Visual Library of Daily Life

Visual Library of Daily Life

Haniwa Figures

Haniwa (literally “clay cylinder” in Japanese) are hollow earthenware figures that were used to mark the tops of large tomb mounds known as kofun. Created during the Kofun Period (3rd – 6th centuries AD), they date to a preliterate era in Japanese history and are thus a critical visual library of daily life.

The very earliest haniwa were produced in the 250’s and were simple cylinders used as boundary markers. By the 450’s however, figures began to be added to the upper section of these cylinders. These forms often depicted architectural models, miko (female ritual specialists who served the shrines), various animals (most commonly horses) and soldiers, most notably a magnificent example excavated in Ōta, Gunma Prefecture and now residing in the National Museum Tokyo.


Haniwa FigureANCIENT JAPANESE HANIWA EARTHENWARE FIGURE | KOFUN PERIOD, 5TH - 6TH CENTURY | 古墳時代 埴輪土製人偶像 | formed of low fired red earthenware, depicting a young lady holding a water jug atop her head, she wears a necklace, with triangular nose and oval perforations for the eyes and mouth, raised on a bespoke wooden mount | 34cm high, 47.5cm high with stand (Qty: 1) | Provenance: Found at Shogun-Tsuka, near Haniu village, Gunma Prefecture; Private collection, United States, acquired at Mathias Komor Gallery, New York, March 31, 1962 | Published: Matsubara, M. 2004. Haniwa. Pacific Press Service. Plate 68 | Exhibited: Lytton Center, ‘Collectors Choice’, Los Angeles, April 1964; Otis Art Institute, ‘Taste of Angeles’, Los Angeles, March - May 1968


Of stylised form, these figural haniwa possess a distinct, haunting appearance. With a minimalist face consisting of simple cut out eyes and mouth, there is little attempt to portray a sense of realism in the shape of the body. This simplicity is undoubtedly part of their visual power, which imposes itself forcefully upon the viewer.

Though the earlier cylinder haniwa are accepted as having been used as boundary markers, there is considerable debate as to the function of the later figural examples. The preponderance of soldiers and miko could suggest that their function was primarily defensive, to protect the deceased from supernatural beings. Another theory contends that they were used as a demonstration of the wealth and sophistication of the interned, with the range of figures and animals perhaps intended to serve in the afterlife.

The present example was uncovered near Haniu village, Gunma Prefecture, a leading regional centre for the production of haniwa. Stylistically a similar example can be found at The British Museum (accession number Franks.2210). Yet the depiction, that of a girl holding a water jug atop her head, is an unusual one, with the vast majority of female forms depicting miko. She is also missing the flat shelf-like headdress most often associated with the ritual specialists, once again pointing to the more prosaic yet rare attribution of a worker or servant.

This ancient Japanese Haniwa figure is a highlight in our forthcoming auction of Asian & Islamic Works of Art taking place on 13th May 2020.


View Lot 273 ⇒



Auction Information 

Asian & Islamic Works of Art | Wednesday 13th May | Live Online




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