Keyhole-shaped Tombs and Early Korean-Japanese Relations


A review of Keyhole-shaped Tombs and Unspoken Frontiers: Exploring the Borderlands of Early Korean-Japanese Relations in the 5th-6th Centuries, by Dennis Hyun-Seung Lee.

Early Korean studies (c. Palaeolithic to A.D. 935) in archaeology, early history, art history, linguistics, and other fields are still in their extended infancy, some four decades or more since the first English-language works by Kim Wŏn-yong, Laetitia Sample, and Kenneth H.J. Gardiner. Thus it is not often that research comes along that is as important as the 2014 UCLA dissertation of Dennis H.S. Lee. He explores the origins, meanings, and more importantly the identity of those interred in the keyhole-shaped burials of the Yŏngsan-gang River basin of Chŏlla Nam-do in Korea. These burials share far more morphological similarities with a type of kofun of the Japanese archipelago c. A.D. 250-538 than contemporaneous mortuary features in the Korean peninsula. The keyhole-shaped burials of Korea have been a puzzling conundrum both archaeologically and politically against the background of hostile relations between Korea with Japan that culminated in the imperial Japanese occupation and colonial rule of Korea 1910-1945. The most important contemporary studies on this topic are published in Korean language by scholars such as Im Yŏng-jin of Chŏnnam University and Pak Ch’ŏn-su of Kyungpook University, and so Lee’s dissertation can be seen as a satisfyingly comprehensive English introduction to this engaging topic.

Keyhole-shaped burial mounds (zenpō kōenfun, K. chŏnbang huwŏnbun 前方後円墳) were first discovered in southwestern Korea—specifically the Yŏngsan-gang River basin—in 1983. Before that they were considered as a uniquely Japanese early historical phenomenon. The presence of such mortuary features in both nation states provides an ideal case study for archaeologists and other scholars to problematise nationalist Japanese or Korean interpretive frameworks. Lee argues that the adoption of keyhole-shaped burials in southwestern Korea was the result of “complex interactions between autonomous but textually invisible polities in the borderlands and frontier regions” (p. 5) of Paekche and Yamato in the late 5th to early 6th centuries. Further to the point, Lee’s research question is “who controlled the Yŏngsan-gang River basin during the time of their construction?” (p. 56).

The dissertation contains an introduction and conclusion in addition to four chapters. In Chapter 1, Lee frames the study through the lenses of various issues in Korean-Japanese scholarship, including the Mimana Nihonfu (任那日本府說) theory in which Japanese scholars posited that a part of the southern Korean peninsula was occupied and controlled as an administrative outpost of Yamato. The Horse-rider Theory is also introduced and contextualised relative to the burials in question. The balance of the chapter deals with the current status of research on keyhole-shaped burials in Korea, the number of which was 14 at the time of submission. Lee describes the fascinating story of the first ‘discovery’ of the tombs in earnest by Kang In-gu and how they came to be accepted by Korean academia as keyhole-shaped burials. Apparently, burials such as No. 6 at the Sinch’onni site were recognized in the early 1970s as keyhole-shaped in plan by some, including none other than Kim Wŏn-yong (1973:162). Yet the firestorm of controversy in Korean and Japanese academia was not ignited until Kang In-gu was able to get the ear of the media in 1986 when he insisted that the burials were chŏnbang huwŏnbun.

Since the burials were confirmed in southwestern Korea, the primary goal of research has been to establish the ethnic identity of those interred in the mortuary features. We learn that there are three sets of nationalist interpretation biases: (1) Korean (Paekche, Mahan) and Japanese (Wa), (2) textual evidence vs. archaeological data, and (3) Paekche control vs. local authority. Thus it follows that there are three kinds of theories based on Wa, Mahan/Paekche, and local authority. Lee describes the types of theories in sufficient depth and exposes the major issues with them by examining the logic and claims made in the major publications associated with them. Lee identifies that the main issues are the nationalist nature of the theories and the fact that the categories ‘Korean’ and ‘Japanese’ did not exist in early history. Finally, texts such as Samguk sagi and Nihon shoki are problematic in themselves because of their hegemonic nature in the interpretation of nationalist historiographies of the two countries.

Lee diachronically examines the status of the political control of southwestern Korea in Chapter 2. He critically analyzes the texts that describe relations that Paekche had with the Yŏngsan-gang basin and compares them in detail with developments in the Han-gang River basin in terms of changes in mortuary goods. He finds that there is no textual evidence to show that Paekche, and for that matter, Yamato, had much of a relationship with the Yŏngsan-gang basin before the late 5th century. Archaeological evidence shows a similar pattern, but circumstances began to change in the late 5th century. Lee regards the most commonly cited textual reference for Paekche southward expansion into the area in A.D. 369, Jingū 49 of the Nihon shoki, is full of holes and is too speculative to be useful.

Chapter 3 explores textual evidence related to the political circumstances of the Korean peninsula and Japanese archipelago in the 5th and 6th centuries. Lee points repeatedly to the importance of A.D. 475 when Paekche lost its capital of Hansŏng to Koguryŏ. Furthermore, clues about the relations between Paekche and Yamato in the Samguk sagi suggest that Paekche had a keen interest in the southwest because of its difficulties with Koguryŏ in the Han-gang basin. Yet Paekche was too weak to do much about it after it evacuated the capital to Ungjin. Relations with Yamato became closer in the same period, but it is unlikely that any of Paekche’s Yamato allies moved into the Yŏngsan-gang basin at the time. Meanwhile, records from the Nihon shoki suggest that people moved back and forth between the two early kingdoms with regularity and that group identities were fluid. Additionally, Chinese dynastic histories make reference to the multiethnic population makeup of Paekche. Ultimately, Lee finds that the textual data cannot answer questions about if keyhole-shaped burials were a phenomenon spurred by local authorities or if it was the work of a non-local group.

