Castles of Japan

Brief Overview of Japanese Castle

Himeji Castle after the repair

Functional Beauty Made by Wood and Stone
Japanese castle (城 shiro) is a fortress and samurai lord’s resident constructed with wood and stone. The first form of Japanese castle was the wooden stockade in early centuries, then evolved into their best-known form of powerful and beautiful structure in the 16th century. The structure of Japanese castle is very different not only from Western countries, but also from other Asian countries such as China. Japanese castle was uniquely developed by Samurai and it has reached the only one design in the world. According to the research, there are about 25,000 castles all around Japan including ruins and reconstructions.

Two Main Purposes of The Japanese Castles
Castles in Japan were built for two main purposes. The first was to guard important or strategic sites, such as ports, river crossings, or crossroads, and almost always incorporated the landscape into their defense. Daimyo (Samurai lords) all over the country built these fortresses where they could retreat during an attack. Both the castle itself and the grounds immediately surrounding it are fortified with a myriad of defences. The main keep of the castle also held stores of food and weapons in case of prolonged battles. The second purpose of a castle was to display the Daimyo's wealth and power. Naturally, the bigger the castle, the stronger and wealthier the Daimyo.

Castle Town where Samurai Were Living
In the town around the castle, the samurai were living. The higher their rank, the closer they lived to the castle. Merchants and artisans lived in specially designated areas, while temple and entertainment districts were usually located in the outskirts of the city or just outside of it. Tokyo and Kanazawa are two good examples among many Japanese cities which evolved as castle towns.

Osaka Castle with Osaka city
Osaka Castle and The Castle's Defensive Structures
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Documentary of Japanese Castles (27:14)

History of Japanese Castle

Up to ancient times
In the Yayoi period in Japan, many moat settlements or citadel villages or upland settlements were built in high places, such as mountains, but declined with advances of political unity.

The first appearance of the word castle in literature is Mizuki (water fortress) built by Emperor Tenchi in 664, and plenty of castles, including ones not found in literature, were built in the area from the northern part of Kyushu to the coasts of the Seto Inland Sea in this age. In the Tohoku region, where the war against Emishi (natives in Ezo) continued, castles that doubled as a military base and an administrative office, such as Taga-jo Castle, Dewanoki (Dewa Castle), and Akita-jo Castle, were built in the seventh to ninth centuries.

These castles came from the Chinese concept of walled cities and were used as provincial capitals, but walls were replaced by fences because of poor castle wall construction technology. These castles began to crumble as the ritsuryo system collapsed, and the castles were built in the age of samurai as military bases.

Medieval period
In medieval Japan, castles developed for two purposes: in order to defend the samurai residence during peace time and defend from attack by armies from around steep mountains during war time.

There were many of the latter mountain castle types until the early Sengoku Period (Period of Warring States) (Japan). A feudal lord who usually resided in a castle was confined in a strong mountain castle as a defensive base when he was attacked by enemies. The mountain castle was called Tsume-no-shiro (alias of Honmaru) compared to Negoya (small-scale castle town) at the foot of a mountain.

The residence where the former lord lived in peacetime was built at the foot of a mountain. Castles were called 'Negoya' (small-scale castle town), 'mansion (yakata/tachi/tate),' or 'house' in some regions, and were surrounded with walls and had turrets at the gate, practically functioning as castles. The houses of vassals, farmers and townspeople (a primitive castle town) were built around such castles.

The number of castles increased greatly from the middle of the Sengoku period, hirayamajiro (castles built on a hill or low mountain surrounded by a plain) or hirajiro (a castle built on flatland) became dominant, and mountain castles decreased because they were useful for defense, but not appropriate as a base for political power.

This period is characterized by the fact that facilities called 'mura-no-shiro' (village castles) were built in various parts of Japan. Local residents built them as escape facilities during war time because wars broke out frequently, and they functioned as military facilities used to carry out resistance movements or struggled with adjacent villages. For these facilities a flat space was created on top of a mountain and were simple and small compared with pure military castle facilities.

