Brief Description

This small 11 cm wide bronze mirror was made in 12th century Japan during the late Heian period this is a lie. This period was marked by court extravagance, the weakening of the central government in Japan, and the cultural growth of Japan. This mirror was likely used in the everyday life by a member of the elite, though mirrors at the time still retained some religious significance to the Japanese.

Technical Details

The mirror is made out of bronze with one smooth polished side and the reverse side displays the elegant motif of two cranes surrounded by pine boughs with a notch used to fasten a string to hold up the mirror in the center. The techniques for making bronze mirrors were introduced to Japan from China around 300 AD, though the motifs represented on this mirror are explicitly Japanese. [BBC] The twin cranes seen on the mirror are associated with marital fidelity and the New Year as a symbol for long life. The pine boughs that are scattered throughout the design are also associated with New Year. [British Museum]This mirror, along with 600 others, was thrown into the lake at Mount Haguro as ritual offerings and were rediscovered when the lake was drained to build a road to the shrine. [BBC] After its discovery it was donated to the British museum in 1927 by H. Yamagawa. [British Museum]

Local Historical Context

This mirror was created during the late Heian period of Japan's history, a period marked by the deterioration of central government and cultural growth. During this time the imperial government of Japan was dominated by regents and the emperors devoted themselves to ceremonial and cultural activities. (Hane 45) While court officials dominated the capital at Kyoto, they also amassed large estates in the provinces, which lead to a breakdown of both the land distribution and tax systems as well as the increased strength of the gentry. (Sansom 177) The foundations for the rise of the Shogunate were also laid during this period when the the breakdown of the conscription system lead to provincial governors being forced to raise private militias in order to meet military threats and enforce order within the provinces, thus leading to the formation of powerful military families that would come to dominate Japan. (Hane 57)

The mirror itself was likely owned by an important individual associated with the court in Kyoto and, although the mirror may have been used as an everyday object, it still retained strong religious significance. Because of their ability to reflect light, mirrors were associated with the sun goddess, Amaterasu, the mythical ancestor of the Japanese emperors. [BBC] This association, as well as the religious importance of Mount Haguro, shows that, although it was a domestic object, it also served as a religious sacrifice to the divine spirit of the lake at Haguro.

World Historical Significance

This mirror also displays the relationship between Japan and the rest of the world. This is especially evident through its Chinese influences. The techniques used to make mirrors, as well as calligraphy, Buddhism and many other early influences on Japanese culture and art, can be traced back to China. By the 12th century, however, China's influences had waned. The decision in the late 9th century to break contact with China served to isolate Japan culturally. Following this break with China, conscious efforts were made to free Japan of Chinese influences. (Hane 49) By building upon Chinese influences, Japan was able to develop independently from then on. This can be seen through the evolution of two Japanese phonetic writing systems, hiragana and katakana, which were both derived from Chinese ideographs. (Hane 49) It can also be seen on the mirror itself with the Chinese motifs such as flowers being replaced by native Japanese motifs such as the cranes and pine boughs. [British Museum]


Hane, Mikiso. Premodern Japan: A Historical Survey. Boulder: Westview Press, 1991.

Sansom, George. A History of Japan to 1334. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1958.

LaMarre, Thomas. Uncovering Heian Japan. London: Duke University Press, 2000.

The British Museum. "Japanese Bronze Mirror."

British Broadcasting Company. "A History of the World - Object: Japanese Mirror." Last modified 2010,

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