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Body modification in Jomon Japan

Hello all, here's a bit of research I did about body modification in Japan in the Jomon period (10.000 - 300 BC. circa). I hope you enjoy it, even if it is by no means exhaustive, as I only had access to material in English - so please DO NOT quote it elsewhere or the like. In case you're interested in the subject please refer to the enclosed bibliography. Thank you!


Body modification in Jomon Japan.

In this essay I would like to review the evidence of practices of body modification in Japan during the Jomon period. Moreover, I would like to reflect on whether the marked body and its possible meaning in Jomon culture can be linked to the social and ritual life of the time.

Body modification can be defined as "any conscientious deviation from the base form of the nude body" and can consist for example of tattooing, piercing, scarification, tooth filing and the like. Tattoos, stretched lobes or filed teeth are effective and visible means of defining individual identity, and reinforcing belonging to a particular community as well. This is particularly the case in pre-literate societies as the community shares a cultural framework where the meaning, the mode of acquisition and the inevitability of acquisition of such modifications are precisely coded, thus allowing these signs to be clearly understood. As Schildkrout puts it, the modified body can be considered as "a text upon which social reality is inscribed [...], (so that) the inscribed body serves as a marker of identity in terms of gender, age and political status."

I also prefer to use the expression body "modification" instead of others like "adornment" or "mutilation" that are much more commonly used, for they appear to be imbued with a certain degree of prejudice in regard to these practices of tattooing, piercing and the like. While adornment seems to give a frivolous nuance to these practices, mutilation or deformation imply a negative judgement. As Rubin suggests, it may be preferable "the positive bias embodied in terms such as 'perfection'-and ultimately civilization- as closer to people's own conceptions of the activities involved".

Unfortunately, it appears impossible to examine this complex topic in relation to the entire Jomon period and the entire Japanese archipelago in such a brief essay, so I will consider evidence of tattooing, piercing and tooth filing limiting my analysis to the latter part of the Jomon period, and focusing especially on evidence from central and western Japan. I have decided to do so in order to provide a body of evidence as coherent as possible in period and geographical origin with that of Harunari's study on "Rules of residence in the Jomon Period, based on the analysis of tooth extraction" , which is going to be one of my main sources of reference. Moreover, such practices of body modification appear to be in their heyday during the Late Jomon period, when a growing and mature society with growing population is reflected in a remarkably elaborated and flourishing production of types of artefacts related to social status and display. Such artefacts, like sculpted pottery vessels and ornaments give evidence of an increasingly differentiated social structure that managed and manned the productive organizations. Other elements [...] enhance this impression, while a proliferation of ground and polished phallic stones and elaborately detailed female figurines suggest the nature of cult observance that probably served as the theatre in which unequal social relationships were displayed and reinforced.

I believe that first of all it is necessary to provide a description of the evidence for practices of body modification in Late Jomon culture before attempting to discuss their possible meaning, and in the following pages I will then present the archaeological evidence for of tooth ablation and filing, earlobe piercing and stretching and tattooing. On the basis of such evidence I will then attempt to consider the relationships between body modification and social and ritual life.

Tooth extraction and filing.

Tooth extraction consists of the deliberate removal of healthy teeth, and it can be associated to the filing of some of the remaining teeth.

It may be assumed that this is a culturally determined practice when there is a repetitive pattern of extraction in a significant number of cases, which is unlikely in the event of loss of tooth by accident or disease. This customs has permanent effects that can be easily observed even on prehistoric human remains: pre mortem loss of teeth is marked by resorption of the alveolar bone around the removed tooth socket and by the slanting or twisting away from the central axis of the surrounding teeth. Typically incisors, canines and premolar are extracted or filed, for these teeth are those more clearly exposed and visible during interaction with other people.

