This text, compiled in association with the special exhibition “Epitaphs of Ancient Japan,” held at the Asuka Shiryokan in 1977, gathers together the entire body of the fifteen extant epitaphs of the 7th and 8th centuries.
With the advent of the 7th century the construction of traditional tumuli declined, and as the practice of cremation spread as a result of the permeation of Buddhist thought into Japan, a revolution was brought about in the history of Japanese burial systems.
The real beginning of cremation in Japan occurred in 700 with the burial of the Gango-ji monk Dosho, as recorded in the Shoku Nihongi. In 703, Empress Jito became the first as emperor to be so cremated. Later, beginning in the reign of Emperor Mommu, the practice of cremation spread beyond the clergy to the aristocracy as well. Among the graves of cremated remains of the time there are some which are accompanied by epitaphs, and of these there are fifteen known extant examples of dated epitaphs. Among these, those of Funa no Ogo and Ono no Emishi are not cremations. The burial of an epitaph in the grave was a custom which flourished in China from the Northern and Southern Dynasties Period through the Sui and T’ang Periods, and probably was then transmitted from China to Japan. Epitaphs are found on rectangular tablets or engraved directly on funerary urns, and are of various materials including bronze, gilt bronze (bronze gilded with gold), silver, clay tablets, and stone. The inscriptions typically record the deceased person’s family name, official rank, place of origin, personal history, and of death, and in not a few cases, such as the epitaphs of Ina no Omura, Oharida no Yasumaro, and Ishikawa no Toshitari, the style of calligraphy and literary content reveal a strikingly high level of Chinese-influenced style and metre. However, it must be remembered that these epitaphs and their accompanying graves of cremated remains were limited to officials and priests; the rest of the populace were usually buried only in sueki-ware or earthenware urns.
1. Epitaph of Funa no Ogo Tokyo, Mitsui Takanaru
Dated Tenji 7 (668) Length: 29.5 cm
It is said that this object was excavated from Matsuokayama in Kawachi during the Edo Period. The inscription, incised on both sides of this rectangular forged bronze tablet, states that this is the epitaph of Ogo, a member of the Funa clan who lived in Kawachi, and that he was born during the reign of Emperor Bidatsu, received the official rank of Daijin in the reign of Empress Suiko, and died in 641. It is also related that in 668 Ogo’s wife was buried together with him and that the whole of Matsuokayama was to be the cemetery for the Funa clan for all eternity.
2. Epitaph of Ono no Emishi Kyoto, Sudo jinja
Dated Temmu 6 (677) Length: 58.9 cm
Made of gilded cast bronze and incised on both sides, this epitaph is the longest extant example known. It was excavated in Keicho 18 (1613) from the burial ground on the mountain behind Sudo jinja in present-day Shugaku-in-cho, Kyoto. Ono no Emishi was the son of Ono no Imoko, famous for his role as an envoy to Sui China. According to the inscription, Emishi served at the court of Emperor Temmu, and died in Temmu 6 (677). He was posthumously awarded the rank of Daikinjo.
3. Epitaph of Fumi no Nemaro Tokyo National Museum
Keiun 4 (707) Length: 26.2 cm
This epitaph is inscribed in two lines on the front of a rectangular cast bronze tablet. It was excavated in the Edo Period from the southern slope of a mountain in Yataki, Yamato Uda-gun, along with the bronze box it was interred in, a green glass funerary urn, and a gilt bronze jar. Nemaro was a member of the Kawachi no Fumi clan, which was of foreign ancesty; he was celebrated for his military exploits in the succession war of 672, the Jinshin-no-ran.
4. Funerary urn of Ina no Omura Osaka, Shitenno-ji
Keiun 4 (707) Height: 24.2 cm
This is a vessel of cast bronze gilded on the outside with lid and body each forming a hemisphere which fit closely together to form a true sphere; a low foot is attached. The inscription is incised radially on the outside of the lid; its preface and text are in genuine Chinese style and they lament over the death of Omura in Echigo no Kuni while still in office. This epitaph was excavated in the Edo Period from Anamushiyama in present-day Kashiba-cho, Kita Katsuragi-gun, Nara Pref. It is said that inside the vessel there was a lacquer receptacle which held the cremated bones.
5. Funerary urn of the Mother of Shimotsumichi no Kunikatsu and Kuniyori Okayama, Kokusho-ji
Wado 1 (708) Height: 22.1 cm
This is the funerary urn of the grandmother of Kibi no Makibi. The urn is of cast bronze; a bamboo-hat-shaped lid is attached in two places with nails to a deep bowl-shaped body with a round bottom. The lid is fitted with a knob at the top and the inscription is incised in two lines circling the surface of the lid. The urn was excavated in the Edo Period from a hillock in present-day Higashi Minari, Yakage-cho, Oda-gun, Okayama Pref. This area was the base of the Shimotsumichi clan in the Kibi region.
6. Funerary urn of Ihoki-be no Tokotari-hime Tokyo National Museum
Wado 3 (710) Height: 17.1 cm
A container with fitted lid, on the surface of which the inscription is incised. The body and lid were once held together with crossed cords; the traces of the cord remain in the form of rust adhering to the bronze surface. This urn was discovered in the Edo Period in a sarcophagus found on present-day Ubeyama, Kokufu-cho, Iwami-gun, Tottori Pref. The Ihoki-be was a powerful clan which produced this area's District Officials (Gunji); perhaps Tokotari-hime served Emperor Mommu as a Palace Woman (Uneme).
