Toro Iseki

posted 22 Jul 2017, 04:56 by Harp Archaeology

Grace Macpherson

こんにちは! Moving from Scotland to Japan is quite the upheaval, and has meant that I’ve left all of my ‘heritage’ behind. I left all that contributed to create my sense of roots, and all that contributed to create a present reality that was livable for what I perceived to be my identity. I left every kind of familiar landscape in which my life was being, or had been, lived. So when considering what to write about in terms of my experiences in cultural heritage here, I honestly struggled to think in ‘heritage’ terms, as my personal sense of ‘heritage’ has been so challenged. To my delight, I discovered a site and a story here in Japan that has created an empathetic connection between myself and this nation, speaking directly to this very upheaval of a sense of identity. And it was great fun to visit too!





I first found out about the site of Toro Iseki from one of my students at the Eikaiwa gakkō (英会話学校) that I work at (in English, it’s called a conversation school). Toro is located in the neighbouring prefecture, Shizuoka ken, in the city of the same name, central Honshu Island. Presently it consists of a group of reconstructed pit dwellings, rice paddies and a museum, created from the plan of the settlement discovered during archaeological investigations on the site, beginning from it’s discovery in 1943. Back then it was just a modern rice paddy field on the surface, until the building of an aeroplane propeller factory began to reveal the remains of the Late Yayoi period (c.1st century AD) rice-farming settlement.






Investigations revealed evidence of paddy field systems alongside the excavated 12 dwellings, and an extens
ive farming tool kit, extraordinarilypreserved despite being primarily wooden materials.






The ‘afterlife’ of the site was equally compelling to learn about, having suffered bombings during the war, provided the post-war Japanese with a ‘shining light’ of hope in the period following their military defeat, and became the arena in which modern Japanese archaeological methods really took shape.


Full work at the site could only begin properly in 1947 following the war, and this timing has been argued as one explanation as to why the site was considered to be so important. Just like myself, post-war Japan was in a state of identity re-formation, as the ‘divine’ imperial system upon which many philosophies and beliefs had previously been founded was now shattered. And because of the longevity of this belief system – thedivine imperial line thought to have been in existence since the dawn of time – all of Japanese historical understanding which had contributed to the creation of the national spirit and identity, was now, at Toro’s time of discovery, being viewed through a new lens. No longer able to build on this imperial myth, Japan was left without a foundational understanding of itself as a nation. Archaeological discoveries, with an inherent time element to their investigation, very often step in to fill these cultural positions, offering that ‘ancient’ or ‘unchanged’ history upon which to build a brand new present identity.







For me, this archaeological discovery stepped in to remind me of some of my own personal history – as an ex-student and continual lover of archaeology – whilst giving me something upon which to build a brand new sense of how that is part of my life here in Japan. For post-war Japan, this archaeological discovery revealed a history of the ‘common people’, with a basis in rice-cultivation, which could now be the foundation of the new democratic ‘cultural nation’. And rice cultivation was really highlighted throughout the small museum. Despite not being able to understand the majority of the explanatory panels, my friends and I had a great day out, delving into the Japanese past. The small on-site museum contained interactive elements on the ground floor, accessible free of charge, where we could get involved in using reconstructed examples of the everyday and rice farming wooden objects and tools. I was fascinated at the state of preservation of these objects (the originals were on display on the first floor, which I could wander around for a small fee), and I think the archaeologistsin the past would have been too, as natural materials are so rarely recovered.





We could try weaving, mortise and tenon tool construction (slightly confusing), creating pots, and also attempt to light a fire usingaholed plank and stick. There was the opportunity to have a go at ‘rice farming’ too – wear the wooden plank sandals to walk on the ‘mud’ (squishy floor), plant shoots into the paddies, slice the heads of the harvested crop, and pound the rice to separate the chaff – all whilst wearing the white tunic-like garb, and sensing the days/seasons go by as the lighting in the room gradually changed.





Without this, it would have been more of a struggle to later know what the objects were that were on display upstairs, though there were some brilliant illustrations. The interactivity and the reconstructions that were there really brought it all to life to make it real to a complete newby 外人(foreigner) who can’t read much of the language. Many of them even detailed the processes of the excavation/reconstruction itself and life in war-time Japan. The reconstructed buildings outside too, increased that relational connection to those lives lived in the Japanese past 2000 years ago. Although jarring slightly with the residential area that surrounded very closely on all sides (land is a precious commodity on these crowded islands), the houses were built alongside the fields in close connection, really giving a senseof how intermingled agriculture may have been into daily life of those 1st century Japanese people.

This place called to memory other sites I have visited back home – with museums and reconstructions to explore – though this time with a distinctly Japanese element. It helped me realise the importance and validity of my own personal past cultural experiences, in order to relate to this new experience in a Japanese context. Japan is not so wildly different or alien after all, even if my brain is finding things hard to compute at times. Though Japanese heritage is different from my own, it’s heritage serves a similar purpose for the Japanese people that mine does for me – in helping to shape understandingof what it is to live and be ourselves, wherever we live today. My archaeologist inside was excited to learn about the past of the nation I now call home, giving me an insight and connection to my ‘new nation’ which linked with an element of my old life and personhood – archaeology – in a similar way that Toro’s investigation gave an ancient history of the common people that could be built upon in the ‘new nation’ that Japan became following the war.



By connecting to both my own and Japan’s pasts, Toro helped us both to navigate key moments of change. By uncovering Japan’s past, I hope building my future here will be a process of creating something great, and being equipped for the purpose of helping nations connect to the Truth of their identity.


Photographs taken by both the author and Angel Lopez

Further Reading:

 - Aikens, C. M. and Higuchi, T. 1982. Prehistory of Japan, Academic Press
 - Bahn, P. (ed.) 2001. ‘Toro,’ in The Penguin Archaeology Guide, Penguin
 - Brown, D. M. (ed.) 1993. The Cambridge History of Japan: Ancient Japan, Cambridge University Press
 - Edwards, W. 1999. ‘Buried discourse: the Toro archaeological site and Japanese national identity in the early postwar period,’ in Journal of Japanese Studies, vol. 17, no. 1
 - Nishi, K. 1996. What is Japanese architecture? A survey of traditional Japanese architecture, translated by Horton, H. M., Kodansha International

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