Haniwa figure of a shamaness, 5th–6th century. Earthenware. This haniwa represents a Shinto priestess who would have presided over the funeral ceremony of a Yamato chieftain. The figure is fragmentary: the arms are missing and, like almost all extant haniwa, it has been reassembled from shards.
Haniwa horse statuette, complete with saddle and stirrups, sixth century
Haniwa houses

The Haniwa (埴輪) are terracotta clay figures which were made for ritual use and buried with the dead as funerary objects throughout the Kofun period (3rd to sixth centuries AD) of the history of Japan. Haniwa were created according to the wazumi technique, in which mounds of coiled clay were built up to shape the figure, layer by layer.

The Haniwa were made with water-based clay and dried into a coarse and absorbent material that stood the test of time. Their name means “circle of clay” referring to how they were arranged in a circle above the tomb. The protruding parts of the figures were made separately and then attached, while a few things were carved into them. They were smoothed out by a wooden paddle. Earth terraces were arranged to place them with a cylindrical base into the ground, where the earth would hold them in place.

During the Kofun period, a highly aristocratic society with militaristic rulers developed. The cavalry wore iron armor, carried swords and additional weapons, and used advanced military methods like those of Northeast Asia. Many of them are represented in haniwa figurines for funerary purposes.

The most important of the haniwa were found in southern Honshū—especially the Kinai region around Nara—and northern Kyūshū. Haniwa grave offerings were made in numerous forms, such as horses, chickens, birds, fans, fish, houses, weapons, shields, sunshades, pillows, and male and female humans. Besides decorative and spiritual reasons of protecting the deceased in his afterlife, these figures additionally served as a sort of retaining wall for the burial mound.

Because these haniwa display the contemporary clothing, hairstyle, farming tools, and architecture, these sculptures are important as a historical archive of the Kofun Period.

Every day pottery item from that period are called Haji pottery.



Earlier clay figurines appeared throughout the Jōmon period called dogū.

Hiroaki Sato cites a passage from the Nihon Shoki, in which Emperor Suinin issued an imperial edict concerning funerals, "From now on make it a rule to erect clay figures and not to hurt people." Thus, these clay figures replaced live human sacrifices.

The origin of haniwa started throughout the latter part of the Yayoi period around the Kingdom of Kibi. During this time special earthenware figurines and bowls started to seem on top of the tombs of leaders. The early sculptures exceeded 1 metre (3 feet) in length. They consisted of a cylindrical portion which represented the torso, and a skirt-shaped portion at the base, which represented the legs. Many times a special insignia or pattern would be displayed on the torso. Sometimes an obi would be placed around the torso portion of the sculpture. These sculptures are thought to have been used as part of a funeral ritual. Other than the Kibi area, the only additional place these sculptures were found was in the Izumo province.

During the latter part of the third century AD, these sculptures started to seem on top of the imperial grave mounds in the Kinai region. During this time more elaborate haniwa would appear along with earthenware bowls. It is believed that the movement of these sculptures and haniwa from the Kibi region to the Kinai region is indicative of an increase in the importance.

Later developments

During the earlier part of the Kofun period (later third century AD) the only earthenware haniwa were of the cylindrical variety; however, towards the early fourth century AD, shield and additional tool-shaped haniwa started to appear. Additionally, throughout the middle Kofun period (mid-5th century AD) shrine maiden, horse, dog and additional animal-shaped haniwa were introduced. As the practise of having ceremonial burial mounds declined in the mid-6th century AD, haniwa became rarer in the Kinai region; however, the haniwa were still made in abundance in the Kantō region.

It isn't uncommon for a few haniwa to be painted with red dye or additional colors. Besides the cylindrical haniwa (Enkei-haniwa), another common type was the house-shaped haniwa (Keisho-haniwa). Other things that fell into the category of Keisho Haniwa were those shaped like humans, animals, and swords. The details on the haniwa help to give information about the elite buried in the tomb, as well as valuable knowledge of the tools or additional objects people of that time utilized. The military haniwa inform archaeologists of the different armour and weapons, as well as the status symbols of these military branches.


Originally, the cylindrical type haniwa were set on top of the funeral mounds, so it is believed that they had a purpose in funeral rituals; however, as the haniwa became more developed, they were set towards the outside of the grave area, and it is thought that they were used as boundary markers to mark the borders of the gravesite.

There is a theory that the soul of the deceased would reside in the haniwa, as the earlier haniwa were placed on top of the funeral mounds. There are haniwa that are equipped with weapons and armor, and these are additionally thought to be containers for souls. The armour and weapons would serve the purpose of driving away evil spirits and protecting the buried ruler from calamity. Because the horse and animal shaped haniwa were normally neatly arranged into a line, it is believed that they were part of a sending-off ceremony.

In modern society

Although the religious implications of the haniwa have largely declined in modern society, the sculptures are still prized by a large number of for their aesthetic and historical significance. The works of Shojiro Ishibashi, for example, were heavily influenced by the haniwa. They have been accepted as "Pure Art", according to Time magazine. Beyond simple appreciation as artistic sculptures, modern popular culture has, in a few cases, even portrayed the haniwa as containing an actual sentient entity and not just as a simple empty sculpture. The most common portrayal depicts the haniwa with a rounded, pot-like shape, bearing two deep eyes, a wide mouth, and two featureless "arms" on opposite sides of the "pot".

The portrayal of living haniwa has—since the late 1990s—become widespread, being featured in trading cards, video games such as the Animal Crossing and Kirby series, and television. In a large number of of the depictions, the haniwa is primarily presented as a ghostlike, malevolent creature, without attempting to retain the historical aspect of the haniwa's religious nature. In Animal Crossing, haniwas are called gyroids, and are furniture only found buried in the ground.

  • Yong (俑) – Funerary terracotta figurines in ancient China, the most famous example is the Terracotta Army.
  • Ushabti – Ancient Egyptian burial sculpture that ritually assist their deceased owners in the descent into the afterlife.