Throughout its long history, Japan has produced several artworks that have become synonymous with the country’s identity. The Great Wave off Kanagawa (Hokusai, 1831) and Sunrise over the Eastern Sea (Fujishima Takeji, 1932) are just some of the iconic Japanese works that are recognizable to many.
Unforgettable works like these, along with their interpretations, meanings, and cultural contexts are relatively straightforward, as the artists who created them could communicate their intentions. Understanding ancient art, however, is a different story.
In addition, mystery surrounds the ancient art of the Land of the Rising Sun—particularly among scholars from the Western world. What is the cultural meaning behind the small, alien-looking, charming clay figures—known as dogū—that come from Japan’s prehistoric Jōmon period? Why do dogū figures have such similar characteristics, despite being made by different artists from different prefectures? And, most importantly, how do we ascribe meaning to artwork made by those with whom we can no longer communicate?
To answer these pressing questions, the history of these fascinating ancient figurines and their greater connection to Jōmon pottery and Japanese pop culture are essential in uncovering why scholars can’t seem to crack what the dogū are trying to tell us.
What Are Dogū Figures?
Dogū, in Japanese, literally means “earthen figure”—an accurate descriptor of what dogū are. Made from clay and ranging from about 4 to 12 inches in height, these figures are exclusively from the Jōmon period of Japan’s prehistory.
Dogū were unearthed by archeologists in mainly western regions of Japan beginning in the 17th century, according to Asian Art Newspaper, dogū have an unmistakably distinct look. To the modern eye, they might look like extraterrestrials with their bulging eyes and exaggerated proportions, but they are meant to be humanoid and probably female. They have wide hips, a feminine bust, and otherwise basic facial features.
Archeologists and cultural scholars are still unsure of the dogū’s exact purpose in ancient society. Prevailing theories suggest that the figures served as an aid in childbirth, a fertility symbol, or an effigy in simulated burial rituals. Dogū are “reminiscent of the rigidly frontal fertility figures produced by other prehistoric cultures,” according to Encylopedia Brittanica. Dogū’s similarities to fertility figurines within other cultures, like the Venus figurines of ancient Europe, are what allowed scholars to speculate that dogū seemingly represents the pregnant female body.
However, as is the nature of ancient art, no one can be sure of its true meaning. Washoi Magazine states that “the lack of written sources from [the Jōmon] period affects any research on [dogū]”.
There are several different subtypes of dogū, including those with heart-shaped faces and the shakōkidogū—meaning “goggle-eyed dogū” or “light-blocking dogū." The name shakōkidogū stems from the striking resemblance these dogū’s eyes bear to snow goggles worn by the indigenous Inuit peoples to prevent snow blindness.
The Jōmon Period and Pottery
As the Jōmon period spans an incredibly long and diverse period of prehistory, it is divided into six sections by historians:
- Incipient Jōmon (c. 13,750–8,000 BC)
- Initial Jōmon (c. 8,500–5,000 BC)
- Early Jōmon (c. 5,000–3,520 BC)
- Middle Jōmon (c. 3,520–2,470 BC)
- Late Jōmon (c. 2,470–1,250 BC)
- Final Jōmon (c. 1,250–500 BC)
Dogū mainly come from the Late and Final Jōmon periods but received the most development in style during the Early and Middle Jōmon periods.
The Jōmon period spanned from circa 14,000 to 400 BC, approximately 10,000 years. During this time, Japan was inhabited by hunter-gatherer societies who were “semi-sedentary” and lived mostly “in pit dwellings arranged around central open spaces,” according to The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Jōmon peoples were very religious, as indicated by their use of dogū for shamanistic or ritual purposes. Additionally, it is suggested that Jōmon people “lived in tune with the seasons and shared their rich natural world with the spirits,” as Asian Art Newspaper states.
Jōmon, meaning “cord-marked” or “rope-patterned,” references the style of pottery produced during this time period. Ceramic Jōmon pieces typically bear impressions of cords or rope, giving them their unique look and tying them to greater Jōmon culture. The oldest form of Japanese pottery, pieces from this period were made by hand and typically include bowls, vases, and other kinds of vessels.
