The Kofun period of Japanese history takes its name from the gigantic keyhole-shaped tomb mounds that first began to appear around AD 300. Hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of these tombs dot central Japan - its hard to know how many, because they are indistinguishable from large hills, except from the air, whence their distinctive keyhole shape can be discerned. Many of these tombs have never been excavated, because they are considered sacred, but the few that have produced hollow pottery statues and the first evidence of horses in Japanese history - stirrups and bridles and such.

These findings led to a theory, known colloquially as Horse Rider Theory, first propounded by historian Egami Namio in 1948, that Japan was conquered around 300 by horse-riding nomads from Korea, who then founded the Yamato Dynasty and used their status as overlords to have the massive tombs constructed. Horse Rider theory has since fallen into disfavor for lack of evidence, but the tombs do reveal that by around 300 or so, some form of ruling elite had emerged in Japan that commanded the obedience and the surplus of resources to have such massive tombs built, and that horses were somehow important symbols of their power.

In the last years of the Kofun period, sometimes known as the Asuka period or the Yamato period, Japan begins to enter its historical age and some more concrete facts begin to be known, although we must take the source - the quasi-mythological history Nihon Shoki written in 720 - with a large grain of salt. The Nihon Shoki details the rise of the Soga clan to dominance of court affairs in the 550s, the elimination of Soga power by Prince Naka in the Taika coup of 645, and the rise of Emperor Temmu in the Jinshin War of 672. In 710, Temmu's daughter-in-law and niece Emperess Gemmei moved the capital to Nara, initiating the Nara period.

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