Introduction: Japanese castles hold a rich history and architectural significance, reflecting the country’s feudal past and the transition to more modern times. This guide delves into the history of Japanese castles, their structures, and their role in shaping the country’s cultural landscape.
History of Castles: Fortresses in Japan date back to ancient times, but the need for castles became more prominent during the chaotic era of warring states (sengoku jidai) in the 15th century. This period saw the rise of small independent states, each building its own castles on mountaintops for defense.
The 16th century marked a turning point when Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi established central authority, leading to the construction of larger castles in the plains. These castles became symbols of authority, administrative centers, and military headquarters, giving birth to “castle towns.”
However, many castles were destroyed or lost after the end of the feudal age in 1868 and during World War II. Today, only a few “original castles” with feudal-era main keeps remain, while several dozen castles have been reconstructed using modern materials.
Castle Structures and Castle Towns: Japanese castles featured multiple rings of defense, with the honmaru (main circle) at the center, followed by the ninomaru (second circle) and additional circles of defense. The castle tower, also known as the donjon or castle keep, stood in the honmaru, while lords often resided in palace residences within the honmaru or ninomaru.
In the surrounding castle town, samurai lived closer to the castle based on their rank, with separate districts for merchants and artisans. Temple and entertainment districts were typically located in the outskirts or just outside the city. Cities like Tokyo and Kanazawa developed as castle towns.
Main Castle Structures:
- Castle Tower (Tenshukaku): The innermost and most fortified structure of a castle, typically with two to five stories and more floors inside than visible from the outside.
- Walls and Moats: Multiple rings of walls and moats served as primary defense measures. Notable examples include Osaka Castle and the former Edo Castle (now Tokyo’s Imperial Palace).
- Guard Towers (Yagura): Watchtowers and storage rooms placed along the castle walls, often at the corners. They have two floors and are smaller than the main castle tower.
- Gates: Castles have well-defended entrance gates, usually consisting of two gates at a 90-degree angle to create a heavily defended inner yard.
- Palace (Goten): The palace housed the lord’s residence and offices, but most castles have lost their palaces over time. Some reconstructed palaces can be found at Kumamoto Castle, Hikone Castle, and Nagoya Castle.
Conclusion: Japanese castles offer a glimpse into the country’s historical and architectural heritage. From their humble beginnings in the warring states era to their role as symbols of authority, castles have left a lasting impact on Japan’s cultural landscape. Today, visitors can explore these iconic structures and the surrounding castle towns to experience the rich history and legacy of Japanese castles.