Lecture 1: Basics + Antiquity I “Osaka’s Geography and Prehistory”


In this lecture, after first going over the aims of the course, we’re going to look at the Osaka area’s geographical features and the prehistory of city formation on the Uemachi Plateau
The city that we now call Osaka originally developed from the Port of Naniwa on the tip of the Uemachi Plateau, between the mouths of the Yodo and Yamato Rivers. The Kofun period (approx. 300-538 CE) saw the emergence of monarchical authority in the center of the Japanese archipelago (the Kinai region, i.e, the provinces surrounding Kyoto) and eventually the formation of the Kingdom of Yamato (Wakoku) across the islands. It was during this time that Naniwa started to undergo urban development as the eastern endpoint of the Inland Sea (Setonaikai), that is, Kinai’s gateway to the vital transportation route that tied western Japan together.

First we’ll use the Morinomiya kaizuka (mounds of discarded shells) from the Jōmon period (15000-900 BCE) to get a solid understanding of the geographical characteristics of the Naniwa area. By looking at the mounds, we can trace how the ancient Kawachi Bay, which covered practically all of what is now Osaka, became solid land, forming the basis for the agricultural society of the Yayoi period (300 BCE – 300 CE).

We’ll then trace the process unification that accompanied the maturation of agricultural society and eventually resulted in the formation of the Kingdom of Yamato during the Kofun period. As we go, we’ll touch on the appearance of large-scale archaeological sites that could be viewed as the first sprouts of cities.

Introduction to the Course

Hello, everyone. I’m Saga Ashita, one of the professors of Japanese history at OCU.

In this course, we, the Japanese history faculty, will give a series of lectures covering the history of the city of Osaka, from prehistory to present. With representative source materials—textual records as well as objects—from each historical period pointing the way, we will use the latest scholarly research and methodologies to elucidate and interpret the urban spatial structures through which the people of Osaka lived their lives.

“Japanese history” as taught through middle and high school is often regarded as a rote memorization subject, with classes centered on remembering dates, names, and historical events. Some have criticized this style of pedagogy, arguing that what’s important for students to learn is the general flow of history, not its minute details.

By contrast, we believe that it is vital to acquire a grasp of both the concrete facts and the great trends of history, with the latter grounded in the former. But don’t think that this means we want to double down on the importance of rote memorization and the political history-centric curriculum in schools. Far from it.

What we argue for is the historical importance of our everyday lives as average people—lives that at first glance might seem to consist in merely doing the same things over and over again, but which actually, through the sediment of that repetition, serve as the foundation for the grandest movements of history. Think about all the different facets of everyday life: working and making things; then moving, buying, selling, and consuming those things; and ultimately creating families and sharing the necessities of life while living and cooperating in the urban and rural communities that we build together. It’s easy to use the events that appear in textbooks as the standard for thinking about how history happens. But in reality the roots of history are constituted in our daily life and work, and only on this basis does the history of powerful figures like Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi unfold.

We hold that the greatest joys and attractions of historical research lie in reconstructing ways of life—the relationships of interdependence that sustained them, and the spaces they took place in—thereby bringing to light the history of common folk living out their lives from day to day and through the ages.

To illustrate such lives concretely, this course looks to the city of Osaka. In the ancient period, the Uemachi Plateau, which sits at the center of the city today, served for a time as the site of the imperial palace (Naniwanomiya) and, therefore, the capital. The area thus became a primary node for the circulation of goods and people, as well as for international relations. It continued as an urban space even after the capital moved, came to be called “Osaka” from the end of the fifteenth century, and eventually Hideyoshi (1537-1598) chose it as his seat of power, constructing the massive Osaka Castle and building up the surrounding town. Thus Osaka is a city that represents the two classic urban forms in Japanese history: the Chinese-style capital of the ancient period and the castle town of the early modern period, with the gap between them, importantly, bridged by the medieval period’s city networks.

