Japanese Castle History covers the different periods of building, developing and destruction of Japanese castle.

Though they were built to last, and used more stone in their construction than most Japanese buildings, castles were still constructed primarily of wood, and many were destroyed over the years. This was especially true during the Sengoku ('Warring States') period (1467-1603), when many of these castles were first built. However, many were rebuilt, either later in the Sengoku period, in the Edo period (1603-1867) which followed, or more recently, as national heritage sites or museums. Today, there are around fifty castles extant, or partially extant, in Japan; it is estimated that once there were five thousand. Some castles, such as the ones at Matsue and Kōchi, both built in 1611, remain extant in their original forms, not having suffered any damage from siege or other threats. Hiroshima Castle, on the opposite end of the spectrum, was destroyed in the atomic bombing, and was rebuilt in 1958 as a museum.

The character '城', normally read as shiro, is read as jō when it is attached to a word, such as in the name of a particular castle. Thus, for example, Osaka Castle is called ōsaka-jō (大阪城) in Japanese.

Japanese Castle
Japanese Castle

Picture: Himeji Castle - the best example of a Japanese Castle

Japanese Castles - History

Originally conceived of purely as fortresses, their primary purpose being military defence, Japanese castles were originally placed in strategic locations, along trade routes, roads and rivers. Though castles continued to be built with these considerations in mind, for centuries fortresses were also built to serve as centers of governance. By the Sengoku period, they had come to serve as the homes of daimyo (feudal lords), and served to impress and intimidate rivals not only with their defences, but with their size and elegant interiors, architecture and decorations. Oda Nobunaga was one of the first to build one of these palace-like castles, at Azuchi Castle in 1576; this was Japan's first castle to have a tower keep (天守閣, tenshukaku), and it inspired both Toyotomi Hideyoshi's Osaka Castle and Tokugawa Ieyasu's Edo Castle.[3] Azuchi served as the governing center of Oda's territories, and as his lavish home, but it was also very keenly and strategically placed. A short distance away from the capital of Kyoto, which had long been a target of violence, Azuchi's carefully chosen location allowed it a great degree of control over the transportation and communication routes of Oda's enemies.

Prior to the Sengoku period (roughly, the 16th century), most castles were called yamashiro (山城), or 'mountain castles'. Though most later castles were built atop mountains or hills, these were built from the mountains. Trees and other foliage were cleared, and the stone and dirt of the mountain itself was carved into rough fortifications. Ditches were dug, to present obstacles to attackers, as well as to allow boulders to be rolled down at attackers. Moats were created by diverting mountain streams. Buildings were made primarily of wattle and daub, using thatched roofs, or, occasionally, wooden shingles. Small ports in the walls or planks could be used to deploy bows or fire guns from. The main weakness of this style was its general instability. Thatch caught fire even more easily than wood, and weather and soil erosion prevented structures from being particularly large or heavy. Eventually, stone bases began to be used, encasing the hilltop in a layer of fine pebbles, and then a layer of larger rocks over that, with no mortar. The character for castle or fortress (城), up until sometime in the 9th century or later, was read (pronounced) ki, as in this example, mizuki.

Though fairly basic in construction and appearance, these wooden and earthwork structures were designed to impress just as much as to function effectively against attack. Chinese and Korean architecture strongly influenced the design of Japanese buildings, including fortifications, in this period. The remains or ruins of some of these fortresses, decidedly different from what would come later, can still be seen in certain parts of Kyushu and Tohoku today.

Japanese Castles - Heian Period

The Heian period (794-1185) saw a shift from the need to defend the entire state from invaders to that of lords defending individual mansions or territories from one another. Though battles were still continually fought in the north-east portion of Honshū (the Tōhoku region) against native peoples, the rise of the samurai warrior class[5] towards the end of the period, and various disputes between noble families jostling for power and influence in the Imperial Court brought about further developments. The primary defensive concern in the archipelago was no longer native tribes or foreign invaders, but rather internal conflicts within Japan, between rival samurai clans or other increasingly large and powerful factions, and as a result, defensive strategies and attitudes were forced to change and adapt. As factions emerged and loyalties shifted, clans and factions which had been allies in the service of the Imperial Court became enemies, and defensive networks were broken, or altered through the shifting of alliances.

