Jomon Pottery
Ancient Japanese Ceramic Culture.

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Goggle-Eyed Dogu Figurine
from the Final Jomon Period.

Jomon Pottery (c.14500-1000 BCE)


- What is the Oldest Jomon Pottery?
- Incipient Jomon: 14500-8000 BCE
- Initial Jomon: 8000-5000 BCE
- Early Jomon: 5000-2500 BCE
- Middle Jomon: 2500–1500 BCE
- Late Jomon: 1500–1000 BCE
- Final Jomon: 1000–300 BCE
- Epi-Jomon: 100 BCE - 500 CE
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Cord-Patterned Deep Bowl with
Rounded Bottom. From the
Incipient Jomon Period. An example
of the earliest art of its type in Japan.

Fukabachi Jar from the
Middle Jomon Period.
A striking piece of Stone Age Art.


In prehistoric art, the term "Jomon" (which means "cord pattern" in Japanese) refers to the ancient pottery produced by Japan's first Stone Age culture, during the period 14,500 and 1000 BCE. (See also: Pottery Timeline.) It was christened Jomon pottery by the American zoologist Edward S. Morse (1838-1925), who excavated the first known examples of Jomon ceramic art from the Omori shell-mound near Tokyo. Because all the recovered sherds had marks of twisted cords on their exterior surfaces, Morse gave them the name "Jomon". In fact, the name "Jomon" is now used to describe the entire prehistoric culture of Japanese art, a culture which began in the era of Paleolithic Art, and continued throughout the period of Neolithic Art, before finishing about 300 BCE, towards the end of the Iron Age. During this lengthy period, Japan progressed from a stable but primitive hunter-gatherer society, to a settled, more complex society based on rice cultivation, some animal husbandry and intensive fishing. Exactly how and why Jomon pottery began, remains unclear. We do know from the recent dating of Xianrendong Cave Pottery (c.18,000 BCE) and Yuchanyan Cave Pottery (16,000 BCE) that Chinese pottery was the first type of ceramic ware in East Asia. We also know from the dating of the Amur River Pottery that Chinese know-how had spread into the Siberian borderlands by 14,300 BCE at the latest. So it is almost certain that Jomon pottery - of which the earliest known example comes from the Odaiyamamoto I site in the Tohoku region of northern Japan dating to 14,540 BCE - was based originally on Chinese techniques and traditions. Furthermore, as migrants from the Asian mainland brought full-time wet rice agriculture with them, most likely around 4,000 BCE, ceramic vessels would have become even more useful for boiling rice and storage purposes. Jomon potsherds have been recovered from archeological sites across Japan - from northern Hokkaido to southern Ryukyus - but they are more common in the eastern part of the country, where Jomon culture survived longest. To see how the evolution of pottery fits into the chronology of other arts and crafts, please see: Prehistoric Art Timeline (from 2.5 million BCE).

Note: Jomon pottery used to be considered diagnostic of the Neolithic, which occurred in Japan during the period 10,000-1,000 BCE. However, as older and older examples of Japanese pottery were excavated, it became obvious that Jomon ceramics began earlier - during the Paleolithic. (Although when exactly the style began remains a matter of debate.) However, many books and websites still, rather misleadingly, refer to the Jomon period as spanning the years 10,000 to 1,000 BCE.

For the earliest artworks, see Oldest Stone Age Art.


All Jomon vessels were hand made, without the aid of a potter's wheel, which wasn't invented until about 4,000 BCE. (See Mesopotamian Art.) The artist therefore built up the pot from the bottom with coil upon coil of soft clay, mixed with a selection of adhesive additives, including lead, mica and crushed shells. Once the vessel was fully formed, its inner and outer surfaces were smoothed. Finally, when completely dry, it was fired in an outdoor bonfire at a temperature of no more than about 600 degrees Celsius. In time, as firing techniques improved, pots might be fired at temperatures up to 900 degrees Celsius. Forms and styles also changed significantly during the period. The earliest Incipient Jomon vessels are coarsely-pasted, bag-shaped and low-fired. Initial Jomon pots are mostly round with pointed bottoms and also low-fired. Early Jomon is characterized by flat-bottoms, and (in northeastern Japan) by cylindrical forms, reminiscent of styles on the Chinese mainland. During the Middle Jomon period, a much greater variety of vessels appears and are fired in kilns at much higher temperatures. Decorative techniques improve considerably. By the Late Jomon period, new forms of pottery are developed for ceremonial purposes, as well as anthropomorphic dogu figures and masks with goggle eyes.