Though in this course we tell the history of Osaka primarily from the Uemachi area (the city is many times bigger today), we will also give attention to the outward expansion of the city and its international position, sometimes using comparisons with Edo-Tokyo to further our understanding. Furthermore, we’ll be making extensive use of the texts, illustrations, and other primary sources and visual materials that together allow us to reconstruct the true shape of the city’s past. In bringing together these materials, we’ve worked closely with researchers from other institutions, such as the Osaka Museum of History, and along the way a number of them will join us as guest speakers.

Introduction to Lecture 1

Hello, everyone. I’m Kishimoto Naofumi, one of the Japanese history faculty at OCU. Today I’ll be speaking about the prehistory of Osaka’s urbanization.

Osaka is a city that grew up in the area carved out by the Kinki (or Kinai) region’s two greatest rivers, the Yodo to the north and the Yamato to the south. The city got its start at the tip of the Uemachi Plateau, which cuts across the lowlands between the rivers, when a port known as Naniwa-tsu was established in the fifth century CE. We call this the Kofun period, the age when monarchial rule first emerged in the Kinki region and the Kingdom of Yamato began to expand across the Japanese archipelago. Located at the eastern end of the Inland Sea, the vital transportation artery that cuts through western Japan, Naniwa-tsu served as the front door of the Kinki region. Following the Yodo River upstream provided the area’s connection to eastern Japan.

To recapitulate, the city of Osaka began with the establishment of the port at Naniwa as a transportation hub connecting eastern and western Japan. With Naniwa as its nucleus, the city thus took on the general form it would maintain for the next six hundred years, until the end of the classical period (sixth through twelfth centuries). The city’s position atop the Uemachi Plateau, a kind of island amidst rivers, was historically decisive, particularly because of how the plateau provided a path of solid land extending southward.

In accordance with these geographical particularities, Naniwa became a true city over the seventh century and a stage for the Taika Reforms (ca. 645), which were initiated by Emperor Kōtoku to centralize power in the imperial court using Chinese knowledge and practices. Though the capital subsequently moved to Nara, Nagaoka, and finally Kyoto, Naniwa’s importance as a transportation hub continued undiminished. The city started to take on its modern form after Rennyo (1415-1499), head priest of the True Pure Land School of Buddhism, established the Honganji temple complex on the site where Osaka Castle stands today.

1. The Uemachi Plateau and the Osaka Flatlands

To picture what kind of place Naniwa was, we have to go into a little more detail about Osaka’s geography. The Uemachi Plateau I keep referring to extends 12 km north-south (from what is now Osaka Castle to Sumiyoshi Ward) and varies in width from 1 to 1.5 km.

Due to warming global temperatures during the Early Jōmon period (5000-3500 BCE), the sea level rose to cover Osaka’s flatlands and the Uemachi Plateau became a peninsula jutting up from the south. We call the body of water that lay east of this peninsula Kawachi Bay. Over the millennia, as the Yodo and Yamato Rivers deposited much silt into the bay, more and more of the area was transformed into terra firma, creating Osaka’s flatlands. The bay narrowed into a lagoon/estuary (barely open to the sea), and finally, by the Yayoi period, a true freshwater lake. The lake remained into the Warring States period (late fifteenth to sixteenth centuries), stretching east-west from the area east of Osaka Castle to the foot of Mt. Ikoma. It shrank even further in the Edo period (from 1600), becoming known as Fukaya Reservoir, and disappeared entirely when it was reclaimed for agricultural land in the 1700s.

With the expanse of flatlands that resulted from this process, and the Kinki region’s two biggest rivers running through them, the Osaka area became subject to frequent flooding. And all the layers of silt left behind after each flood gave us the Osaka Plain as we know it today. We can therefore point to water—repeatedly being overrun by it, rebuilding in its wake, and attempting to control it—as a crucial factor in Osaka’s history.