7. Epitaph of Priest Doyaku Nara National Museum
Wado 7 (714) Length: 13.7 cm
Incised with a inscription on both sides, this is a small rectangular silver plaque which was finished with a file. This is the only known extant example of a silver epitaph in Japan. It was discovered in 1958, along with the sueki-ware urn in which it was interred, in a hillock in Iwaya-cho, Tenri, Nara Pref. Both Sai-dera, mentioned the inscription, and Doyaku are not yet identified, but Onara no Kimi (also mentioned in the inscription) is thought to be a clan connected with the nearby place name of Nara （楢）. This epitaph is notable as an epitaph of an early Nara Period priest.
8. Epitaph of Yamashiro no Masaka Nara National Museum
Jinki 5 (728) Length: 28.0 cm
This example was discovered in 1952 under the floor of a Elementary School in Higashiada-chyo Gojo-shi, Nara Pref. Made of cast bronze and completely gilded, the front side has a design of spawns impressed into the border. Yamashiro no Imiki Masaka was a man from Ishikawa-gun, Kawachi no Kuni, who served four rulers: Emperors and Empresses Mommu, Gemmei, Gensho and Shomu. This epitaph was made for the joint burial of Masaka and his wife.
9. Epitaph of Oharida no Yasumaro Tokyo National Museum
Jinki 6 (729) Length: 29.7 cm (main tablet)
Made of cast bronze, the gilded main tablet forms a set with the two small bronze tablets. The set was unearthed in 1911 from Kooka, Tsuge-mura, Yamanobe-gun, Nara Pref., along with the wood coffin containing the cremated remains, coins, and pieces of earthenware. The Oharida clan was of the same family as the Soga clan and produced many lower-middle-level officials. The attendant plaques’ “left koto” and “right calligraphy” refer to the Chinese cultural ideals held by the officials of the time.
10. Epitaph of Mino no Okamaro Tokyo National Museum
Tempyo 2 (730) Length: 29.7 cm
Cast bronze, this epitaph has a strong Chinese coloration due to its writing style and its grid of ruled lines between characters. It was accidentally found in 1872 in a hillock in present-day Hagiwara, Ikoma-shi, Nara Pref. According to the inscription, in 701 Okamaro, at the age of 40, travelled to T’ang China as a member of an envoy mission. After his return to Japan he served as Director of the Bureau of Palace Equipment and Upkeep in the Ministry of the Imperial Household (Kunaisho Shudenryo), and died in 729 at the age of 67.
11. Fragments of the Funerary Urn of Gyoki Nara National Museum
Tempyo 21 (749) Present length: 10.6 cm
This is the epitaph of the famous Nara Period monk Gyoki. It was unearthed in the Kamakura Period in the precincts of Chikurin-ji in present-day Arisato-cho, Ikoma-shi, Nara Pref. According to the records, Gyoki’s remains were placed inside a silver jar which was in turn inside a double bronze tube, all of which was interred inside a sarcophagus. It is said that the inner tube was incised with a 309 character inscription; these are fragments of that tube. The entire inscription has been preserved.
12. Epitaph of Ishikawa no Toshitari Osaka, Tanaka Iku
Tempyo-hoji 6 (762) Length: 29.6 cm
This example is of gilded cast bronze, the front side of which bears an incised inscription in six lines, written in beautiful T’ang style characters between ruled vertical lines. The front side is bordered with an incised arabesque pattern within which spawns design is inlaid. The epitaph was discovered, along with the wooden coffin which held the cremated remains, in the Edo Period in a hillock in present-day Magami-cho, Takatsuki-shi, Osaka-fu. Ishikawa no Toshitari was born in the direct line of the Soga clan and was a typical aristocrat official.
13. Epitaph of Uji no Sukune Tokyo National Museum
?-un 2 (768, or 705) Present length: 9.3 cm
This epitaph is badly damaged, but it is of thin forged bronze with incised vertical lines and characters. It was unearthed in 1917 from a hillside in present-day Oe Tsukahara-cho, Ukyo-ku, Kyoto. With it were fonud a bronze funerary urn and the sarcophagus in which it was interred. Uji no Sukune was District Official (Gunji) of the ancient Uji-gun, and he was a kinsman of that clan.
14. Epitaph of Takaya no Hirahito Osaka, Eifuku-ji
Hoki 7 (776) Length of base: 26.2 cm
This, the only extant stone epitaph, is said to have been excavated in the Edo Period in present-day Taishi-cho, Osaka-fu. The fact that it is of stone and that the base and cover fit together to make a set show that this example derives from the common post-Northern Wei style. Takaya no Muraji was a clan which was based in Furuchi-gun, Kawachi no Kuni.
15. Epitaph of Ki no Yoshitsugu Osaka, Myoken-ji
Enryaku 3 (784) Length of base : 25.3 cm
This epitaph was excavated in the Edo Period from the mountain behind Myoken-ji in Kasuga, Taishi-cho, Osaka-fu. Two clay tablets are employed, one for the cover, the other for the incised inscription, in the same manner as that of 14. Yoshitsugu’s father, Hirozumi, was active as a general in the conquest of the Emishi in the 770’s.