Chapter 4 is a study of archaeological evidence related to the problem of the keyhole-shaped burials. Several interrelated queries are at play in this chapter. Was it a single group or a number of groups who erected the burials? What were the morphological differences in mortuary architecture between contemporaneous burials in the Yŏngsan-gang basin? How do the keyhole-shaped burials in Korea compare with those of Kyushu and the Kinki “core region”? How should we interpret the origins and mix of mortuary goods in regard to the relationships that the interred had with Paekche, Kyushu, Kinki, and the local authorities?

To answer these questions, Lee examines the background of the burials and constructs his own typology of keyhole-shaped burials based on seven variables related to morphology. He also looks at external mortuary features, facilities, and grave goods. Until the late 5th century, the Yŏngsan-gang basin was a cultural island that was somewhat isolated from other parts of the Korean peninsula and Japanese archipelago. However, beginning in late 5th century evidence from elite burials show an increase in prestige mortuary goods of Paekche origin in the Yŏngsan-gang basin as compared to the previous period. The prestige goods in question are similar to those that were distributed to regional elites of Paekche. The so-called haniwa of Yŏngsan-gang basin keyhole-shaped burials were made with the same paddling techniques that were used to produce local pottery. Pottery and other artefacts from the Yŏngsan-gang basin are found in Japanese kofun. This may be an indication of an increase in ties between the polities of these areas and opportunistic behaviour by the interred of the Yŏngsan-gang basin burials. Lee finds that the burial morphology and artefacts represent a kind of hybridisation of the local culture. Paekche certainly had greater influence in the Yŏngsan-gang basin in the late 5th and early 6th century, but it is unlikely that it had direct control over the area because of the archaeological evidence presented by Lee in Chapter 4 and the lack of Paekche fortresses there.

In the end, the existing categories of identification that have been provided by the field of history such as Wa, Mahan, and Paekche are useless to describe those interred in the Yŏngsan-gang basin keyhole-shaped burials. Lee finds that the material culture of southwestern Korea is diverse and that the area is textually invisible. Elite actors of the Yŏngsan-gang basin created a kind of diffuse borderland zone between Paekche and polities of western Japan in which culture and technology from both areas was mediated. Lee concludes that it is better to define the interactions that occurred there in the 5th and 6th centuries as a zone that encompasses the Kŭm-gang and Yŏngsan-gang River basins, Kyushu, and the Kinki “core region” because it frees him to examine other possibilities that transcend the two nationalist frameworks.

A completely different category is required to explain the keyhole-shaped burials. Lee first notes that keyhole-shaped burials were constructed in the context of a new elite that emerged in the Yŏngsan-gang basin in the late 5th century. Indeed, he characterises the group or groups who made the keyhole-shaped burials of the Yŏngsan-gang basin as “…clearly something new and different and a synthesis of many different…cultures and technologies in a borderland space…” in which they came together in a process of creolisation (p. 167-168). One such process that Lee identifies is intermarriage between those in Kyushu and southwestern Korea. He concedes that it is possible that immigrants from Kyushu settled in the Yŏngsan-gang basin in the late 5th and early 6th century, but he stresses that they would have been so tightly integrated with the local groups that the immigrants would have been indistinguishable in the archaeological record.

Lee’s dissertation may be the first examination of this problem that is absent of nationalist bias, and so its importance as a study in the related academic fields in Korean and Japanese language cannot be underestimated. This research will have a very positive and useful impact when it is published because of the detailed and comprehensive explanations of the ways in which Lee describes interpretations of keyhole-shaped burials. Moreover, the deft skill with which Lee unpacks all of the myriad permutations of the Korean and Japanese interpretations of the burials is invaluable. This study is also laudable in that Lee deals with textual and archaeological evidence on a more-or-less equal basis—a feat that is uncommon in comparison to textual-centred studies. This study shows the enormous potential of the Yŏngsan-gang basin data for future archaeological theoretical studies of borders and identity.

Studies such as this clearly show the tremendous value of Early Korean studies and how it can contribute to archaeology in general and Korean Studies in particular. Lee raises the bar high for future dissertations in Early Korean studies with this effort, and hopefully this dissertation will be one that helps to spark wider interest and positive attention from Korean Studies scholars, archaeologists, and general academia that the field so sorely needs. This is a must-read for all East Asianist archaeologists, even those who have been beguiled into thinking that the central plains of China are the ‘centre’ and the only thing worthy of study. Here is yet another exemplary study that shows the importance of actual research on Korean archaeology for its own sake, and Lee’s research goes far beyond being just another retread of the tired and demeaning ‘politics of the past’ discourse into which Korean Studies specialists have demoted the subject. Are university departmental hiring committees and editors of first-tier peer-reviewed journals listening?

References Cited
Kim Wŏn-yong
1973    Hanguk Kogohak Kaesŏl 韓國考古學槪說 [A General Overview of Korean Archaeology]. Seoul, Ilchisa.

Martin T. Bale
Department of Archaeology/University Museum
Pusan National University

Primary Sources
Samguk sagi  三國史記
Nihon shoki  日本書紀
Sanguozhi  三國志
Houhanshu  後漢書
Weishu  魏書

Dissertation Information
University of California, Los Angeles. 2014. 211pp. Primary Advisor: John B. Duncan

Image: National Land Image Information (Color Aerial Photography), Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport

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  1. Robert D. Mowry

    Thanks, Martin. This is an excellent review of a very exciting, very insightful dissertation, which, thanks to your very positive review, I very much look forward to reading.

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