Jomon pots are traditionally divided into five categories: (1) "fukabachi" - deep bowls or jars; (2) "hachi" - bowls of medium depth; (3) "asabachi" - shallow bowls; (4) "tsubo" - containers with narrow mouths and long necks; and (5) "chuko" - vessels with spouts. Note: very shallow bowls are sometimes referred to as "sara" - plates.

In general, the most common type of Jomon pottery is the deep bowl. Having emerged at the beginning of the Jomon culture the deep bowl continued to be the most dominant type of vessel during the rest of the culture. Researchers believe that the majority of deep bowls from the Incipient Jomon phase had rounded bottoms, although some may have had a unique shape featuring a square mouth and flat bottom. Round and pointed bottoms predominated during the Initial Jomon period but flat bottoms became the standard during and after the Early Jomon.

Shallow bowls appeared for the first time near the end of the Early Jomon period. Assemblages of early Jomon Moroiso-style pottery in the Kanto and Chubu regions, for instance, include a fair number of shallow bowls. Because a large number of shallow bowls were recovered from burial pits, historians believe that they were either used in the funeral ceremony or produced specifically as grave goods.

The appearance of Early Jomon shallow bowls did not trigger an immediate diversification of vessel types. Although the Middle Jomon period is known for an abundance of ornately decorated pots, like the "fire-flame" ceramic pots in the Hokuriku region, deep bowls remained dominant throughout the period. Even so, a number of new forms of pottery such as the "lamp" shape did emerge for the first time during the Middle Jomon.

It was in the Late and Final Jomon periods that diversification occurred, with a plethora of different vessel forms appearing in Jomon pottery assemblages during these periods. At the same time, there was an increase in shallow bowls compared to deep bowls. In addition, the Late and Final Jomon periods witnessed an increase in the manufacture of jars and vessels with spouts.

Late and Final Jomon ceramics are also characterized by the presence of coarsely made pots. Although some Early and Middle Jomon assemblages do feature less decorated pots (usually vessels with only cord marks), a clear differentiation between coarsely made vessels and finely made pots is a characteristic of only the Late and Final Jomon periods. Nonetheless coarsely made pots accounted for 40-70 percent of pottery output in Eastern Japan, during these two periods.


What is the Oldest Japanese Pottery?

Japan's first clay-fired pots belong to the Jomon pottery culture, whose origins continue to get older as archeologists discover older and older pots. Here is a short chronological list of the earliest Japanese ceramic ware.

• Odaiyamamoto I site (Aomori prefecture, Tohoku region) (14,540 BCE)
• Fukui Cave (Nagasaki prefecture, Kyushu) (14,000 BCE)
• Kamino (Kanagawa prefecture, Kanto region) (13,500 BCE)
• Sempukuji Cave (Nagasaki prefecture, Kyushu) (11,000 BCE)
• Ushirono (Ibaraki prefecture, Kanto region) (11,000 BCE)
• Kamikuroiwa Rockshelter (Shikoku Island) (10,000 BCE)

Note: Radiocarbon dates for Japanese pottery older than 13,000 remain controversial.


Jomon ceramics can be divided into these seven periods.