2.Environmental Transformations as Seen through the Morinomiya Archaeological Site

For additional perspective on the formation of Osaka’s flatlands, let’s look at an archaeological site around Morinomiya. Located on the eastern edge of the Uemachi Plateau, the evidence indicates that the area was settled from the Middle Jōmon period (3500 – 2500 BCE). A series of excavations beginning in 1971 revealed a 100-meter stretch of shell mounds (essentially ancient garbage piles) extending north-south along the plateau’s edge. At the time, the site’s eastern edge would have been covered by Kawachi Bay. These Jōmon inhabitants chose to settle at a site facing the calm waters of the bay, living off the fruits of the land and sea.

At their deepest, the Morinomiya shell mounds are about 2 meters. The bottom layers contain Pacific oysters and the top layers Seta basket clams. The oysters, a saltwater species, date from the Late Jōmon period (2500-1300 BCE), harvested and discarded along the nearby coast of Kawachi Bay. In contrast, the clam shells in the upper layers date from the Final Jōmon and early Yayoi periods (i.e, 1300 to after 400 BCE), and are from a freshwater species. This tells us that by the Final Jōmon the mouth of the Yoda River was becoming a delta, plugging up the area between Kawachi and Osaka Bays and turning the former into a lagoon.

3. The Yayoi Period

The harvesting and disposing of basket clams at the Morinomiya site continued into the Yayoi period, when rice paddy agriculture appeared in Japan. In the Kinki region, rice became established from around the fifth century BCE. Covered in silt from the Yodo and Yamato Rivers, Osaka’s plains were well suited to growing rice, and paddies began to be opened along the banks of area’s many medium-sized and small waterways. At the Morinomiya site, older hunter-gatherer strategies did continue on, but we know that rice was being cultivated in the flatlands along the Uemachi Plateau’s eastern edge.

As rice agriculture became more entrenched, the population increased, as did the size of settlements. Wars started to break out between groups. Large-scale Yayoi-period settlements were usually fortified, encircled by protective moats and earthen walls. Stereotypical examples from the present-day greater Osaka area include the Kamei site in Yao City, the Ikegami and Sone sites in Izumi City, and the Ama site in Takatsuki City. Some of these settlements are estimated to have been home to one or two thousand people, and we also see the emergence of a class of power holders around this time. This is a pattern—fortified large-scale settlements accompanying the growth of agricultural society—common to the development of human civilizations around the world.

4. Cities and the Birth of the Kingdom of Yamato

From the first century CE, about five hundred years after the establishment of rice agriculture in Kinki, the region’s southern areas, tied together by Yamato River, began a rapid process of unification. We believe this society to correspond to the Kingdom of Yamato (or Yamatai) described in Chinese Wei-Dynasty records (“An Account of the Wa”). Similar unifications were taking place throughout western Japan during the first century, giving birth to regional kingdoms, of which Yamato was but one. The kingdoms’ dealings with each other laid the foundations of trans-archipelagic societal connections from Kinki to Kyushu.

Soon enough, by the late second century, northern Kyushu, the most developmentally advanced region during the Yayoi period, gave way to the rising Kingdom of Yamato. According to “An Account of the Wa”, Empress Himiko became the first ruler of the “Kingdom of Wa” after a civil war, and by the third century a politically integrated order had spread across the west of Japan, ushering in the Kofun period.

If the regional kingdoms that emerged during the first century had continued to fight with each other, Yayoi-period settlements might have increased further in size and strength of fortifications, possibly giving birth to true cities. However, in reality it seems the kingdoms developed cooperative connections, despite the struggle for hegemony in civil war I mentioned, and the ascendance of the Kingdom of Yamato brought an end to the conflict and established the framework for trans-archipelagic rule. During the Kofun period, the elite’s estates and the commoner villages became physically separate, with the consequence that the large-scale Yayoi-period settlements did not take the path that might have led to the emergence of cities.

The Kofun period saw concentration of population in political urban formations like the base of imperial authority in the Nara valley and regional trading centers. In Osaka, the center of trade left Naniwa and moved up the Yamato River to the middle of the plain. But this site, despite its large scale, continued only for about 150 years, until the early fourth century, and never developed into a city.












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