Magatama are curved, comma-shaped beads that appeared in prehistoric Japan from the Final Jōmon period through the Kofun period, approximately ca. 1000 BCE to the sixth century CE. The beads, also described as “jewels”, were made of primitive stone and earthen materials in the early period, but by the end of the Kofun period were made almost exclusively of jade. Magatama originally served as decorative jewelry, but by the end of the Kofun period functioned as ceremonial and religious objects. Archaeological evidence suggests that magatama were produced in specific areas of Japan and were widely dispersed throughout the Japanese archipelago via trade routes.
Magatama first appeared in Japan in the Final Jōmon period, c. 1000 to 300 BCE, and in this period magatama were made from relatively simple, naturally occurring materials, including clay, talc, slate, quartz, gneiss, jadeite, nephrite, and serpentinite. They lack the uniformity of design found in magatama produced in later periods. Magatama from the Jōmon period were irregularly shaped, lacked continuity in form from region to region, and have been called “Stone Age magatama” for this reason. Magatama are thought to be an imitation of the teeth of large animals, pierced with a hole, which are found in earlier Jōmon remains. These resemble magatama, but more recent scholarship indicates that these early Jōmon may have simply had a decorative function, and have no relationship to magatama. Magatama in the Jōmon period appear to have moved from the purely decorative to having a status and ceremonial function by the end of the period. A “middle Jōmon exchange network” may have existed, whereby magatama were produced in regions where materials for their manufacture were readily plentiful. Jade and talc examples produced in bead-making villages located in present-day Itoigawa, Niigata have been found at a large number of sites in along the northern coast, central mountains, and Kantō region.back to menu ↑
Archaeological sites (Jōmon)
- Examples of magatama from the Jōmon period have been discovered in large numbers at the Kamegaoka site in Tsugaru, Aomori Prefecture. The Kamegaoka remains are among the largest known Jōmon settlement in Japan, and the magatama, among other decorative objects found, may be an indicator of the high social status of the settlement.
- Other sites associated with the Kamegaoka settlement have yielded magatama, including the Ōboriya shell mound, in the northwest corner of Ōfunato Bay, which yielded a huge number of beads, as well as the Karekawa site, near Hachinohe, Aomori Prefecture. Remains from the Karekawa site can be seen at the Karekawa Achaeogical Museum in Hachinohe.
- Stone and clay magatama and magatama-like beads have also been discovered at the Amataki site, Ninohe, Iwate Prefecture, Osagata site, Ibaraki Prefecture, and the Kou site, Fujiidera, Osaka Prefecture.
- Numerous magatama at the Ōishi site, Bungo-ōno, Ōita Prefecture, Kyushu show signs of being used for ceremonial, rather than decorative, purposes.
- The Sannai-Maruyama site, excavated 1992 in Aomori, Aomori Prefecture, yielded 3 large jade beads, 5.5 cm × 6.5 cm.
Magatama in the Yayoi period, c. 300 BCE to 300 CE, are notably different from Jōmon-period magatama. The jewels moved from a primitive, non-standard form towards more polished and uniform form in this period. The technology to cut large gemstones and polish jewels notably advanced in the Yayoi period. Refined materials such as jadeite, serpentinite, and glass replaced the less sophisticated materials of the Jōmon period. Yayoi period magatama are noted for their reverse C-shaped form, which by the end of the period became an almost squared shape. From the Yayoi period on magatama uniformly feature a bored hole that allowed the jewels to be held on a string.
The Yayoi period is marked by specific centers specializing in magatama and the widespread trade of magatama. The period is marked by the formation of power centers that came to be individual states. The development of weapons increased in this period to protect increasingly developed rice fields and fishing rights. Trade greatly increased in this period, as did the specialization of production of certain items, including magatama. Magatama producing areas exchanged their product with other products, specifically rice, leading to the widespread distribution of magatama across Japan. Magatama were commonly used to create necklaces and bracelets worn on the wrists or ankles. The necklace was typically constructed of jadeite magatama separated by cylindrical bored-holed pieces of jasper. Small beads of dark-blue glass are also not uncommon on the necklace. The bracelet was typically also used shells from the coastal areas of Shikoku and the Inland Sea, wood, and bronze. In this period the use of the mirror, sword, and jewels as status symbols for village, and later regional leaders of all kinds, emerged in the Yayoi period, and point to the origin of the mirror, sword, and magatama as the Imperial Regalia of Japan.
The Records of the Three Kingdoms, the earliest historical document with a reference to Japan, describes the Wa people, an ancient country of Yamatai, and its queen, Himiko. The Record indicates that when Himiko died her relative Iyo, a girl of thirteen, was made queen and sent a delegation of twenty officials under Yazuku, an imperial general, to offer tribute to the Northern Wei court. “The delegation visited the capital and  offered to the court five thousand white gems and two pieces of carved jade, as well as twenty pieces of brocade with variegated designs.” The carved jade in the Record likely describes a tribute of two jade magatama.back to menu ↑
Archaeological sites (Yayoi)
- The large-scale Yayoi period remains at the Yoshinogari site, Yoshinogari and Kanzaki in Saga Prefecture revealed examples of lead glass magatama typical of the Yayoi period.
- In 2003 the excavation of a large Yayoi period settlement in Tawaramoto, Nara, revealed two large jade magatama, one 4.64 centimetres (1.83 in), the second 3.63 centimetres (1.43 in) in length. The larger Tawaramoto magatama is the 10th largest found to date in Japan. Both jade magatama from the site are of unusually high-quality brilliant green jade.
