Evidence of religious activity in Japan dates back as far as human occupation of the archipelago. The earliest period of Japanese history is referred to as the Jōmon period (14,000-300 BCE), which began roughly twelve thousand years ago, around the end of the Ice Age. Religion at this time (as far as we know) was largely characterized by a variety of ritual practices. Relics that have been investigated are clay figurines manufactured during this period. These figures were small and typically animal-shaped and were particularly common in the earlier stages of the this period. The use of these clay figures seems to focus around rituals involving the breaking of the figure and scattering of the resulting pieces. Some scholars cite mythological sources of both the Nihon Shoki and the Kojiki to suggest that--among other uses--the pieces were scattered in the hopes that grain would grow from the pieces (Johannes 1974:130; Matsumura 2006:134).
Other relics in the Jōmon period included masks and stone pillars. The use of masks has been largely unexplored due to the low number of finds. The few masks that were found suggest that they, much like the clay figurines, were ritually broken. Additionally, phallic-shaped stone pillars appeared in this period. These pillars, used in conjunction with clay figurines (which some claim to represent women), have been suggested to represent the “principle of harmony and cooperation between men and women” (Matsumura 135).
The next period, the Yayoi period (300 BCE-300 CE), can be distinguished by the early introduction of metal implements in farming and warfare. Religiously, this period is characterized by rituals focusing on shamanistic practices, with special emphasis on the notion of female possession as paramount in the religious structure at the time (Matsumura).
The religious innovation of the Kofun period (latter half of 300s - ca. 600s) focuses primarily on the development of ritual practices at large burial mounds, or kofun. Among other things, moats were used to create “a sacred space that separated kofun from the world” (Matsumura 138). The clay figure rituals from earlier epochs in history make an additional appearance here, as “there are many cases where a platform was built at the top of the front part of the mound and clay figurines were placed there” (Matsumura 138-9).
While we are limited in our knowledge of these prehistoric periods, scholars speculate over potential ritual behaviors based on archeological discoveries and other remnants of ancient Japan.
Written by: Ryan Murphy Edited by: Katie Parish, Tayln Cox, and Dr. Roemer
Bibliography: Johannes, Maringer 1974. "Clay Figurines of the Jōmon Period: A Contribution to the History of Ancient Religion in Japan." History of Religions 14(2): 128-139. Mastumura Kazuo. 2006. "Ancient Japan and Religion." In Nanzan Guide to Japanese Religions, eds. Paul L. Swanson and Clark Chilson, 131-145. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press.
Additional Source: Kitagawa, Joseph. "Prehistoric Backgrounds to Japanese Religions." History of Religions 2(2): 292-327.