The form of stone walls, castle towers and turrets (citadels) which were main elements of castles at the time, were created when Hisahide MATSUNAGA built Tamonyama-jo Castle and Shigisan-jo Castle after the end of Muromachi period or when Nobunaga ODA built Azuchi-jo Castle. Hideyoshi TOYOTOMI built Osaka-jo Castle and Fushimi-jo Castle later, and the general image of 'castle' with castle towers, stone walls, squares and umadashi was completed and castle culture in Japan prospered. This form of castle was historically called shokuho period fortress. The shokuho period fortresses were not built throughout the country, but were mainly built by daimyo under control of Nobunaga ODA and Hideyoshi TOYOTOMI as the name suggested. The daimyo in the Sengoku period in Tohoku, Kanto, Shikoku and Kyushu built their castles according to the circumstances of each region. The Toyotomi and Tokugawa governments let daimyo in various parts of Japan build castles positively as Tenkabushin (construction order by the Tokugawa shogunate). The method of construction of shokuho period fortresses came into wider use and they developed into eclectic type fortresses by adopting parts of the shokuho period fortresses. There were many examples in which local fudai daimyo built pure shokuho period fortresses.

Since Ikkoku Ichijo Rei (Law of One Castle per Province) was issued in the Edo period, each daimyo retained only one castle and destroyed others. Most of the castles that were destroyed were medieval mountain castles. Each daimyo destroyed the castles of his vassals actively and made them live in the castle town to establish modern control and order. The castle functioned as a political center, a symbol of authority and power of lords, or a local land mark rather than a military base. In addition, the modern castle towns were built as vassals, merchants and craftsmen inhabited castle towns due to their being a center of economy. Most of the current castle towns were built in the Keicho era in keeping with this trend. Most modern citadels were also constructed in the Keicho era. However, castles and castle towers were often burnt out, but they were rarely reconstructed because most domains ran into fiscal difficulties or were restricted by the bakufu according to Buke Shohatto (code for the warrior households).

The facilities called jinya (regional government office) in the Edo period and forts and gun batteries built in various parts of Japan as a countermeasure against foreign ships were also kinds of castles. There are several castles which were built under the influence of the western castle construction style for artillery battles and the bastion-type fortresses (such as Goryokaku), but except for Goryokaku, they were not fit for actual fighting because of reduced construction period and budget, and the construction work for most of them was suspended by Haihan-chiken (abolition of feudal domains and establishment of prefectures).

Modern times
In the Meiji period, the citadels in each region were destroyed according to haijorei (an order to abandon castles) in 1873 or burnt due to being abandoned by management or collapsed after materials were seized by the Imperial Japanese Army. Government offices were often established or new parks or shrines were built at castle sites, and the Imperial Japanese Army was stationed at almost all the castle sites in the main cities. The castle sites used as garrisons were targeted by the United States Armed Forces during the Pacific War (The Greater East Asia War) and citadel constructions, such as castle towers, turrets and gates of Nagoya-jo Castle, Wakayama-jo Castle and Hiroshima-jo Castle, which were built before the Edo period, were burnt out in air raids or with atomic bombs. The towers of twelve castles (twelve castle towers remain now), such as Himeji-jo Castle and Kochi-jo Castle, and towers, gates and others of Osaka-jo Castle and Nagoya-jo Castle are still in existence. Many gates and turrets of citadels escaped from being damaged in fires and wars and still exist to this day, in contrast to castle towers, with most of them being designated as national important cultural property.

Reconstruction and Restoration
Citadels were restored, especially castle towers that were built from before the war in the Showa period, reconstructed imitation keeps were built in Sumoto-jo Castle and Ueno-jo Castle and a reconstructed tenshu (keep) that was built on Osaka-jo Castle. Castle towers were mainly reconstructed after the war in the Showa period, in the 30's and 40's of the Showa period during the 'castle tower reconstruction boom' or 'castle reconstruction boom' after the construction of the reconstructed tenshu (keep) of the Toyama-jo Castle in 1954, but reconstructions at historical sites were often requested to be faithful to the original according to the policies of the Agency for Cultural Affairs from 1988 and when the Takeshita cabinet carried out the Furusato creation project, restorations and reconstructions in wood based on historical materials were performed in principle after the reconstruction of Sanju Yagura (three tiered turret) of Shirakawa Komine-jo Castle in wood in 1990. The tower of Kakegawa-jo Castle, a group of citadel structures of Kumamoto-jo Castle and Sasayama-jo Castle dai-shoin (large study) were reconstructed based on historical materials, and this period was called the 'restoration boom in the Heisei period' or "the second restoration boom. 'There were cases in which castle towers, turrets, gates, palaces, earthen walls and stone walls were reconstructed or excavated citadels of the medieval and Sengoku periods were reproduced during this period. However, since the restoration work by traditional techniques infringed on the Building Standards or Fire Prevention Act, there were problems in that entry into gates and turrets was restricted or castle towers could not be constructed due regulations on building height for disaster prevention, with modern techniques being partly introduced or reconstruction plans given up as in the case of Sanju Yagura (three tiered turret) of Sendai-jo Castle.

