Jōmon Culture Thrives in Japan

The Jōmon culture in prehistoric Japan persisted for nearly ten thousand years and was known for its pottery, which had distinctive cord markings on the surface and was some of the earliest pottery in the world.

Summary of Event

The Jōmon period, one of the better-recorded periods in prehistoric Japan, is characterized by pottery decorated with jōmon (cord markings). The period follows the Paleolithic or Pre-Ceramic period, and the culture meets the criteria of Mesolithic to Neolithic elsewhere in the world. During the Paleolithic stage in Japan, its inhabitants used only chipped stone tools in the hunting-gathering economy. Although the Jōmon peoples also subsisted by hunting, fishing, and gathering, the production of pottery for storing and cooking food indicates that their adaptive skills had advanced over those of the Paleolithic peoples.

Jōmon pottery is the first ceramic ware produced in Japan and among the oldest pottery in the world. The shards from Fukui cave in Nagasaki Prefecture, Kyūshū, were dated c. 10,000 b.c.e. by the carbon-14 radiocarbon dating process. The Fukui shards are largely accepted as some of the oldest Jōmon pottery and mark the beginning of the Jōmon period. Jōmon culture lasted for nearly 10,000 years, peaking around 3000 b.c.e. and continuing until around 300 b.c.e., when it was replaced by Yayoi, a more advanced culture marked by rice cultivation and the use of metal. Throughout the ten millennia, pottery making was Jōmon’s essential activity, and the vessels spread from Hokkaidō to Okinawa with great emphasis on eastern Japan. The Jōmon vessels, which maintained cord-marking motifs throughout their long history, present both chronological and regional variations in their types and modes.

The chronology of the Jōmon period varies. Some posit its beginning at 12,000 b.c.e. or earlier, while some place it as late as 8000 or 6000 b.c.e. The period is, however, generally agreed to have lasted from around 10,000 to 300 b.c.e. The Jōmon period is subdivided into six phases on the basis of the pottery types. The dates, which vary by the source, are Incipient Jōmon (c. 10,500-7500); Earliest Jōmon (c. 7500-5000); Early Jōmon (c. 5000-3500); Middle Jōmon (c. 3500-2500); Late Jōmon (c. 2500-1000), and Latest Jōmon (c. 1000-300).

Jōmon pottery was made of unrefined, low-fired clay. From the Incipient to the Earliest phase, production consisted of deep bowls with round or pointed bottoms and wavy lip-zones, which were suitable for cooking or boiling food. The tapered bottom made the vessel stable when placed in the soil. The decorative patterns include markings made by pressing shells and cords into, or by rolling a thin stick on, the clay surface of the vessels. The shell marks were popular in northern Japan, but pressing or rolling patterns were more often used in western Japan.

The development taking place in the Jōmon culture becomes evident in the Earliest phase. Archaeological excavations in the late twentieth century have provided evidence that habitation took place earlier in southern Japan rather than in the northern areas. For example, in 1997, the remains of forty-six pit houses dated around 7500 b.c.e. were discovered in the Uenohara site in Kagoshima Prefecture, Kyūshū. The warm environment of this southern island is theorized to have made habitation possible earlier than it was on the main island. However, the continued climatic warming trend is believed to have encouraged people’s migration to and habitation of the highland regions. During the Early and Middle Jōmon phases, increases in settlements and in lifestyle stabilization can be seen at various sites throughout Japan. In these phases, villages were established, and harvests were stored.

Jōmon culture seems to have reached its zenith in the Middle Jōmon phase. The largest Middle Jōmon site, Sannai Maruyama in Aomori Prefecture, which was uncovered in 1992, necessitated a full revision of existing views on the Jōmon period. Discoveries at this site date to around 3500-2000 b.c.e. and include large-scale pit dwellings and other buildings, graves, cylindrical earthenware, more than seven hundred clay figurines, lacquerware, an oar, and other accessories. The lacquerware and a braid made of vines are considered to date from around 3500 b.c.e. The finds include highly technical products and suggest the existence of artisans. An oar and semiprecious stones, such as amber and jade, from distant places suggest Jōmon people engaged in sailing and trading. More than five hundred buildings remain, including large pit houses with a hearth in the center, probably used for communal life. An enormous pillar-supported structure was possibly used for ceremonies. Storehouses from around 2500 b.c.e. were constructed in the raised-floor mode, which is the technique often seen in the storage buildings of the subsequent Yayoi period. The Jōmon had advanced skills in engineering and formed a cooperative society. The burial sites for children were usually located near dwellings, and adults were buried at more removed sites. In 1998, seven stone circles were discovered along a passage of graves that was a cemetery for adults. Along with clay figurines, stone circles are often found near burial grounds, suggesting a religious function.

