Human History

Lake Biwa has played an important role in shaping the local culture of the surrounding area and this gallery explores this relationship. The earliest evidence of human activity around Lake Biwa dates back more than 20 000 years and can be seen at various archaeological sites, some of which are now flooded by the lake. The lake acted as a major transport route for goods for hundreds of years and the main land route from east Japan to Kyoto and the west passed nearby.

Underwater Archaeology
Traces of ancient people's activities are frequently discovered around Lake Biwa. However, due to ongoing, slow changes in the outline of the lake, parts of the former shore have become submerged, taking with them the remnants of old lakeshore societies. Over 100 well preserved sites of ancient human settlements have been found underwater in Lake Biwa.

Two main methods are used to study underwater archaeological sites. One method is for SCUBA divers to use pumps to suck substrate from the bottom to a boat. The sediment is then examined to collect any artifacts it may contain. The other method is to construct a coffer dam so that archaeologists can study the the site in situ under dry conditions. First a water-tight barrier is constructed around the site and then the water is pumped out.

Life in the Jomon Period: Hunting and Gathering
From 1989 to 1991 a coffer dam was used to study the Awazu shell mound in the southern basin of Lake Biwa. The shell mound is one of the largest freshwater shell mounds in the world and was a garbage tip for the ancient Jomon people about 5000 years ago.

After they had eaten shellfish (mostly freshwater clams), people disposed of the empty shells in the same place nearby, forming a large and permanent refuse dump. In addition to shells archaeologists found many other items in the mound, such as fish bones, plant remains, pottery, earrings, knives, net sinkers and preserved animal dung. The site provided an extraordinary insight into the life of some of the first people to live in this area.

Life in the Yayoi Period: Beginning of Cultivation
Agriculture-based civilization appeared rather recently in Japan. During the Yayoi Period, from about 900 B.C. until 250 A.D. agricultural techniques imported from China and the Korean Peninsula initiated paddy-field rice cultivation around the lake. It was as a result of the need to control rice production and regulate land-use that society became socially stratified and the lake and river areas began to be governed by local lords.

Many of the agricultural tools used during this period were made from wood. Such tools are often found very well preserved in the peaty mud or in attached lakes in the Lake Biwa area.

Life in the Kofun Period: Control of Lakes and Rivers, and Territorialism
During the Yayoi Period, powerful individuals began to take control of the region, with the aim of taking advantage of the water-linked resources. This created major changes within society, which became more stratified, and it marked the beginning of a new era, the Kofun Period, around the 3rd century A.D.

One characteristic artifact of this period, from which it derives its name, is the 'kofun', a large, keyhole-shaped, earthwork structure, or tumulus, with a stone tomb in its centre that was used as a burial site for a local chief.

Lake Biwa and Ancient Transport Routes
In ancient times Lake Biwa was an important crossroads connecting many points of the country, from east to west and from north to south. One of the places that used to be a major junction for ground transport is the Seta Bridge. It was first built during the 7th century using Korean techniques and spans the Seta River at the southern end of Lake Biwa. Warriors aspiring to be rulers of Japan fought on the bridge and in the sediments around the bridge various artifacts have been recovered, such as swords, arrowheads and coins.

Ship-borne Transportation
From ancient times until the late 19th century Lake Biwa was the most important route for transportation of goods and materials coming from the northern and eastern parts of Japan to the capital, Kyoto, and to Osaka. During the 18th Century, typical goods included dried seafood (cod, sardines, herrings, herring roe, squid, abalone, sea slugs, and seaweed), rapeseed, rice, red rice cakes, rain hats, ramie (a plant used for fibers), paper, deer skins, cotton, white silk, and copper.

The Maruko-bune
The maruko-bune is a traditional type of wooden boat, the design of which is unique to Lake Biwa. They formerly played a major role in cargo transportation in the region. Maruko means 'round', referring to the rounded hull in cross-section, and which gave the boats high stability in the often choppy waters of the lake. They were used extensively during the Edo Period (1603-1868), and even though much reduced in numbers, were still in use before World War II. The Museum has the last maruko-bune ever built, commissioned from the last surviving maruko-bune builder.

Fishing in Lake Biwa
Fishing has played a central role in the culture of the area, and many different techniques have been employed.

One ancient technique that is still used today is the 'eri' fish trap. These are permanent anchor-shaped, fish traps built near the shore, that concentrate fish into two traps. The fishermen scoop the fish from the trap using long-handled nets. The placement of these traps requires detailed knowledge of fish behaviour and water currents, and their use was strictly controlled. A village that could obtain permission to build an 'eri' usually became very prosperous and powerful.

Mastering Water: Modern Period
Rice farming requires a very careful control of the water system for irrigation purposes. As a result, the natural streams and rivers in Japan have been extensively modified.

Several devices, such as human-powered irrigation wheels and versions of Archimedes' screw, were developed for drawing water from a river or the lake and directing it to the fields.

Regulating Water Levels
Although they have long enjoyed the benefits of Lake Biwa's water supply, until recently the lakeside residents also had to endure its floods. With 120 in flowing rivers, but only one out flowing river, the Seta River, coupled with deforestation of the areas around the lake, flooding has been a major problem in the area. In 1896 a devastating flood occurred, with water levels rising 3.7 m above normal, and some areas remained under water for over eight months.

Today, flood gates on the outflowing Seta River allow careful control of the water levels in Lake Biwa so that lake flooding is no longer a problem for the residents in the region.

The Age of Steamships
From the end of the 19th century to the early 20th century Nagahama, located on the east side of the lake's north basin, was a very important connection point for trains and ships. In those days there was no railroad connecting Nagahama to Otsu, and people traveling by rail had to transverse the lake between these two points by ship.