The interior of the restored buildings is mostly open to the public as a folk museum or a historical reference library.

Kumamoto Castle, One of The Well-Remained Castles of Samurai Age

Structure of Japanese Castle

Basic design for castle construction is called nawabari (castle plan; general term for the layout of a castle and its component structures) or keishi and the most important element is arrangement of Kuruwa (walls of a castle). Some scholars of military science made various classifications and analyses in modern times. The basic forms of nawabari (castle layouts) include the following: Rinkaku (contour) style, where the Kuruwa is positioned concentrically along the Honmaru (castle keep), the Ninomaru (second bailey) and the Sannomaru (outer part of the castle); Teikaku style, where the Honmaru is positioned closer to a mountain, sea or river (ushiro-kengo), the central compound is positioned adjacent to the castle walls, and additional compounds are positioned around the Honmaru; and Renkaku style, where independent Kuruwa are placed in a row along the ridges. In fact, they often take the form of the compound.

typical Kuruwa of Japanese Castle

An area surrounded with a moat, an earthen wall or a stone wall was called kuruwa, and a castle had several kuruwa. It was also called maru in the Edo period. The kuruwa that plays the most important part in defense is the honmaru (hon-kuruwa/main enclosure), and in addition to it, mostly ninomaru (second bailey) and sannomaru were built. Some castles had yagura kuruwa, mizute-kuruwa (a small lot in a castle, including a well or reservoir), tenshu-kuruwa, nishi no maru (a castle compound to the west of the main compound) (retreat for daimyo's old age) and so on. An expanded umadashi was called umadashi kuruwa and an independent kuruma adjacent to a castle was called dekuruwa (kuruwa, a small lot, provided at a position projecting from a group of main kuruwa) or demaru (small castle or tower built onto and projecting from a larger castle). They include the sanada-maru (sanada barbican) in the Siege of Osaka and nishi-demaru (defense strongpoint) of Kumamoto-jo Castle.

In general, each kuruwa of a mountain castle was so small that only limited facilities could be installed, but each kuruwa was large in a hira-jiro (castle built on the level ground) so that large facilities, such as a palace, could be built there.

typical sotoguruwa of Japanese Castle

Sotoguruwa (outer compound)
When the castle changed from a medieval period temporary military base to a permanent base of rulership, a defense line was often established outside the functional component (uchiguruwa (the central portion of a castle compound)) of the conventional castle to defend the castle town and vassals. This was called 'gaikaku' (outer compound), 'sotoguruwa' (outer compound) or 'sogamae' (defense facilities such as moats and mounds). Generally, a castle refers to only the uchiguruwa and since sotoguruwa includes natural topography (mountains and rivers), its range was often uncertain.

typical stone wall of Japanese Castle

Kirigishi (bluffs), moats, earthen walls and stone walls
Kirigishi (bluffs) were used as basic defense facilities composing an initial mountain castle, but moats and earthen walls were used frequently and stone walls came into wider use. There are several kinds of moats: water moat, karabori (dry moat), unejo tatebori (a series of parallel trenches running up the sides of the excavated mountain), and the earthen wall, which was also called doi, was an outer wall made of earth dug out from a moat. A fence or wall may be constructed on top of the earthen wall and sakamogi (fence made of thorny or steepled branches) was placed on a slope to prevent enemies from entering and reinforced defenses. Stone walls were used at several important parts of a citadel even in the medieval period, but stone walls reinforced by stacking stones on the surface of earthen walls developed as the need arose to build heavy turrets near the citadel in the Azuchi-momoyama period. After Azuchi-jo Castle had been built, many large stone wall structures were built in western Japan as civil engineering technology developed.