- One known center of Yayoi magatama production was in the area of the Tamatsukuri Inari Shrine in Osaka. Tamatsukuri literally means “jewel making” and a guild, the Tamatsukuri-be, was active from the Yayoi period. An existing jewel at the shrine is said to have great spiritual power. Magatama appear on all sorts of implements of the present-day temple, including amulets, roof tiles, and lanterns. The inari female fox at the gate of a subshrine of Tamatsukuri Inari Shrine wears a necklace of magatama. The shrine has an exhibit on the history and production of magatama.
Magatama became very common in the Kofun period, c. CE 250 to CE 538, and by the end of the period almost all kofun tumuli contained magatama. In the early Kofun period magatama were made from jadeite as in earlier periods, but by the middle of the period were made from jasper, and by the end of the period, almost exclusively of agate and jade. Magatama capped by silver or gold also appear towards the end of the period. Large magatama made of talc, imitations of smaller ones made of more precious materials, were used as grave goods. Magatama are found in kofun tumuli across Japan from the period. Their use went from merely decorative to sacred and ceremonial grave goods. Chōjigashira magatama (丁字頭勾玉) are magatama with inscriptions that look like flowers of the clove tree and have a hole suitable to attach to a string. These first appear in the Kofun period. In the Kofun period magatama appear on necklaces, with several magatama set between bored cylinders. Archeological remains show evidence of similar ankle bracelets, but they are less common. Clay haniwa funerary objects of the Kofun period commonly depict people wearing the necklaces and ankle bracelets.back to menu ↑
Archaeological sites (Kofun)
Examples of stone magatama from the Kofun period are especially numerous.
- An excavation of the Kamegaoka Kofun, Kishiwada, Osaka, revealed a local who had been buried with a jade, jasper, and alabaster magatama necklace, as well as magatama placed near the feet. A bronze mirror imported from China accompanying the burial is dated to 239 CE. The kofun is a Designated Historical Spot of the city of Kishiwada.
- Ceremonial offerings from a burial from the Kisami-Araida area of Shimoda, Shizuoka, reveal clay reproductions of magatama used as effigies. The excavation of the Ubusuna Kofun in Kyōtango, Kyoto yielded two fully intact magatama necklaces of jade and agate with segments between 1.7 and 5.1 cm in length.
- The large Muro Miyayama Kofun of Katsuragi, Nara, on the Yamato Plain, 238 mm in length, was plundered long before its excavation, but revealed 600 talc ceremonial magatama among other funerary objects, which also included 10 bronze Han Chinese mirrors.
- The Hiraide remains of Shiojiri, Nagano, is one of the three largest prehistoric sites in Japan, and was far from any regional power center. The Hiraide site not only includes typical Kofun period remains, but also objects associated with modern Shinto ceremonial practice. Nevertheless, kofun in Hiraide reveal both plain and elaborate magatama among other funerary objects.
- The Sakurai Kofun in Sakurai, Nara, excavated in 1949, represents a kofun from the final phase of the Kofun period, and is possibly from a ruler associated with the imperial family. The kofun is 25 metres (82 ft) high and shows evidence of being surrounded by a moat. Among the very large number of funerary objects were high-quality weapons, including swords, 10 mirrors, and a necklace of jadeite magatama, agate cylinders, and glass beads used to make a magatama-style necklace.
Origin of magatama forms
Archaeologists and historians are unable yet to explain what the origins of magatama forms are, or whether these forms can be traced back to one convergent source.
A number of explanations have been suggested, including:
- Magatama may be fashioned after animal fangs/teeth
- Magatama may be modeled after the shape of fetuses
- Magatama could symbolize the shape of the soul
- Magatama may be modeled after the shape of the moon
- That there is meaning and connotation attached to the shape of the magatama itself (i.e. meaning comes from the form itself, and not that magatama has been patterned after anything else)
In Japanese mythology
The Kojiki and Nihon Shoki, completed in the 8th century, have numerous references to magatama. They appear in the first chapter of the Nihon Shoki, which largely describes the mythology of Japan. Susanoo, god of the sea and storms, received five hundred magatama from Tamanoya no mikoto, or Ame-no-Futodama-no-mikoto, the jewel-making deity. Susanoo went to heaven and presented them to his sister, the sun goddess Amaterasu, who bit off successive parts of the magatama, and blew them away to create other deities. Tamanoya no mikoto remains the kami god of magatama, glasses, and cameras.
In the legend Amaterasu later shuts herself in a cave. Ama-no-Koyane-no-mikoto hung magatama, among other objects, on a five hundred-branch sakaki tree, to successfully lure Amaterasu from the cave. In the year 58, in the reign of the Emperor Suinin, the Nihon shoki records that a dog kills and disembowels a mujina, a type of badger, and a magatama was discovered in its stomach. This magatama was presented to Suinin, who enshrined it at Isonokami Shrine, where it is said to presently reside. A similar practice is described again in the Nihon shoki during the reign of the Emperor Chūai. Chūai made an inspection trip to the Tsukushi, or Kyūshū, and was presented with an enormous sakaki tree hung with magatama as well as other sacred objects.back to menu ↑
Yasakani no Magatama
A noted magatama is the Yasakani no Magatama, one of the three Imperial Regalia of Japan. Swords, mirrors, and jewels were common objects of status for regional rulers in Japan as early as the Yayoi period, and were further widespread in the Kofun period, as shown by their ubiquitous presence in kofun tumuli. The Yasakani no Magatama is stored at the Kashiko-dokoro (賢所), the central shrine of the Three Palace Sanctuaries at the Tokyo Imperial Palace, and is used in the enthronement ceremony of the Emperor of Japan.
Daniel Clarence Holtom stated in 1928 in Japanese enthronement ceremonies; with an account of the imperial regalia that the Yasakani no Magatama is the only one of the three regalia that exists in its original form; post-World War II scholarship supports the claim. Replicas of the sword and mirror were made as early as the 9th century, and the originals were entrusted to other shrines.