Japanese magatama

Magatama are curved beads which first appeared in Japan during the Final Jōmon period (between 1000 and 300 BC). The word "jomon" means "cord pattern" and it refers to the cord-marked impressions seen on Jomon pottery).

Magatama are often found inhumed in mounded tumulus graves as offerings to deities.They continued to be popular with the ruling elites throughout the Kofun Period of Japan (around 250 to 538 ; the word "kofun" is Japanese for the type of burial mounds dating from this era. The Kofun and the subsequent Asuka periods are sometimes referred to collectively as the Yamato period. Magatama are often romanticised as indicative of the Yamato Dynasty. They are mainly made of jade, quartz, agate, steatite and jasper.

Burmese A jadeite magatama

Some consider them to be an imperial symbol, although in fact ownership was widespread throughout all the chieftainships of Kofun Period. It is believed that magatama were popularly worn as jewellery, in addition to their religious meanings. In this latter regard they were later largely replaced by Buddhist prayer beads in the Nara period (AD 710 to 784).

In modern Japan, the magatama's shape of a sphere with a flowing tail is still the usual visual representation of the human spirit ("hitodama"). Wearing one during life is considered a way of gaining protections from "kami" (spirits, natural forces, or essence in the Shinto faith ; sometimes translated by god or deity, although this translation can lead to an misunderstanding of the term).