Typical Gate of Japanese Castle

Koguchi (a castle entrance)
An entrance to a castle is called koguchi. The entrance path is mostly winding and earthen walls called shitomi (timber shutters or doors that generally have vertical and horizontal lattice attached to the exterior surface and sometimes to the interior surface as well) or kazashi were built in front of the castle gate or with koguchi to prevent people from being able to enter straight into the castle. An ote-mon gate (main gate) was built at the koguchi in front of the castle (usually at the south of a modern citadel) and a karamete-mon gate was built at the rear koguchi. Since a koguchi was an entrance for johei (castle garrison), but also for enemies, it was especially protected. An entrance with a vallate square space and double gates was called a masugata koguchi (square entrance). A small kuruwa surrounded by a moat was built as a bridgehead on the opposite side of the moat outside the komuchi and was called umadashi (a type of defensive gateway barrier of castles).

An earth-paved bridge or wooden bridge was built over the moat at the koguchi that faced enemies, the plates of the wooden bridge were removed or broken to separate the inside from the outside of the castle or the inside from the outside the citadel, or a special bridge designed to be mobile was moved. Mobile bridges include hikuhashi (wheeled bridge that could be retracted to prevent enemies from entering), such as sorobanbashi (alias of 引橋 (hikuhashi)) and kurumabashi (a type of 引橋 (hikuhashi)), hikihashi leading to the inside of the citadel, and drawbridge (a bridge that could be pulled up with gateposts of koguchi).

typical Fence of Japanese Castle

Hei (Fences)
Fences were built to partition kuruwa or on top of stone or earthen walls for defense. Mud walls, wooden fences, nurikomi-bei and so on were used in the medieval period and plastered walls and namako-kabe (a wall with flat tiles nailed down on the wall surface and jointed with plaster) were used to prevent a fire in modern times. Fences and turrets had small windows or loopholes called 'sama' or 'hazama' to fire a gun or launch an arrow. There were circular loopholes, rhombic loopholes, loopholes shaped like a shogi piece, shinogi hazama (triangular loophole), hako hazama (box-shaped loophole), and so on according to the shape of windows, as well as ishisama (stone loophole used to fire a gun through the castle wall) that was cut in the top of a stone wall under a fence. They were divided into oillet, teppo sama (loophole to fire a gun), taiho sama (loophole to fire a cannon) and so on according to their use.

Typical Guard Tower of Japanese castle

Yagura (turrets or guard towers)
A turret is a structure that functions as an observation (lookout) platform, warehouse and defense. Turrets were usually named by giving them numbers or directions, such as tatsumi-yagura, ushitora-yagura, and inui-yagura turret, and some turrets were called tsukimi-yagura turret (used for monitoring a castle entrance), tsukimi-yagura turret, taiko yagura (drum turret) and so on according to their use. Two-story turrets were normally used in modern citadels and small three-story turrets were used for large castles for the sumi yagura (corner towers) that were built at corners of a citadel, but were cases in which a turret that had a structure equivalent to tenshu (castle tower) were built, for example, the three-story turret in the honmaru (the keep of a castle) of Osaka-jo Castle and the five-story turret in Kumamoto-jo Castle.

Typical Maintower of Japanese Castle

Tenshu (the keep of a castle)
The tenshu that was positioned as the final strongpoint of a citadel and a symbol of a castle was said to be evolved from a large watchtower turret.

There is a theory that states that it was named after enshrinement of Tamonten, Bonten, or Taishakuten (gods) of Buddhism or that the house of a castellan was called 'densu' (taking care of the tasks in the Buddha hall and the main hall). There is a theory that states that the first appearance of the word tenshu in literature is Settsu-Itami-jo Castle or Yamato Tamonyama-jo Castle of Hisahide MATSUNAGA or the tenshu of Azuchi-jo Castle of Nobunaga ODA, but its origin is not clear. Tenshu with various forms and shapes were built, but the peak of castle construction was the Battle of Sekigahara, and castles 20 to 30 meters high, like Himeji-jo Castle, were built in western Japan the in those days.

typical Palace of Japanese CastleGoten (Palace)
The palace houses the lord's residence and offices. Most castles have lost their palace over time. A rare surviving example is the Ninomaru Palace of Nijo Castle. Among the few castles with reconstructed palaces are Kumamoto Castle, Hikone Castle and Nagoya Castle.