The Genpei War (1180-1185) between the Minamoto and Taira clans, and the Nanboku-chō Wars (1336-1392) between the Northern and Southern Imperial Courts are the primary conflicts that define these developments during what it sometimes called Japan's medieval period.

Fortifications were still built almost entirely out of wood, and were based largely on earlier modes, and on Chinese and Korean examples. But they began to become larger, to incorporate more buildings, to accommodate larger armies, and to be conceived as more permanent structures. This mode of fortification, developed gradually from earlier modes and used throughout the wars of the Heian period (770-1185), and deployed to help defend the shores of Kyushu from the Mongol invasions of the 13th century, reached its climax in the 1330s, during the Nanboku-chō period. Chihaya castle and Akasaka castle, permanent castle complexes containing a number of buildings but no tall keep towers, and surrounded by wooden walls, were built by Kusunoki Masashige to be as militarily effective as possible, within the technology and designs of the time.

The Ashikaga shogunate, established in the 1330s, had a tenuous grip on the archipelago, and maintained relative peace for over a century. Castle design and organization continued to develop under the Ashikaga shogunate, and throughout the Sengoku period. Castle complexes became fairly elaborate, containing a number of structures, some of which were quite complex internally, as they now served as residences, command centers, and a number of other purposes.

Japanese Castles - Nijo Castle
Japanese Castle - Nijo Castle

Japanese Castles - Sengoku

The Ōnin War which broke out in 1467, however, marked the beginning of a period of nearly 150 years of widespread warfare (called the Sengoku period) between daimyō (feudal lords) across the entire archipelago. For the duration of the Ōnin War (1467-1477), and into the Sengoku period, the entire city of Kyoto became a battlefield, and suffered extensive damage. Noble family mansions across the city became increasingly fortified over this ten year period, and attempts were made to isolate the city as a whole from the marauding armies of samurai which would dominate the landscape for over a century.[7]

As regional officials and others became the daimyō, and the country descended into war, they began to quickly add to their power bases, securing their primary residences, and constructing additional fortifications in tactically advantageous or important locations. Originally conceived as purely defensive (martial) structures, or as retirement bunkers where a lord could safely ride out periods of violence in his lands, over the course of the Sengoku period, many of these mountain castles developed into permanent residences, with elaborate exteriors and lavish interiors.

The beginnings of the shapes and styles now considered to be stereotypical "classic" Japanese castle design emerged at this time, and castle towns (城下町, jōkamachi, lit. "town below castle") also appeared, grew and developed. Despite these developments, though, for most of the Sengoku period castles remained essentially larger, more complex versions of the simple wooden fortifications of centuries earlier. It was not until the last thirty years of the period of war that drastic changes would occur to bring about the emergence of the type of castle typified by Himeji Castle, the Imperial Palace, and other castles surviving today. This period of war culminated in the Azuchi-Momoyama period, which saw some of the largest battles in the pre-modern world, and saw great advances in military technology, strategy and tactics.

Japanese Castles - Azuchi-Momoyama period

Unlike in Europe, where the advent of cannon spelled the end of the age of castles, Japanese castle-building was spurred, ironically, by the introduction of firearms. Though firearms first appeared in Japan in 1543, and castle design almost immediately saw developments in reaction, Azuchi castle, built in the 1570s, was the first example of a largely new type of castle, on a larger, grander scale than those which came before, boasting a large stone base (武者返し, musha-gaeshi), a complex arrangement of concentric baileys (丸, maru), and a tall central tower. In addition, the castle was located on a plain, rather than on a densely forested mountain, and relied more heavily on architecture and manmade defenses than on its natural environment for protection. These features, along with the general appearance and organization of the Japanese castle, which had matured by this point, have come to define the stereotypical Japanese castle. Along with Hideyoshi's Fushimi-Momoyama castle, Azuchi lends its name to the brief Azuchi-Momoyama period (roughly 1568-1600) in which these types of castles, used for military defense, flourished.

The introduction of the arquebus brought dramatic shifts in battle tactics and military attitudes in Japan. Though these shifts were complex and numerous, one of the concepts key to changes in castle design at this time was that of battle at range. Though archery duels traditionally preceded samurai battles since the Heian period or earlier, exchanges of fire with arquebuses had a far more dramatic effect on the outcome of the battle; hand-to-hand fighting, while still extremely common, was diminished by the coordinated use of firearms.