Harunari states that this custom was practiced in Japan from the Early Jomon period to the early Middle Yayoi (from 4000 B.C. to 100 B.C. circa) with a peak during the Latest Jomon period (1000 B.C. to 200 B.C. circa), when it seems it was diffused to the entire archipelago (though never a being a prevalent custom). In his paper, evidence for discussion and interpretation comes mainly from three rather close sites in Western Japan, Inariyama and Yoshigo in Aichi Prefecture, and the site of Tsukumo in Okayama Prefecture. He focuses on the various forms of extraction occurring from Middle to Latest Jomon periods and their possible significance in relation to important phases of an individual's life (initiation, marriage, and so on). Moreover, he formulates hypothesis on rules of post marital residence by analysing the ratio of sexes practicing different types of extraction.

In this period and region it seems that extraction of teeth was diffused amongst all individuals older than fifteen years of age. In fact 96% of the individuals beyond juvenile age whose remains were excavated from the three sites (258 individuals in total, 149 males, 105 females, 4 sex unknown) show evidence of such extractions.

In addition, it is from skeletons of individuals that died at around fifteen years old that it is possible to detect the lower limit for the number of extraction, with the two upper canines being removed first. Analysing the atterns of ablation in relation to the age of the individuals, it is possible to deduce the rules that regulated such custom. It appears that extraction was not performed on a single occasion but at different stages of life starting with the removal of upper canines at initiation or puberty, which was followed at the time of marriage by the removal of lower incisors and/or canines. Later on, the extraction of the upper first molars seems to have been linked to the death of parents, while removal of lower premolars appears to be linked to the death of spouses.

At times tooth extraction is associated with filing, where some of the remaining teeth (particularly upper median and lateral incisors) are incised with ^ or ^^ shaped notches. Examples of tooth filing are equally divided between sexes, but it appears that only about one or two individuals out of twenty would have such modification. As a consequence it seems reasonable to infer that these individuals would have had a particular position inside their community – as ritual leaders or skilled hunters for example.

Earlobe piercing and stretching.

A conspicuous variety of ornaments has been produced during the Jomon period: bracelets, beads and pendants, hair pins and so on, in materials such as stone and earthenware and a wide selection of organic materials (shell, antler, horn, animal teeth etc.). I will focus on earrings only, since wearing this kind of ornament usually requires body modification. It is true that we can also find in Japan a variety of earring that does not require earlobe piercing to be worn, consisting of a flat, circular stone with a slit to insert the lobe in. However, this kind of artefact is typical of Early Jomon period, centring on the Kanto plain, while in the Final Jomon period spool- or pulley-shaped earrings that had to be inserted in the lobe were the most popular variety. Furthermore, this latter typology was more broadly diffused and could commonly be found in the Chubu, Kanto and northern Tohoku regions.

Unfortunately the soil of the Japanese archipelago is predominantly acidic, so that in most sites it is not possible to recover organic material. This is of course the case for human remains as well, and it is especially true for soft tissue like earlobes. Luckily the ornaments that were worn in them do survive, and it is possible for us to reconstruct the practice of earlobe piercing and stretching. Even if we cannot see the earrings in place, we can understand they were meant to be worn as such as they are recovered from lying on either side of a skull, and from information imparted by clay figurines that appear to wear similar jewellery.

The vast majority of these earrings was made of earthenware, but also other materials like stone were used. Decoration was sumptuous and accurate, often with elaborate carving; moreover lacquered and painted specimens have also been recovered, with red being the preferred colour for decoration. This may be an interesting clue to the kind of importance attached to earrings, for red is usually the colour associated with ritual practices and artefacts, so it is likely that earrings did not had a purely aesthetic function.

The fact that earthenware is lighter than stone implies that even in the case of really large earrings (diameter reaches 10-12 cm. in some cases) it would have been much easier to stretch the pierced lobe to the desired width through gradual increase in size of the jewellery, as opposed to the stretching of lobes with heavy earrings - which tends to be uneven towards the bottom, and usually leads to thinning and/or breaking of the tissue. In any case the stretching would have required years to be accomplished.

