AMPONTAN

Japan from the inside out

Rolling them bones in Heian Japan

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, May 11, 2008

YESTERDAY I wrote that there’s no telling what might turn up when people start rummaging around in a storeroom in Japan. There’s also no telling what they’ll dig up from an archaeological site.

dazaifu-dice

Here’s an example: While shoveling around in the Okuzono ruins in Dazaifu, Fukuoka, recently, researchers uncovered a die made of rock dating from the late Heian period (11th to the 12th centuries) and about 50 small stones that had been processed for use in sugoroku, go, and hajiki.

Sugoroku is a board game that was brought over from China and has two variations to the rules. One is almost identical to backgammon, and the other is similar to Snakes and Ladders. Hajiki is a Japanese form of marbles, and everyone knows what go is.

The ruins are about 500 meters southwest of the Daizaifu Tenman-gu, a well-known Shinto shrine that had already been around for a couple of centuries before they started shooting the local version of craps nearby. The city’s Committee on Education (which is responsible for archaeological matters) said it was possible the location was a former worksite for people who made games and game equipment. They think the items might have been presented in dedication to the shrine or sold to important people who visited there.

Each side of the die is about 1.1 centimeters across. The opposing sides of modern dice add up to seven, but the arrangement of the numbers on this die is different: on the opposite side of the 6 is a 4, for example.

The stones are of different materials and colors and range in size from 0.8 to 2.0 centimeters.

The part of this story that interests me is not that the Japanese used dice. They, along with the rest of the world, have played dice games for millennia. The part that intrigues me is that the archaeologists think they might have been sold at a religious institution—and no one is particularly surprised.

What the heck–many Shinto shrines in Japan have long held festivals in which home-brewed sake is offered to the divinities. Now it turns out they also countenanced dice games too, some of which surely involved friendly wagers on the side!

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