The Significance of “Korean” Keyhole-shaped Tombs in the Study of Early “Korean-Japanese” Relations


Thursday, November 6, 2014, 4:30pm to 6:00pm


Porté Seminar Room (S250), CGIS South Building, 1730 Cambridge Street, Cambridge, MA 02138

Korea Colloquium

Event poster

Dennis Lee, Korea Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow, Harvard University

Dennis Lee received his PhD in early Korean-Japanese relations from UCLA in 2014 and is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Korea Institute at Harvard University. His research looks at the textually “invisible” frontiers of historical states on the Korean peninsula and the Japanese archipelago and their role in early relations between the regions currently associated with Korea and Japan. Since 2012, Dennis Lee has been a visiting researcher at the Yonsei University Institute of Korean Studies. He also taught courses at Yonsei University Underwood International College and Korea University's Graduate Studies in International Studies in Seoul, South Korea. His primary research interests include early Korean-Japanese relations as seen through text and archaeology. He also plans to develop mapping software that will analyze transportation networks between the Korean peninsula and the Japanese archipelago from the 4th - 7th century.

Chaired by Mark Byington, Project Director, Early Korea Project, Harvard University

In 1983, Korean scholar Kang Ingu ignited a political firestorm by confirming the existence of keyhole-shaped tombs on the Korean peninsula. Keyhole-shaped tombs were considered symbols of early Japanese hegemony between the 3rd and 6th centuries CE and, until then, were only known on the Japanese archipelago. Was this conclusive archaeological proof that Japan ruled Korea in ancient times, as some nationalist Japanese scholars claimed? Or were these the resting places of “Japanese” officials serving a “Korean” kingdom? The debate over the origins of these tombs, the racial identity of the interred, and their geopolitical context revived long-standing debates on the nature of early “Korean-Japanese” relations but, more importantly, also starkly revealed larger issues regarding interpretations of the past across modern national borders. This presentation discusses the strong influence and limitations of geonationalist frameworks and hegemonic historical texts on interpretations of the “Korean” keyhole-shaped tombs and early “Korean-Japanese” relations. A closer examination of the archaeological data suggests a far more complicated world on the Korean peninsula and the Japanese archipelago in the late 5th – early 6th century than the one portrayed in historical texts, especially in the “borderlands.” Through a multidisciplinary approach combining textual and archaeological analysis, I argue that those entombed in the “Korean” keyhole-shaped tombs were textually invisible regional authorities. They not only defy traditional categories of identity, such as Paekche/Mahan (i.e. Korean) or Yamato/Wa (i.e Japanese), but also seem to be a part of a transnational community that spanned the Yŏngsan River basin in present-day South Chŏlla Province in South Korea to the coast of the Ariake Sea in present-day Kyushu. This ultimately challenges the clear separation of historical states and material culture in the early period into “Korean” and “Japanese” and raises questions regarding the role of these textually invisible yet autonomous “borderlands” within early “Korean” and “Japanese” state formation.

Co-sponsored by the East Asian Archaeology Seminar Series, Department of Anthropology and Edwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies

The Korea Colloquium is generously supported by the Min Young-Chul Memorial Fund at the Korea Institute.

"The Significance of "Korean" Keyhole-shaped Tombs in the Study of Early "Korean-Japanese" Relations"