It seems that earlobes were first pierced at around age ten, then the gradual process of stretching would begin, accompanying the transition of the individual from his or her "natural" state to a new social status inside the community, marked by a perfected "cultural" form of the body. In those rare cases in which earrings are found together with adequately preserved skeletal remains, it has been possible to determine that earrings were mainly worn by females, with other ornaments being more frequently associated to males. Nonetheless this distribution does not appear to be exclusive.


Strictly speaking, there is no archaeological evidence of the practice of tattooing in Japan during the Jomon period. As I mentioned before, preservation of human remains in the acidic soil of the archipelago is rare, and no remains of tattooed skin have ever been recovered. That said, the vast majority of archaeologists and scholars concerned with the history of tattooing in Japan do believe that tattooing had been practiced in the archipelago during the Jomon period. It has been possible to reach such conclusion through comparative analogy, historical analogy, and information provided by some kinds of artefacts, which in this case are clay figurines. Comparative analogy is "constructed by searching comparable artefacts or behaviour among the peoples of north eastern Asia such as the Ainu or Siberian tribes, whose way of life is generally similar to that of the Jomon, or the Pacific Northwest American tribes". In historical analogy "patterns in later periods of Japanese culture provide clues to the interpretation of the Jomon".

If we look at Ainu customs and tradition, we do find tattooing as a prominent custom. It appears to be a tradition with deep roots in the past, for it is already mentioned in the Nihongi and in later sources as well. Usually curvilinear patterns are tattooed on women's arms, hands and around the mouth. These curvilinear designs in bold, thick lines were intended to protect the wearer from evil spirits, harmful diseases and misfortune. The completed tattoo was not only part of the beauty of a woman but also a sign of maturity, for it was a slow and painful process to endure, developing in stages starting at around age six or seven and ending in the late teens, before marriage. Tattoo was applied by repeated incision of the skin with an obsidian-blade knife, then soot was inserted in the wound by rubbing.

Tattooing is also widely diffused in northeast America and Alaska, among populations like the Inuit, the Tlingit, the Eskimos and the Aleuts. Here again it seems that tattoos were prevalently worn by women, and were usually applied on the arms and/or around the mouth, usually indicating group membership and marital status. Thanks to extreme environmental characteristics of these regions several buried bodies have been preserved either frozen or as mummies, and it is thus possible to have clear evidence of tattooing.

Well preserved bodies dating as far back as the first millennium B.C. have also been recovered in northwest China and in Siberia. The most famous sites yielding such specimens are probably Zaghunluq and Pazyryk respectively. At Zaghunluq several mummies have been discovered, and the body of a mature woman still shows ornate swirling patterns tattooed on her arms and face. At Pazyryk the body of a Scythian chieftain is elaborately tattooed on the limbs, with designs representing stylized animal motifs, plus some dots on the sides of his spine. It seems that at Pazyryk and in other zones of central Asia as well tattoo had been associated with high status.

It is possible to see how tattooing was widely diffused among populations of the circumpolar region, not to mention the important tradition of tattooing in Southeast Asia and Oceania. It seems thus reasonable to assume that there were similar customs in Jomon Japan as well; moreover, despite being a set of islands Japan was by no mean isolated from the neighbouring countries, the Korean peninsula and the Kurile islands acting as gateways to the mainland, so that it seems feasible to think of a common and widespread tradition of tattooing.

Jomon is a prehistoric period so we do not have written annotation of customs or tradition of the time neither from Japanese sources, or from sources from other countries as well, but through texts dating from the Yayoi period we do have information that can confirm the existence of a pre-existing practice of tattooing in Japan. The first written sources that mention the custom of tattooing in Japan are Chinese dynastic stories or chronicles such as the Wei-chih that had been compiled before 297 A.D. In the section dedicated to the "Accounts of the Eastern Barbarians" a passage reads:

as for the men, whether high or low, they all tattoo their faces and bodies. [...] Now, the Wa (Eastern Barbarians) who are familiar with swimming and who are skilled in diving down into the waters in order to catch fish and clams, tattooed their bodies as a means to drive away large fish and waterfowl. After some while, the tattoo became merely ornamental. The body tattooing of the various countries differ from each other, some being applied on the left side, someone the right side, some are large, some are small, the difference based on the distinctions of social class.

