Month of Photography, Sendai 2021
Professor Norio Akasaka
the Photographer NATSOMI
What are the Jomon period stone circles?
Thank you for meeting me and your kind cooperation. Today I have the pleasure of discussing the exhibition “Figures of Tohoku”, which was held at the Miyagi Museum of Art in October 1998 and was supported by Professor Akasaka. Professor Akasaka contributed to the catalogue of this exhibition. I was very impressed when I re-read «Circles and Prayers - On the boundary between life and death». There were numerous passages which echoed the work in my photography exhibition « TOKϴYO », exactly what I had expressed in my photo series. The vision of the world I wished to convey about Tohoku emerged in a very direct way.
Today we are at the «Jomon no Mori» site in the city of Sendai. The site contains the remains of Uenodai, where the Jomon people lived and built their settlement approximately 4000 years ago. The site is on a natural plateau. Our Jomon ancestors assembled stone circles (*1) where they would pray during various ceremonies. There are also stone circles Ôyu in the province of Akita. They were also places of worship for the Jomon, arranged in perfectly circular shapes. In order to emphasise the mythological aspect of my photography, I arranged my exhibition in a circle so as deliberately to mirror the ancient stone circles used as sites of worship. They had neither a beginning nor an end (so no entrance or exit) and were designed in such a way as to be appreciated from any angle.
1. Natural stones arranged in a circle, also known as ‘stone circles’. Photo above: Otoe, Hokkaido ©︎ NATSOUMI
I am delighted to meet you and thank you for sparing some time for me today. I am very curious to know the reason why, NATSOUMI, you are so interested in circles. A circle certainly has no beginning or end, but the key element is its outer edge and the fact that there is always a centre. In other words, it is as much a space of power at its centre as at its outer edge. Perhaps this is why there is such contradiction in circles.
I grew up in Yamagata, and what stands out in my childhood memories are the snowy landscapes. The sun rising over an immaculate white world, made it look like a hole in the sky to my young eyes – a bright hole above the sky which seemed to extend both downwards and sidewards. Up there, I firmly believed there was another world where no bodies or words were necessary. I imagined a space different from God’s kingdom and the world of the afterlife. As I was born and raised in Tohoku in a family where three generations lived under the same roof, I think I became familiar with the notion of a world where life and death are intertwined each and every day.
- The Jomon carried out ‘civil engineering’ works –
I see. As far as stone circles are concerned, there is a theory that they were assembled like this straight away and another that they were assembled gradually over time. Yet we can clearly see that the circles had been constructed. The stone circles at Oyu were designed in relation to the points of the compass – North, South, East and West. On the Komakino site at Aomori, there is also a stone circle erected during the Edo period and the figure placed inside the circle was worshipped under the name of Dosojin (*2). Later, this stone circle was discovered and excavated, but the Jomon people had clearly carried out extraordinary ‘civil engineering’ work. They chose their sacred site against the backdrop of the volcano Hachimantai (*3) and with Mount Iwaki (*4) in the foreground: the slope had been shaped so as to create a plateau.
I went there. Oyu and Komakino still have the best views. In other words, our ancestors were conscious of circular space and also carried out impressive ‘engineering work’ in order to create a plateau. The movement of the sun was taken into account and so the stone circles of Oyu act as sundials. The circle has neither beginning nor end, but the entrance is indicated by a recess. There are also charred stones there, which suggests that the ceremonies involved fire. What I should like to emphasise Dosojin is that this is an arrangement of stones which would not have come about, were it not for this initial intention to form a circle.
2. A god found at roadsides, village boundaries, mountain passes and crossroads, who prevents foreign plagues and evil spirits from invading the land. Dosojin also signifies ‘the entrance to the world.’
3. Hachimantai: A volcano which straddles the prefectures of Iwate and Akita. It is a plateau at an altitude of 1,614 metres.
4. Volcano near the cities of Hirosaki and Ajigasawa in the Nishitsugaru district of the Aomori prefecture.
- The Jomon ‘felt’ death was very close to them, omnipresent
N : A great number of stone rods (*5) was found at Aizu in the Fukishima prefecture, representing Dosojin. They were placed randomly at the edge of rice fields or to mark the boundary between a village and a mountain – like a sanctuary. Is it possible that the stone rods from the Jomon period were moved?
5. One of the tools of shamanism, a stone phallic symbol from the Jomon period. These tools seem to have been special instruments linked to magic and rituals and were believed to represent human figures.
It is possible. When I saw the stone circles at Oyu for the first time, I became fascinated by the circles of the Jomon. At first, I thought, “What on earth is this circle?” And then, there was a cemetery in the middle. In other words, we can assume that death was not considered as something repulsive in the Jomon vision of the world. The arrangement in which there is a place in the centre of the village where ancestors are laid to rest, changes radically in the Yayoi period. In Kanagawa, at the site of the ruins of an ancient village from the Yayoi period, there is a ditch around its edge, roughly 50 metres from the centre, where the dead were buried. When I was there, I saw clearly, with my own eyes, how in the Yayoi world people distanced themselves from death. It seems that it was shunned as something repellent. The difference between the Jomon and the Yayoi is extremely significant. During the Jomon period, the body of a dead fœtus would be placed in an urn and buried with stones at the entrance of the home. The symbolic meaning of the circle is that it includes death. The death of a foetus required burial at the entrance to the dwelling, which was circular. No attempt was made to keep it at a distance, as if it were something impure. " Did the Jomon people have this notion of feeling close to death?" What I was looking for was a part of the story surrounding the stone circles of Tohoku. Would I find it there? Later, I learned that there was a custom in the region requiring that the bodies of dead children and foetuses were buried at the entrance to dwellings. Archaeologically speaking, this custom dates back to the Jomon period. The circle may have gone, but I believe the origin of the customs and the relationship with death have not changed.
