The Power of Dogu:
Ceramic figures from ancient Japan

Sponsored by Mitsubishi Corporation

10 September – 22 November 2009
Room 91
Admission free

Dogū, abstract clay figures with recognizably human or animal features, have a fascinating history in Japan, dating back thousands of years. These enigmatic figures have long captured the imagination of antiquarians, archaeologists and the public alike. They provide a tantalising link to the mysterious yet remarkable Jōmon period (about 12,500-300BC) of Japanese history.

The exhibition will feature sixty-seven of these extraordinary objects, lent by many different public and private collections in Japan. Three have been designated National Treasures of Japan, including the so-called ‘Venus’ from Tanabatake, Nagano prefecture and Dogūwith palms pressed together from Aomori prefecture, designated by the Japanese government in 2009.  An additional twenty-five examples rank as Important Cultural Properties and Important Art Objects. This will be the first time that such a wide range of the finest dogū have been brought together in a single exhibition. The exhibition is co-organised with the Agency for Cultural Affairs, Japan, in collaboration with the Tokyo National Museum.

Dogū evolved within the earliest dated continuous tradition of pottery manufacture in the world, stretching back to about 12,500 BC. They were produced by the Jōmon people, prehistoric foragers in the temperate forests that covered the Japanese archipelago. Jōmon people lived in tune with the seasons, and shared their rich natural world with the spirits. Since the Edo period (1615–1868) dogū have been excavated from many sites throughout Japan, the best examples coming from central and eastern regions -- from where most of the current exhibits are drawn. More than 1,000 dogū have been recovered from each of two major sites, Shakadō in Yamanashi prefecture and Sannai Maruyama in Aomori prefecture mostly in fragments. Nationwide, the total reported to date is about 18,000. 

Dogū are made from high quality pottery and come in a variety of shapes featuring intriguing decoration and geometric designs. The techniques include modelling, clay appliqué, marking with twisted plant fibres (jōmon means ‘cord-marked’) and burnishing. One of the largest complete figures in the exhibition, from Chobonaino, Hokkaido is some 42cm high. However fragments have also been found of much larger examples that must originally have been over one metre in height; such is the head from Shidanai, Iwate prefecture. In addition to their often elaborate decoration, some dogū were painted -- typically with red pigments -- or covered in lacquer. They can take intriguing forms, with heart-shaped faces or triangular pointed heads. Some squat, perhaps in childbirth, others appear to be praying, still others apparently wear masks, such as the magnificent Hollow masked dogū discovered in 2000 in Nagano prefecture. Many dogū have recognisably female characteristics, while others appear less gender-specific. They may be hollow or made of solid clay.

There is much debate about what dogū meant to Jōmon people and how they were used, particularly because many seem to have been deliberately broken before scattering or burial. In fact, dogū probably fulfilled a range of uses: as embodiments of spirits, venerated and revered; sometimes buried with the deceased to guide them to the next world; and most often fragmented during or after their use in Jōmon rituals. Such rituals were perhaps intended to secure safe childbirth, or ensure a successful hunt.

In the twentieth century, dogū served as a potent source of artistic inspiration, and in recent decades they have even featured in manga comics and Playstation games. It is testimony to the power of dogū that they can serve, simultaneously, as symbols of prehistoric Japan; entrancing works of art; and protagonists in contemporary culture.

The exhibition is sponsored by Mitsubishi Corporation.

Additional support has been given by the Arts and Humanities Research Council of the UK, the Japan Foundation, and the Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Cultures. Transportation support has been provided by Japan Airlines (JAL).

A Japan-UK 150 event

For further information or images please contact:
Hannah Boulton on 020 7323 8522 / hboulton@britishmuseum.org or
Esme Wilson on 020 7323 8394 / ewilson@britishmuseum.org

Notes to editors:

  • The exhibition is accompanied by an illustrated book, edited by Simon Kaner and published by British Museum Press.
  • A free public symposium will be held at the British Museum on Saturday 7 November 2009
  • Mitsubishi Corporation (MC) is Japan's largest general trading company with over 200 bases of operations in approximately 80 countries worldwide. Together with its group companies, MC employs a multinational workforce of approximately 60,000 people. MC has long been engaged in business with customers around the world in virtually every industry, including energy, metals, machinery, chemicals, food and general merchandise.
  • MC’s commitment to social responsibility is embodied in its corporate philosophy and demonstrated through its extensive programme of cultural, environmental and educational projects worldwide. As part of this global commitment, Mitsubishi Corporation announced a 10 year partnership with the British Museum in January 2008 that sees it sponsoring the permanent galleries dedicated to Japanese culture in the Museum. The Dogū exhibition is an additional sponsorship for 2009. http://www.mitsubishicorp.com/
  • What is JAPAN-UK 150? JAPAN UK 150, a series of events in the UK organized to celebrate 150 years of friendship between our two countries, runs from autumn 2008 until the end of 2009. It features a wide range of activities designed to encourage exchange in such fields as culture, the arts, sport, education and science. Why not take this opportunity to gain fascinating insights into both traditional and contemporary aspects of Japan?