It is interesting to note here that three important characteristics of tattoos are mentioned: their prophylactic function, their aesthetic value, and their use as marker of status.

Even if for the Chinese the so called country of "Wa" may not have been limited to the Japanese archipelago but included also parts of the southern Chinese mainland, southeast Asia and western Pacific area, this does not appear to be a problem in this context. In fact definite boundaries between the various states did not exist at that time, and there were flourishing trade and exchange between them, and migration of population as well. What it is important in this context is that we have another indication of the possible existence of tattooing in Japan, which is confirmed by following Chinese dynastic stories and later by Japanese ones as well. And in fact according to texts like the already mentioned Nihongi, tattooing was still practiced during the Yayoi period, though only in peripheral regions of the archipelago and with declining relevance.

Finally, observation of clay figurines of the Jomon period may provide further support to the idea that tattooing was practiced during the Jomon period. Earthenware figurines have been produced during the entire Jomon period, with numerous regional variants and a clearly visible evolution in moulding, decoration and refinement leading to copious and sophisticated production especially during the Middle and Late Jomon period in the Kanto, Tohoku and Chubu regions. These anthropomorphic figurines tend to represent the human body in a rather stylized way, the most typical examples being standing figures that do not perform any specific gesture. Usually figurines were found scattered inside and around settlements with no relation to burial contexts or everyday activities, and later on during the Late and Final phase of the Jomon period such figurines are often recovered in rather copious quantity in a limited number of sites, together with large numbers of ritual artefacts. The function of such sites appears to have been primarily ceremonial, especially when residential features are scarce or missing. Therefore it appears that such figurines were used in ritual or religious contexts, and most scholars agree that they were related to beliefs centred on fertility and sexuality.

A feature of these figurines that is particularly interesting in the sphere of my analysis is the complex decoration of their seemingly naked bodies and faces. These decorations are produced through a variety of techniques: cord marking, application of coils of clay, incision and so on. The result is a complex pattern of swirling linear motifs and dots, and from details like nipples showing on the same surface the decoration lies on, it seems that these decoration are on the actual 'skin' of the figurine. At times particular attention is paid to underline facial features like mouth and eyes, with coils on which dots are incised or with linear motives. Such decorations appear to be similar to patterns of tattoos, for example those practiced by the Ainu or found on mummies in the circumpolar regions.

Unfortunately we cannot know for sure whether these designs were intended to be the actual representation of tattoos as worn by contemporary individuals, as there are no human remains that can confirm this hypothesis. Moreover, if these decorations are an actual representation of decoration that was to be found on human beings, it is possible that they could have also been obtained through body painting or scarification.

However, scarification and tattooing techniques are likely to have been the same at the time, when no metal needles were available and the procedure could possibly have been performed with blades made of stone, like obsidian, widely used at the time. This is similar to the techniques used by Ainu in tattooing, so again it does not seem so unreal to think of the possibility of a permanent modification of the body in Jomon Japan that required the inscription of a design in the skin. This could have been achieved through tattooing, scarification or a combination of the two, with pigment inserted in an open wound that would successively heal as a coloured, raised cicatrix.

Body painting could have also been used, but it seems that it was more popular during the Yayoi period, when social and political change and cultural influences from mainland China negatively modified the attitude toward tattoos. But once more, contemporary written sources (both Chinese and Japanese) that blame tattooing as the barbarous practice of a declining society do confirm again that tattooing was a diffused and meaningful custom among Jomon population.

As we have seen, even without direct evidence it has been possible to infer the occurring of tattooing in Jomon Japan by combining different types of information. Now, I shall proceed to illustrate the possible meaning of the practices of body modification described so far in the sphere of Late Jomon culture.