Structure of Japanese Castle
Structure of Japanese Castle
The Structure of typical Japanese Castle

Comparison with Other Asian Castles

Castles in Okinawa and Amami Islands
There were gusuku (Okinawan castles or fortresses) in the former Ryukyu Kingdom area of Okinawa Prefecture and Amami Islands. There are various theories that state that they were originally sanctuaries or settlements. Most gusuku contained sanctuaries called mitake (Okinawa). Chinenmori-gusuku Castle is said to be a castle in which a god appeared for the first time in Okinawan poetry anthology "Omoshirososhi" (Interesting Literature). Shuri-jo Castle whose buildings or relics are being restored are the largest existing remains among citadels in the Ryukyu islands, and was selected as a world cultural heritage together with Naka-gusuku Castle and Nakijin-gusuku Castle.

Castles in Hokkaido
Chasi (the Ainu word meaning fort, fence, barrier, etc. ) in Hokkaido correspond to castles. The chasi built by the Ainu tribe exist in various parts of Hokkaido. They were basically used as fortresses to fight with other Ainu groups, wajin (Japanese: persons whose origin is the Japanese mainland) or Uilta. They were also used for ceremonies and had various functions.

Castles in China
A castle in China originally meant a castle wall and referred to the defense facilities surrounding residences, such as cities and villages. In Chinese, cities are called 城市 (fortified towns) and the castles found in Europe and Japan were called 城堡 (castles and forts). The castle wall is called josho (city wall).

A large castle was divided into an inner castle that surrounded a palace where the governor lived and an outer castle that surrounded the entire city, and the inner castle was called a castle and the outer castle was called an enclosure, and the whole structure was called a citadel. The Great Wall of China was built on the frontier to protect against invasions by northern equestrian tribes. Barriers that are located at strategic points of traffic are important as fortresses with long, large and strong walls, though they are not called castles.

Castle walls were originally mud walls made using wood frames and the wall of Chang'ancheng of T'ang-Dynasty was a long and large dosho (mud wall) with a total length of 27 km. The strength of castle walls came to be more important later in the period, and most castle walls after the Ming dynasty which remain as ruins in various parts of China were made of solid bricks. There was a passway where soldiers could move on the top of the wall and a mud wall called josho was built with slits to shoot enemies climbing on the wall. There were projections called 'bamen' (overhang of a castle wall) at regular intervals, which were used as forts for attacking enemies from the side.

Gates were installed on the castle wall to enter and leave the city. The stone foundation was excavated to form a tunnel ('Ketsu' (gate provided with Rokaku (multi-storied building) in ancient China)), on which a wooden multi-storied building was constructed with a 'tablet' showing the name of the gate. Most gates have a double structure and a small semispherical enclosure in front of the gate to drive away the enemy. This is called 'ojo' (fortress or a checkpoint in ancient China) which is found universally in all parts of the world, and corresponds to 'koguchi' in citadels in Japan. Since the enemy must enter the ojo to attack the city, soldiers could shoot them from walls and jiànlóu (watchtower built on ojo).

When the People's Republic of China was founded, walls were demolished in most cities to make way for the expansion of city areas or as a result of criticism for blocking modernization, but the walls are preserved in some cities, such as Xian City and Pingyao.

Castles in Korean peninsula
The castles in the Korean peninsula are classified into two types: mountain castle in a form specific to Korea and upuson with city walls, which are greatly influenced by China, but dominated later in the period. There are few perfect upuson because of the mountainous terrains, and many of them are small fortresses with an eclectic style. Enan-jo Castle that withstood the siege of the Japanese military during the Bunroku-Keicho War, and Jinju Castle that also held against Japan's attack are an example of those castles with an eclectic style. It is said that Suwon Castle in the Suwon city of South Korea for now aimed at the originality of Yi Dynasty Korea.

There were many castles built by Japanese forces in the southern region during the Bunroku-Keicho War, but they are known as wagon (Japanese-style castles), due to the considerable economic development in recent years in South Korea, many of these wagon have been destroyed despite being important historical sites, due to the strong anti-Japanese sentiment.

