Obituary: Kiyoyuki Higuchi

Archaeology is a popular science and pastime in Japan, where every dig's smallest discoveries make front page news.

The man today considered to be the patriarch of Japanese archaeology, Kiyoyuki Higuchi, began as an unacknowledged boy genius, whose hobby was research in the rich archaeological area around the ancient capital of Nara, the region where he was born. This city, about 20km south-east of Kyoto, on the Yamato plateau, was founded in 710 AD under the name of Heijokyo. The refinement of its culture still influences Japanese art, architecture and literature.

Grubbing for remnants of this distant civilisation was Higuchi's boyhood passion. He was self-educated until his discoveries (he had explored more than 600 tombs and burial mounds) came to the attention of a great archaeologist, Ryuzo Torii, a professor at Kokugakuen University in Tokyo, whose labours in the field had started in much the same way. When Higuchi was only in his third year at junior high school, Torii oversaw his research thesis on the cultivation of rice and the Yayoi periods, which lasted from about 300 BC to 300 AD and was characterised by the creation of flooded rice fields, today's paddies. Encouraged by Professor Torii, Higuchi decided to devote his life to archaeology.

His studies covered a wide territory of Japanese culture, for it was always his belief that archaeology should be associated with the daily lives of ordinary people. So he investigated the origins and development of Japan's industrial history, the charcoal industry, the history of manners and Japanese women's place in society - the first time so much scholarly attention had been paid to such a subject. These researches became books: Kantojin to Kansaijin ("Kanto People and Kansai People" - traditional rivals) and Jukozo no Nihonjin ("The Pliable Nature of Japanese People"). He also wrote a history of Japan from the earliest times. Among his most popular books was Umeboshi to Nihon to ("Umeboshi and the Japanese Sword" - the umeboshi, or salted sour plum, is a common delicacy in Japanese cuisine), a wry title in every respect for it makes humorous reference to Ruth Benedict's best-selling book The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (1946), a now somewhat disparaged work that the American ethnologist wrote without ever having set foot in Japan. Higuchi's book was also a best-seller and the comical title earned him the affectionate nickname of Professor Umeboshi.

After the Second World War, Higuchi joined the research teams at the Toro ruins at Toro Iseki in Shizuoka Prefecture when they began to be excavated in 1947. This Yayoi Period site revealed vestiges of a dozen huts surrounded by wooden stockades, with two granaries set on piles and about 40 rice fields separated by low earthen dykes. In 1965, Higuchi also discovered traces of irrigation schemes here. It was from the experience he gained at this remarkably preserved site that Higuchi was able to build and expand the modern study of archaeology in Japan.

Another important discovery was that of the materials used to make the comma or foetus-shaped ornamental beads called magatama from sites belonging to the Jomon Period (10,000-300BC). A set of magatama dating from the sixth century forms one of the three Imperial Regalia. Some of his discoveries were instinctive and derived from his wide knowledge of ancient literatures and Japanese legend. For example, certain verses of the sublime anthology of poetry, the Man'yoshu (eighth century AD) suggested to him sites where magatama and other ritual objects might be unearthed.

Higuchi eventually followed his mentor Ryuzo Torii as Professor of Archaeology at Kokogakuen University in 1947 and was awarded many prizes and medals for his pioneering works. This charming, self- effacing, unpedantic yet rigorously correct scholar was a noble monument to culture, in every sense of that word.

Kiyoyuki Higuchi, archaeologist: born Sakurai, Japan 1907; died Tokyo 21 February 1997.