Harunari's interpretation of the different patterns of tooth extraction as a reflection of specific purposes and meanings inside a social group relies on the consideration of common characteristics of tooth extraction among other ethnic groups in the world, where it marks important events in an individual's life cycle, and he assumes Jomon extraction practices to be analogous. Moreover, he does not only believes that tooth extraction was used to mark pivotal moments of life of an individual, but also that such extractions clearly denoted the position of the individual both inside his or her community and in relation to other communities.

In fact Harunari notices that two different patterns of tooth ablation were practiced at marriage, which would have been futile if the only purpose of such custom had simply been to mark the event of matrimony. Therefore investigation of burial distribution and order of internment at the excavation sites combined with data regarding the sex of the deceased and their association with ornaments makes him reach the following conclusion:

the adults of each household were divided at burial into two groups differentiated by their pattern of tooth extraction. This division seems to reflect more than a sexual division. In this situation I cannot help but think of the principle of exogamy, which distinguishes the original member of the community from those who marry into it from the outside. Those who maintained a socially superior position during their lifetime, and retained that position even after death, usually were the original members of the society.

Furthermore, according to Harunari it is also possible to determine the prevalence of uxorilocal or virilocal marriage in different regions at different stages of the Jomon period. This interpretation is further supported by the analysis of the use of ornaments –like earrings- and associations of such accessories with types of burials. Examining relationships between sex and ornaments proves to be so useful that "ornaments can be considered a functional equivalent of tooth extraction". Usually the so called hip-ornaments made of antler are found with male burials, while female ones are associated with earrings and shell bracelets – I wonder whether the relation between the sex of the wearer and the materials from which ornaments were made could possibly reflect a division of roles in the exploitation of food resources, thus men hunting game were mostly wearing ornaments of antler while women were collecting and wearing shell (even if of a more precious type than the ones commonly eaten).

Japan in the Jomon period is usually described as an egalitarian hunter-gatherer type of society, but this kind of basic structure underwent some changes in the course of time. In the first phases of the Jomon period we find a basically egalitarian society whose people was grouped in small widely-spaced communities with no institutionalized inequality, despite the possible prominence of some categories of individuals, like shamans or skilled hunters. However, it appears that through time the complexity of this society increased, and moderate heredity and social stratification emerged, as it is very clearly manifested in burials. Here the presence of grave goods increases during the entire Jomon period (also manifesting differences related to gender) so that by the Late and final Jomon periods the occurrence of burials with simple grave goods ranges between 10-30% while burials including non utilitarian, precious ornaments together with pottery and ritual implements is around 10% of the total, with a significantly increased occurrence of child burials presenting such goods. The presence of rich grave goods in child burials point to the emergency of heredity of prestige in society, for young children do not usually have had the time to achieve a high status through their own activities.

It is also known that in later phases of the Jomon period population growth and a greater ability in exploiting and preserving food resources, lead to reduced mobility, larger communities and greater specialization, with thriving exchange networks and participation to rituals and construction of ritual sites involving more than a single small community. In this kind of situation "a more circumscribed subsistence area generally leads to increased group identity" , with group boundaries maintained and reinforced through exchange and/or conflict.

In this contest customs like tooth removal and filing, earlobe stretching and possibly tattooing would have been very effective means of representing a person's identity as well as conveying his history, his belonging to a specific group and his status inside a given community to observers that were sharing the same codes of communication. For example, looking at any given person's modifications it would have been easy to understand whether that person was married or not, whether he was residing in his original community or if he had married outside of it, and which his social position could possibly have been.

