Secrets of Jomon — the prehistoric Japanese art that inspired 'Zelda: Breath of the Wild'


When Nintendo set out to design the ancient technology at the heart of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, the company didn't turn to science fiction for inspiration. Instead, it looked back in time to one of the earliest known civilizations: Jomon, prehistoric Japan between roughly 10,000 BCE and 300 BCE. The unique style, defined by intricate flame-like decoration — Jomon literally translates to "rope-pattern" — inspires the design of everything from the game's fearsome robot Guardian enemies to its mechanized Shrine dungeons to the tablet-like Sheikah Slate used by our hero, Link, throughout his adventure. 

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In a promotional videoBreath of the Wild art director Satoru Takizawa seemed to downplay the importance of Jomon history and culture in the new Zelda game. "The Jomon period in Japanese history was the inspiration for the Sheikah Slate, shrines and all the other ancient objects and structures," he says. "The reason for this was because the Jomon period is relatively unknown to much of the world. It has a nuance of mystery and wonder that we found really appealing."

Nintendo may be introducing this style to the rest of the world, but Jomon has already seen a boom in popularity in Japan in recent decades as the country embraces its earliest ancestors and the artifacts they left behind. Breath of the Wild's depiction of Jomon symbols as the visual language of an ancient but technologically superior civilization reflects modern Japanese society coming to terms with — and even celebrating — a history that was previously neglected.

"There has been a reanimation of the Jomon identity as Japanese identity," Nicole Rousmaniere, a curator of Japanese arts at the British Museum, said in a phone call. "These figures are booming. They are national treasures and there's a youth culture to take back these ancestors."

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The history of Jomon in modern Japan

Jomon imagery, including those flame-like patterns and the mystical Dogu figurines discovered across the country, has influenced everything from avant-garde art to manga comics. You can buy miniature Dogu out of coin operated machines, and a train station in Northern Japan was even designed to resemble a giant version of the figurine that was excavated in the surrounding town — you enter the building through a door where the actual Dogu's leg had been broken off.

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The term Jomon refers to the entire prehistory of Japan, when indigenous people lived as hunter-gatherers across the region. However, the relics of the middle Jomon period (2,500 BCE to 1,500 BCE) have come to signify the once-abandoned fantastical and mystical roots of Japan's culture before it was influenced by mainland Asia.

"The Japanese will often say that you can see the difference between Jomon and the continental culture that the emperor is part of and their faces are more refined," Rousmaniere said. "There was this idea that the Jomon race had nothing to do with Japan, almost like Native Americans in America."

As a result, Jomon artifacts were dismissed as reminders of a distinct, ancient culture with little connection to modern Japan when they were first discovered in the 18th and 19th century. It wasn't until the late 20th century that the country began to embrace these alien-looking artifacts.

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Jomon culture began its rise in the early '50s when avant-garde artist Taro Okamoto embraced the style and helped push it to the cultural forefront. However, interest in Jomon really picked up in the early 21st century, partially thanks to a Jomon exhibition organized by Rousmaniere for the British Museum and displayed in Japan. It's showed up in recent art installations, and of course, in the latest Zelda adventure.

"It started this boom in 2009/2010 that has really gone on unabated," Rousmaniere said. "So it really makes sense to me that they would be in these video games and that they would look so extraterrestrial."


Tracking Jomon's influence in Breath of the Wild

Jomon's clearest influence on Breath of the Wild is its rope pattern design and the ancient pottery that was decorated in that style. The Shrine dungeons throughout the new Zelda game and the Guardian enemies both draw direct influence from these prehistoric pots. You can even outfit Link with a special protective "ancient" helmet based on the same design.

"The elements in the game resemble upside down Jomon pottery," Laura Allen, Curator of Japanese Art at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, said in a phone call. "The shape is similar in having a cylindrical section and then a more rounded bowl like in the top. They've inverted that."

Nintendo, Benjamin Marx/Mic

Nintendo also took some creative liberties, adding a mysterious eye design that appears on every shrine, on the Sheikah Slate and elsewhere throughout the game. You might also recognize that same eye from Sheik's costume in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, suggesting that the company's reliance on Japanese history runs deeper than Link's latest adventure.

These eyes don't seem to be a direct reference to Jomon artifacts, according to Rousmaniere, but the same eye has appeared in various Jomon-inspired artwork, including pieces by Okamaoto Taro and in 20th Century Boys, a popular manga series written and illustrated by Naoki Urasawa. 

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The Dogu figurines, which seem to have caught on the most in modern Japan, were actually the most difficult to track down in Breath of the Wild. For a game filled with ancient robotic technology, none of it is humanoid enough to resemble the Dugo, which look pretty alien as it is. However, there is at least one Dogu in the game, and it plays a very important role.

A Dogu shows up in Breath of the Wild as an ancient oven nicknamed Cherry that's capable of crafting ancient weapons and armor used by Link to fight the Guardians. It's also fueled by scavenged Guardian parts — along with a mystical blue flame — reinforcing the Jomon undercurrent that ties the entire game together.

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So the next time you find yourself wandering through Hyrule on your way to another adventure, take a moment to appreciate the ancient Jomon design all around you. It's more than just an extra layer of polish on an already-stunning video game, it's also a window into the complex history of a country's cultural evolution.

"When you look at these figures they are very trippy and wacky," said Rousmaniere, "but on another level, it's about Japanese identity."