Oda Nobunaga, one of the most expert commanders in the coordinated tactical use of the new weapon, built his Azuchi castle, which has since come to be seen as the paradigm of the new phase of castle design, with these considerations in mind. The stone foundation resisted damage from arquebus balls better than wood or earthworks, and the overall larger scale of the complex added to the difficulty of destroying it. Tall towers and the castle's location on a plain provided greater visibility from which the garrison could employ their guns, and the complex set of courtyards and baileys provided additional opportunities for defenders to retake portions of the castle that had fallen.

Cannon were rare in Japan due to the expense of obtaining them from foreigners, and the difficulty in casting such weapons themselves as the foundries used to make bronze temple bells were simply unsuited to the production of iron or steel cannon. The few cannon that were used were smaller and weaker than those used in European sieges, and many of them were in fact taken from European ships and remounted to serve on land; where the advent of cannon and other artillery brought an end to stone castles in Europe, wooden ones would remain in Japan for several centuries longer. A few castles boasted 'wall guns', but these are presumed to be little more than glorified arquebuses, lacking the power of a true cannon. When siege weapons were used in Japan, they were most often trebuchets or catapults in the Chinese style, and they were used as anti-personnel weapons.

Japanese Castles - Edo Period

The Sengoku period, roughly a century and a half of war which saw great changes and developments in military tactics and equipment, as well as the emergence of the Azuchi-Momoyama style castle, was followed by the Edo period, over two hundred and fifty years of peace, beginning around 1600-1615 and ending in 1868. Edo period castles, including those which survived from the preceding Azuchi-Momoyama period, therefore no longer had defence against outside forces as their primary purpose. Rather, they served primarily as luxurious homes for the daimyō, their families and retainers, and to protect the daimyō, and his power base, against peasant uprisings and other internal insurrections. The Tokugawa shogunate, in order to forestall the amassing of power on the part of the daimyō, enforced a number of regulations limiting the number of castles to one per han (feudal domain), with a few exceptions,[9] and a number of other policies including that of sankin kōtai. Though there were also, at times, restrictions on the size and furnishings of these castles, and many daimyō grew quite poor later in the period, daimyō nevertheless sought as much as possible to use their castles as representations of their power and wealth. The general architectural style did not change much from more martial times, but the furnishings and indoor arrangements could be quite lavish.

This restriction on the number of castles allowed each han had profound effects not only politically, as intended, but socially, and in terms of the castles themselves. Where members of the samurai class had previously lived in or around the great number of castles sprinkling the landscape, they now became concentrated in the capitals of the han and in Edo; the resulting concentration of samurai in the cities, and their near-total absence from the countryside and from cities that were not feudal capitals (Kyoto and Osaka in particular) were important features of the social and cultural landscape of the Edo period. Meanwhile, the castles in the han capitals inevitably expanded, not only to accommodate the increased number of samurai they now had to support, but also to represent the prestige and power of the daimyō, now consolidated into a single castle. Edo castle, expanded by a factor of twenty between roughly 1600 and 1636 after becoming the shogunal seat, though obviously something of an exception, the shogun not being a regular daimyō, nevertheless serves as a fine example of these developments. These vastly consolidated and expanded castles, and the great number of samurai living, by necessity, in and around them, thus led to an explosion in urban growth in 17th century Japan.

As contact with Western powers increased in the middle of the 19th century, some castles such as Goryōkaku castle in Hokkaido were turned once again to martial purposes. No longer needed to resist samurai cavalry charges, or arquebus squads, attempts were made to convert Goryōkaku, and a handful of other castles across the country, into defensible positions against the cannon of Western naval vessels.

Japanese Castles - Modern Japan

All castles, along with the feudal domains themselves, were turned over to the Meiji government in the 1871 abolition of the han system, but few if any were destroyed at that time. Many of the castles remaining in Japan today are reconstructions, some of them made primarily of concrete and designed only to represent or resemble the original wooden structures. Nevertheless, all castles, along with a number of sites of historical or natural significance, are protected under a series of laws promulgated for that purpose. The first came in 1919, and was followed ten years later by the 1929 National Treasure Preservation Law.

Many castles were destroyed in World War II, along with much of their surrounding cities. Those which survived were declared National Treasures of Japan in 1951. Many of those destroyed were rebuilt, and some were reopened as museums.

Japanese Castle - Osaka Castle
Japanese Castle - Osaka Castle

(Article based on Wikipedia article and used under the GNU Free Documentation License)

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