Furthermore such customs of body modification appear to have been linked to the ritual life of the time. Harunari assumes that those few individuals that presented tooth filing together with extraction were part of the religious elite of the time, maybe as magicians presiding over extraction rites, whether as practitioners or as leaders of such a group . Probably a developing "elite" was trying to impose its control through monopoly and display of ritual activities and luxury goods such as ornaments. In fact it appears that the rapid and dramatic increase in variability in Jomon ritual artefacts, burials and ceremonial features as well as in the specialized production of exquisite ornaments, indicates that "these artefact were controlled and manipulated as status symbol by a small number of elites; once the status symbol became accessible to a larger number of people, a new status symbol was created or defined by the elite". We do find such reflection of status in the manufacture of earrings, that were produced in 'workshop' sites, were elaborately ornate (thus requiring specialized craftsmanship), preciously lacquered and coloured in red (that as I already mentioned is the colour associated with cult and burial rituals), and that were traded through well developed exchange networks. The practice of piercing and stretching earlobes to wear jewellery then is very likely to have mirrored status/rank differentiation as it was budding in Late Jomon time.

As far as tattooing is concerned, it is really a shame that no actual evidence remains to be studied, but it seems probable that it could have had importance similar to that of teeth filing in expressing a person's identity inside his community through pattern differentiated according to groups. In addition to this, in a ritual setting probably dominated by shaman-like individuals, they could have monopolized the execution of tattoos, with the ritual leader envisioning the proper mark required to complete the person's identity.

All these practices of body modification and tattooing in particular lost their importance and meaning during the following times, and almost disappeared. From the Yayoi period in fact the population living in the Japanese archipelago experienced major changes in patterns social of organisation, as the diffusion of rice agriculture substituted the previous patterns of subsistence, and influence from mainland China grew stronger. Through the following centuries Japan evolved into an agricultural society of chiefdoms and in the Kofun period proto-states emerged, and tattooing became the distinctive sign of the 'barbarian' culture of the preceding, less developed and civilised society. This prejudice against tattooing was very strong in China, and it is likely that this attitude was emulated by the ruling elite of the Yayoi and Kofun period, that was looking at China as model. Moreover, later on in Shinto the shedding of blood has always been perceived a highly polluted, and this also could have played an important role against body modification in previous times.

Indeed tattooing assumed such negative connotations that it came to be applied as a punishment, as a mark of savagery and criminality.

Once again we see how the body can be a site for the inscription of status and political power, with skin being the boundary between individual and society. Probably in the Jomon period and later as well the individual did not have much control on the construction of the relation between body and society, since modifications were possibly mandatory and controlled by a developing social/religious 'elite'. However, while in the Jomon period body modification had a positive function in clearly situating the individual in his proper place inside his community, in the following times the same modifications are more tools of control and surveillance, as authorities impose them as symbolic denials of personhood.


BIBLIOGRAPHY (PS: as I am computer impaired, I somehow managed to delete all the precise quotes in the text, but everything comes from the following books...)

Akazawa, Takeru and Aikens, C. Melvin (edited by).

Prehistoric hunter-gatherers in Japan: new research methods.

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Barnes, Gina Lee.

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Fitzhugh, William W. and Dubreuil, Chisato O. (edited by).

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Body decoration.

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Habu, Junko.

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Harunari, Hideji.

"Rules of residence in the Jomon period based on the analysis of tooth extraction".

In Pearson, Richard J., Barnes, Gina Lee and Hutterer, Karl L. (edited by), Windows on the Japanese past: studies in Archaeology and Prehistory, Ann Arbor, MI: Centre for Japanese Studies, University of Michigan, 1986, pp. 293-310.

Imamura, Keiji.

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Kenrick, Douglas M.

Jomon of Japan: the world's oldest pottery.

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Kiyotari, Tsuboi (edited by).

Recent archaeological discoveries in Japan.

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Naumann, Nelly.

Japanese prehistory: the material and spiritual culture of the Jomon period. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2000.

Pearson, Richard J.

Ancient Japan.

New York: George Braziller; Washington, D.C.: Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, 1992.

Renfrew, Colin and Bahn, Paul.

Archaeology: theories, methods and practice.

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Rubin, Arnold (edited by).

Marks of civilization: artistic transformations of the human body.

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Web pages:

BME: Body Modification Ezine, at


For glossary entries see 'The BME Encyclopaedia' at



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