- Incipient Jomon: 14500-8000 BCE
- Initial Jomon: 8000-5000 BCE
- Early Jomon: 5000-2500 BCE
- Middle Jomon: 2500–1500 BCE
- Late Jomon: 1500–1000 BCE
- Final Jomon: 1000–100 BCE
- Epi-Jomon: 100 BCE - 500 CE

Incipient Jomon (14500-8000 BCE)

This period marks the transition between Paleolithic hunter-gathering and the more settled Neolithic lifestyle based on fishing, rudimentary agriculture and some animal husbandry. Archeological evidence indicates production of deep cooking pots with pointed bottoms and primitive decorative cord markings. They tended to be bag-shaped and were fired at low temperatures. Some pots were given conical shapes for setting in the earth; while some were given decorations made with fingernails. (Potsherds with bean-impression decoration were excavated recently from the Mikoshiba-Chojukado sites in southwestern Japan.) The general lack of Paleolithic sherds found in Japan has been interpreted as evidence that, while pottery-making was known to Japanese hunter-gatherers, it did not prove terribly useful to their nomadic lifestyle. See also: Neolithic Art in China: 7500-2000 BCE.

Initial Jomon (8000-5000 BCE)

By this period, sea levels had risen, so that the southern Japanese islands of Shikoku and Kyushu were separated from the main island of Honshu. The milder climate also boosted the food supply, derived from fishing (whales, seals, spawning salmon), from hunting animals and from gathering plants, fruits, and seeds. Intial Jomon pots increase in size, reflecting the more settled lifestyle. Decoration slowly becomes more intricate and elaborate.

Early Jomon (5000-2500 BCE)

Rice cultivation begins in Japan during this period, leading to a rise in demand for ceramic cooking vessels. Similarities in styles of pottery produced in Kyushu, Japan, and the Korean mainland suggest that regular trading took place between the two countries. Flat-bottomed pots superceded the round or pointed bases of Initial Jomon ware. The period is also marked by a greater variety of ceramic forms.

Middle Jomon (2500–1500 BCE)

The apogee of Jomon culture, this period is marked by a higher population and a more sedentary lifestyle. Communities increased in size, leading to greater demand for clay vessels of all types and styles. Demand also rose for ornamental ceramics for ceremonial purposes, including masks as well as female figurines and phallic images, regarded as fertility symbols. Clay figurines known as "dogu" appear for the first time. Common throughout Japan, they were especially plentiful in the Tohoku region in the north of the country.

Late Jomon (1500–1000 BCE)

With the climate starting to cool, people moved away from the mountains and settled nearer the sea, particularly along Honshu's eastern coastline. Greater dependency on fish and other seafood stimulated advances in fishing techniques. By the end of the period agriculture became more widespread. Late Jomon pottery is characterized by the increase in numbers and styles of finely made ceremonial and ritualistic vessels, as well as the introduction of shallow bowls ("sara"). Dogu figurines flourished, many marked by distinctive Jomon rope-cord patterns while others were carved with "goggles", others with arabesque-like motifs.

Final Jomon (1000–100 BCE)

As the climate continued to cool, food became scarcer and the population declined noticeably. Final Jomon styles were heavily influenced by Korean art and Mumun pottery, a more austere and undecorated style of pottery brought by the Yayoi people, who arrived in southern Japan from Northern China and Korea.

Society changed markedly in the succeeding Yayoi period (about 300 BC - AD 300), but a Neo-Jomon culture continued, especially in Hokkaido where Jomon style pottery was made well into historic times.

Epi-Jomon (100 BCE - 500 CE)

Epi-Jomon pottery - sometimes known as Neo-Jomon - co-existed alongside Yayoi ceramic ware as well as two newer styles representing the Satsumon and Okhotsk cultures. In Hokkaido, however, Jomon vessels continued to be produced well into historic times.

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• For the oldest ceramics in Europe, please see: Venus of Dolni Vestonice (26,000 BCE). For the next oldest, see: Vela Spila Pottery (15,500 BCE).

• For more about East Asian ceramic art, see: Chinese Porcelain and the extraordinary Chinese Terracotta Army (c.208 BCE).

• For more about East Asian crafts, see: Jade Carving (4,900 BCE onwards) and Chinese Lacquerware (4,500 BCE onwards).


• For more information about Japanese Stone Age arts and crafts, see: Homepage.

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