Impact on Japanese Pop Culture
Dogū have taken on quite a life of their own in modern-day Japan. With their striking, recognizable appearance, it is not uncommon to find fictionalized versions of dogū pop up in gaming—one of Japan’s most lucrative cultural exports.
Notable examples of dogū-like characters and creatures in video games include the enemy “Pocus Poppet” from the Dragon Quest series, the characters “Baltoy” and “Claydol” from the Pokémon franchise, and what is very clearly a shakōkidogū called “Arahabaki” in the Shin Megami Tensei series. More recently, an exact depiction of a shakōkidogū appeared in Animal Crossing: New Horizons, where it is called an “ancient statue” in-game.
Dogū figurines are such an iconic marker of Japanese culture that their appearance in games is pervasive. Their presence is “often just as meaningless enemies in random dungeons”, notes Rodrigo B. Salvador of the Journal of Geek Studies.
There are also several monuments of dogū, particularly shakōkidogū throughout Japan today. Two are located in the city of Tsugaru, within the Aomori prefecture. The Kamegaoka Site, in Tsugaru, was where the prototypical example of a shakōkidogū —with a missing leg— was found by archeologists in 1887. There, a smaller stone monument of that dogū commemorates the site. A train station in the city, Kizukuri Station, features a large depiction of the one-legged shakōkidogū on the building’s exterior. The entrance to the station is where the shakōkidogū’s missing leg would be!
Does Ancient Art Have to Have a Meaning?
As ancient is, well, ancient, difficulties arise in its interpretation: consciously or not, we examine any form of ancient art with our own modern knowledge and cultural perspectives and values.
Of course, the dogū appear to be female to us, coming from a modern world where views of gender are binary and very fixed. But who’s to say that the Jōmon people saw gender, “womanhood”, and fertility the same way we do? Even if they possessed words for these concepts, the Jōmon people’s understanding of them was more complex and multi-faceted than we will ever know.
Comprehending art from the Jōmon period is challenging, as there is little written history from the era. Archeologists, historians, and scholars must rely on speculation and knowledge of other prehistoric societies and cultures to assign some kind of conceivable meaning to dogū. This is what makes them so mysterious: although their perceived meaning is an educated guess which, though plausibly accurate, is still a guess. Neil Faulkner of The Past jokingly comments that “it used to be said that when archaeologists cannot explain something, they claim ‘ritual use.’”
Is a guess good enough? Does ancient art have to have served some kind of cultural or societal function? To scholars, yes. Faulkner states that “‘art for art’s sake’ does not really exist in a prehistoric, ancient, or medieval context; nor, indeed, in many non-Western cultures right up to the present day.”
While there is some evidence that a number of ancient civilizations understood and featured imagery and symbolism in their art, Faulkner’s claim has generally been supported. . Ancient peoples did not have the language, science, or modern context to understand everyday goings-on in their world like we do today. Things like the weather, illness, death, and fertility would have to have been chalked up to divine intervention, otherworldly magic, and the like.
However, it’s hard not to see how our innate human curiosity and search for meaning in all things might be a bit selfish when applied to ancient peoples and their art. Our deep desire to give art meaning means that we can quickly fall into questionable and problematic territory when attempting to do so. Such is the case with so-called “ancient alien” theories—which have been unanimously discredited by science—that regard prehistoric art, culture, and daily life.
Much like the true purpose of the dogū, we will never truly know the ethical or moral value in ascribing meaning to art that we are so disconnected from, in terms of time and cultural values. Perhaps that’s okay. What we do know, however, is that the legacy of the dogū has extended far beyond the Jōmon period and their reach is even farther than what the Jōmon people ever thought possible.
Are dogū an ancient depiction of the female body and fertility? Most likely. Proof of aliens having visited Earth long ago? Definitely not. Charming cultural artifacts with a story all their own (and one we may never know the meaning of)? Absolutely.
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