N : Yes, indeed. I had already heard about this in Tohoku. “Buried earthenware pots" used for funerary purposes, which would have contained infants or foetuses, were also found here in Jomon Square. I'll talk about this in detail later, but when I heard from an elderly woman in Aizu that they had such a custom, it touched me deeply.
While I was researching the remains of stone circles, I was inspired by the story of « Nametoko no Kuma » (The bears of Mount Nametoko) by Kenji Miyasawa(*6). A hunter, who had killed a bear to earn his living, is finally killed himself by bears and left at a place resembling an altar. The bears decide to encircle his lifeless body, giving him an intimate funeral ceremony. This echoes the example of the Bon Odori (a traditional dance consisting of a repetitive series of movements held around August 15th, the day of the dead) - a dance performed in a circle, suggesting that the circle is an integral part of both entertainment and rituals. I should like to shed light on the circular shape from this perspective and am still inspired by « The Bears of Mount Nametoko » by K. Miyazawa.
6. A fairy-tale written by Kenji Miyasawa, from the Iwate prefecture. Nametoko Yama was thought to be a fictitious mountain created by the author, until it was later discovered that it was in fact a real mountain in the Iwate prefecture.
N : The last scene of the fairy-tale is really impressive, because the aggressor and the victim are placed on an equal footing.
And at the end, it is humans and not bears who are buried. On the other hand, I sometimes have the impression that, surprisingly, the circular form is not at all obvious. The power, the composition of its centre and outer edge are also abstract forms. I think the circular form, which you say has "no beginning and no end", is similar to Kasarenpanjyo*, the ‘rounds’ of popular revolts during the medieval period in Japan.
*Kasarenpanjyo（傘連判状） from Ikoma in the Nara region: image below)
The name is written in such a way that it is facing in all directions around a central point so that there is neither a beginning nor an end. Here again we find the constancy of the circle. In a composition comprising a centre and an outer edge, I feel as though the circle is a space, within which people might simultaneously dominate or violently repress others, and this stands out immediately. In Sannuki, a beach in the city of Suma in the Fukushima prefecture, human bone fragments were discovered amongst the shells: they measured approximately 1.5 metres and had been arranged in a circle and buried. Beside this find, there was also the skeleton of a buried dog. This circle is constant and no single figure stands out. I saw exactly the same phenomenon on an island in the South, I shall not divulge where it is, so as to protect the site. Human skulls and femurs were arranged in a circular shape.
There is, however, another entrance in the colonnade at Hokuriku. There must be a link between the power and violence of the centre and at the circle’s outer edge – its continuity without a beginning or an end. As pointed out in the story of «The Bears of Nametoko Yama», the centre suppresses the outer edge. I also believe this symbolism exists.
-Shared Characteristics of French and Japanese Archaeological Sites
N: When I visited France with my family in 2019, I chanced upon a brochure about the ruins of a Cro-Magnan cave used for prayer near a chateau where I had stayed. So, I visited the site with the help of a guide and when I was there I felt the presence of very fervent prayer.
Prof.A.: Was it the Lascaux Cave?
N: No, it was at a site dating from the Magdalenian period, in the Vienne region about 100 kms from Lascaux. Situated at the confluence of the rivers Anglin and Galtam, are the ruins of Roc-aux-Sorciers. It is an archaeological site around 15,000 years old, situated on a cliff on the right bank of the river Anglin. Whereas Lascaux is a cave full of cave paintings, this is a rock shelter. There are drawings there of bison, goats, antelopes and cats, which utilise the irregularities of the rock and are characterised by their ultimate purpose – that of three-dimensional sculpture. It is an archaeological site consisting of two parts – the Taillebourg cave upstream and the Bourbois rock shelter downstream. You can see a 50 metre-long strip of three-dimensional depictions there. Nowadays, life-size replicas are open to the public.
<photo: Roc aux Sorcières>
*7: The last cultural period of the Upper Paleolithic in ancient Europe. Also known as the Magdalenian culture. The major sites are mostly in France and Spain, where the cave paintings of Lascaux and Altamira are particularly famous.
Prof. A: Does this correspond to the beginning of the Jomon period. What kind of place is it exactly?
N: The literal translation of the term Roc-aux-Sorciers is “a rock where sorcerers came together.” This site was discovered in 1927 (the second year of the Showa period) long before the arrival of Christianity, it must have been a place for spiritual experimentation. It appears there was a Christian chapel built there in medieval times. It is evident that the purpose of the chapel was altered so that it might serve as a sacred place for primitive worship. The walls of the cave have been repeatedly drawn on in the same place every 1000 years. A figure combining the upper half of a woman and an animal is the very first drawing to have been executed there. There was also a plump Venus, as well as three goddesses from Greek mythology, depicted with intertwining bodies. I was surprised to note that sites in France and Japan had this in common: a very close relationship between life and sex, in particular, through the representation of the rounded body of the feminine figure of Venus, which conveys a powerful life force.
In addition, during the process of my own pregnancy, right up to the birth, I felt my body growing ever rounder in preparation for motherhood - my stomach, chest, nipples, everything! Ironically, I could not see the life that was growing under my skin. I had had two miscarriages but had fallen pregnant ‘at last’. All that remained for me to do was to feel the life that was growing inside me and then pray. Just like the Jomon…