The Jōmon seemed to have been engaged in the cultivation of crops to support their large settlements. Thus far, the crops have been found to include starchy yam and taro. However, research based on an analysis of pollen and DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) strongly suggests that Jōmon people cultivated chestnut and walnut trees. The cultivation of chestnut trees is especially notable in eastern Japan and may be one of the important factors behind the greater development of Jōmon culture in that region.

A stable economy and large habitation further promoted pottery manufacture. The pottery vessels found in the Middle Jōmon sites are plentiful and highly decorated. The types and styles of vessels are extensive, as they apparently served various purposes from practical to ceremonial. The earlier cord-marking patterns were often replaced by three-dimensional designs that involved applying clay pieces to the surface of the vessel. The sculptural treatment sometimes extended to the use of zoomorphic or anthropomorphic motifs on the rim areas. A few vessel types including Katsusaka, Daigi, and Umataka are particularly noted for their decorative styles. Katsusaka pottery produced by mountain dwellers in central Japan often consists of cylindrical urns or pots featuring highly sculptural forms and decorative raised-line patterns. Daigi pottery of northern Japan features the application of thin coils shaping a swirl to the surface of the vessel, which is incised by a combed pattern; the beauty of the pottery is in the contrast of the two patterns. The most decorative and sculptural vessels can be found in Umataka pottery, found in the Hokuriku district. The flame-type pottery forms flamboyant, pierced projections that resemble leaping flames above the simple cylindrical body.

In the Middle Jōmon phase, the warming trend peaked, and a colder climate emerged. The cold forced migration to the eastern coast of Honshū, the main island. In these newer sites, the pottery is characterized by a sharp decline in decoration and an increase in the number of unpretentious vessels. The designs are relatively plain, with erased cord markings, and emphasize the form of the pots. Some vessels have spouts and hooks for hanging and thinner walls. They exhibit fine workmanship, suggesting more sophisticated methods of manufacturing and an increase in the number of potters.

The clay figurines excavated from the earlier Jōmon sites were produced continually during the later phases. The figurines, which usually take the shape of women, are often interpreted as symbols of fertility or food gathering. Some researchers believe that the mass production of female figurines indicates that the Jōmon culture was a woman-centered society. Alternatively, some researchers believe the figurines represent deities. In the Latest Jōmon phase, the figurines were created in an abstract manner, with stress often placed on the face. Examples include a figurine with a heart-shaped face in Gunma Prefecture and figurines with enormous eyes, reminiscent of snow goggles. Such figurines may represent deities by emphasizing the eyes as windows of the soul. The Jōmon population decreased remarkably during the final phase, probably because of the colder climate, contagious diseases, and a new cultural group arriving from the continent.


The Jōmon period lasted for nearly ten thousand years, and the culture developed continually, centered on its pottery. The decorative patterns of Jōmon pottery are unique. The vessels and figurines are not only the product of the Jōmon people’s religious beliefs but also extraordinary art objects that are formed based on their practical needs. Discoveries in the late twentieth century and beyond reveal the Jōmon people’s lifestyle to be far beyond the primitive one that earlier scholars described. A global archaeological perspective or an ecological viewpoint may further clarify the long-lasting history of the Jōmon people and their pottery.

Further Reading

  • Fitzhugh, Ben, and Junko Habu, eds. Beyond Foraging and Collecting: Evolutionary Change in Hunter-Gatherer Settlement Systems. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum, 2002. New research on the changes in the settlements in the prehistoric period on a global scale, including the Jōmon sites. Index.
  • Imamura, Kenji. Prehistoric Japan: New Perspectives on Insular East Asia. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1996. Contains up-to-date research on the prehistoric period from an East Asian perspective. Bibliography and index.
  • Kenrick, Douglas M. Jōmon of Japan: The World’s Oldest Pottery. London; New York: Kegan Paul International, 1995. A survey of stylistic variations of Jōmon pottery and figurines. Bibliography and index.
  • Mizoguchi, Kōji. An Archaeological History of Japan: 30,000 b.c. to a.d.
    . Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002. A study of the prehistoric inhabitants of Japan and their self-identification through archaeological evidence and its interpretation by contemporary theory. Bibliography and index.