (36 m).

Because Kofuns are associated with Japan’s mythological first emperors, archaeologists are not permitted to excavate, or even enter most of these sites. However, a team of Italian researchers has used satellite imagery to reveal that all of the tombs are all oriented toward the “arc of the rising sun.”

The site of the Kofun tombs considered within the satellite imagery study. (Google Earth Pro / Baratta et. al)

The site of the Kofun tombs considered within the satellite imagery study. (Google Earth Pro / Baratta et. al )

Kofun Funerary Mounds: Assuring the Earth, Sky and Deceased Were One

Hundreds of sacred funerary mounds were created between the 3rd and 7th century AD. Today they are protected by the Imperial Household Agency in the center of Sakai City. While the largest mounds are dedicated to the semi-legendary first emperors of Japan , the smaller ones are believed to have been for court officers who served the early emperors, and for other members of the first Japanese royal family. The largest ancient tomb in Japan, known as the Daisen Kofun, is a UNESCO world heritage site that was dedicated to Emperor Nintoku, the 16th emperor of Japan.

Some of the Mozu-Furuichi Kofun Group. Sakai, Osaka, Japan (TM / Adobe Stock)

Some of the Mozu-Furuichi Kofun Group. Sakai, Osaka, Japan ( TM / Adobe Stock)

A team of scientists from the Polytechnic University of Milan recently published their new research paper in the journal Remote Sensing . Study authors Norma Baratta, Arianna Picotti and Giulio Magli of the Politecnico di Milano used ultra high-resolution satellite imagery , which they describe as “a powerful tool for remote sensing investigations.”

The team measured the angles and orientations of more than 100 Kofuns, disclosing the hidden solar pattern underlying the building of these Japanese monuments. Binding together the deceased with the earth and sky, every single tomb was orientated at varying degrees east, facing the rising sun.

Japanese sun goddess Amaterasu. (Public domain)

Japanese sun goddess Amaterasu. ( Public domain )

Aligned in Death with an Ancient Goddess of Destruction

The researchers wrote that this eastward orientation “isn’t by chance” and is in perfect accordance with “the Japanese imperial tradition, and the mythical origin of the dynasty.” The first emperors of Japan asserted their divine right to rulership by claiming to be direct descendants from the Sun Goddess Amaterasu – the highest deity in Japanese mythology who in legends hid in a cave causing disasters in heaven and earth.

The corridors of the keyhole-shaped Kofun tombs were aligned as such, so that the rising Sun and the Moon were visible in the entrance portals every day of the year. Furthermore, the orientation of the largest Kofun, the Daisen Kofun, is oriented directly towards where the Sun rises at the winter solstice , around the 21st December.

The site of the Kofun tombs considered within the satellite imagery study. (Google Earth Pro / Baratta et. al)

The site of the Kofun tombs considered within the satellite imagery study. (Google Earth Pro / Baratta et. al )

Ancient Chinese Burial Customs, In Japan

This discovery not only updates Japan’s astronomical heritage, by uniting a large number of temples, shrines, and other architectural landmarks in a common theme, but it also reflects developments of native socio-cultural systems from elsewhere on the Asian continent. A 2018 ScienceAlert article interviewed Italian archaeoastronomer, Giulio Magli, who studies the relationships between ancient architecture and celestial arrangements.

Having studied the orientations and alignments of much older tombs in China, Magli believes the “distinct patterns of orientation” among the tombs of the Western Han emperors might have to do with how some family traditions chose 2a different way to show how powerful they were.”

The researcher explained that to some rulers the cardinal points of north, south, east, and west were all important, and “lining up your tomb with the globe’s axis was a sign that you were still number one.” We can safely speculate that the recent discovery, that all of the Japanese Kofun tombs face the rising Sun, was also an attempt to assert family power, even in the afterlife.

Top image: Aerial photo of the Daisenryo Kofun , the largest of the Mozu tombs, a group of megalithic tombs located in Sakai, Japan. Source: TM / Adobe Stock

By Ashley Cowie

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