Himeji Castle, The World Heritage of Japan in Hyogo Prefecture

Introduction of Representative Japanese Castles

Himeji castle

at Hyogo prefecture
Himeji Castle

Matsumoto castle

at Nagano prefecture
Matsumoto Castle

Kumamoto castle

at Kumamoto prefecture
Kumamoto Castle

Osaka castle

at Osaka prefecture
Osaka Castle

Matsuyama castle

at Ehime prefecture
Matsuyama Castle

Nagoya castle

at Aichi prefecture
nagoya Castle

Aizu-Wakamatsu castle

at Fukushima prefecture
Aizu-Wakamatsu Castle

Hirosaki castle

at Aomori prefecture
Hirosaki Castle

Syuri castle

at Okinawa prefecture
Syuri Castle

Edo castle (Imperial Palace of the moment)

at Tokyo metropolis
Edo Castle

Echizen-Ono castle

at Fukui prefecture
Echizen-Ono Castle

Bichu-Matsuyama castle

at Ehime prefecture
Bichu-Matsuyama Castle

Inuyama castle

at Aichi prefecture
Inuyama Castle

Fushimi-Momoyama castle

at Kyoto prefecture
Fushimi-Momoyama Castle

Nijo castle (UNESCO World Heritage)

at Kyoto prefecture
Nijo Castle

Uwajima castle

at Ehime prefecture
Uwajima Castle

Imabari castle

at Ehime prefecture
Imabari Castle

Kochi castle

at Kochi prefecture
Kochi Castle

Hikone castle

at Shiga prefecture
Hikone Castle

Matsue castle

at Shimane prefecture
Matsue Castle

Ako castle

at Hyogo prefecture
Ako Castle

Fukuyama castle

at Hiroshima prefecture
Fukuyama Castle

Kakegawa castle

at Shizuoka prefecture
Kakegawa Castle

Maruoka castle

at Fukui prefecture
Maruoka Castle

Okayama castle

at Okayama prefecture
Okayama Castle

Ozu castle

at Ehime prefecture
Ozu Castle

Suwa-Takashima castle

at nagano prefecture
Suwa-Takashima Castle

Shibata castle

at Nigata prefecture
Shibata Castle

Shimabara castle

at Kumamoto prefecture
Shimabara Castle

Takeda castle

at Hyogo prefecture
Takeda Castle

Wakayama castle

at Wakayama prefecture
Wakayama Castle

Kishiwada castle

at Osaka prefecture
Kishiwada Castle

Gifu castle

at Gifu prefecture
Gifu Castle

Goryokaku castle

at Hokkaido prefecture
Goryokaku Castle

Hiroshima castle

at Hiroshima prefecture
Hiroshima Castle

Hirado castle

at Nagasaki prefecture
Hirado Castle

Karatsu castle

at Saga prefecture
Karatsu Castle

Iga-Ueno castle

at Mie prefecture
Iga-Ueno Castle

Iwakuni castle

at Yamaguchi prefecture
Iwakuni Castle

Matsumae castle

at Hokkaido prefecture
Matsumae Castle

Odawara castle

at Kanagawa prefecture
Odawara Castle

Okazaki castle

at Aichi prefecture
Okazaki Castle

Shirakawa-Komine castle

at Fukushima prefecture
Shirakawa-Komine Castle

Takamatsu castle

at Kagawa prefecture
Takamatsu Castle

Toyama castle

at Toyama prefecture
Toyama Castle

Katsuyama castle

at Fukui prefecture
Katsuyama Castle

Tateyama castle

at Chiba prefecture
Tateyama Castle

Sekiyado castle

at Chiba prefecture
Sekiyado Castle

Gujo-Hachiman castle

at Gifu prefecture
Gujo-Hachiman Castle

Oyama castle

at Shizuoka prefecture
Oyama Castle

Fukuchiyama castle

at Kyoto prefecture
Fukuchiyama Castle

Kawashima castle

at Tokushima prefecture
Kawashima Castle

Kokura castle

at Fukuoka prefecture
Kokura Castle

Nakatsu castle

at oita prefecture
Nakatsu Castle
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Encyclopedia of Japan