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Castle History

Early Fortifications

Before the emergence of the traditional castle structures, early fortifications were erected across Japan to defend against external threats and local conflicts. These early fortifications, known as yamashiro, were primarily made of wood and earth. They consisted of elevated platforms, palisades, and moats, creating defensive barriers against potential invaders. Yamashiro were generally built atop hills or near rivers to maximize their defensive capabilities.

The early castles of Japan can be classified into two main types: yamashiro and hirayama. Yamashiro castles were built on mountaintops or hills, strategically positioned to provide a clear view of the surrounding landscape and potential threats. Hirayama castles, on the other hand, were constructed on flatlands, often near rivers or the coast, and focused more on defense against attacks from the sea or enemy forces.

Japanese castles were renowned for their innovative design and construction techniques. They incorporated elements of both Chinese and indigenous Japanese architectural styles. Key features of these castles included massive stone walls, wooden palisades, moats, and multiple layers of defense. The primary materials used in their construction were wood, stone, and clay.

To protect against attacks, Japanese castles utilized a variety of defensive structures. Stone walls were a common feature, often reinforced with clay and plaster. These walls were designed to withstand sieges and provide a formidable barrier against invading forces. Moats were another crucial defensive element, filled with water to create a barrier and impede enemy advancement. Wooden palisades were also constructed to provide additional protection.

The layout of Japanese castles was carefully planned to maximize their defensive capabilities. The central structure, known as the keep or donjon, was the main tower and the heart of the castle. It served as the residence of the lord, a storeroom for supplies, and a final line of defense during sieges. The keep was often surrounded by several concentric walls, each with its own set of gates, watchtowers, and defensive structures.

Beyond their military function, castles held great cultural significance in feudal Japan. They were a manifestation of the power, wealth, and social status of the daimyos who built them. Castles were also centers of governance, where the daimyos administered their territories and held court. They were adorned with beautiful gardens, intricate artwork, and ceremonial halls, reflecting the refined aesthetics of the time.

The Sengoku Period (1467-1603)
The Edo Period (1603-1868)
The Meiji Restoration (1868 to 1912)
Present Day

Of the 170 Edo period castles, 2/3 were destroyed by 1875. In recent years, other castles have been lost to fire, earthquakes and World War II, and today only 12 original donjon castles remain. These include Bitchu-Matsuyama, Hikone, Himeji, Hirosaki, Inuyama​, KochiMarugameMaruoka, MatsueMatsumoto, Matsuyama, and Uwajima. Even these 12 have lost much of their original grounds and outer buildings, but all are now protected by Japanese law.

Himeji Castle, nicknamed the "White Heron Castle" for its elegant white exterior, is undoubtedly the most pristine and well-preserved feudal castle in Japan. It's a UNESCO World Heritage Site and boasts complex defensive features, stunning views, and beautiful gardens. If you only visit one castle in Japan, make it Himeji.

In the modern era, efforts have been made to reconstruct some of destroyed castles, either partially or entirely. Some good examples include, Hiroshima Castle, Nagoya Castle, and Osaka Castle. The reconstruction of castles is often a complex process involving historical research, architectural expertise, and a commitment to preserving cultural heritage. It's important to note that while some castles have undergone reconstructions, many others remain in a state of partial ruins, with only the stone foundations and walls remaining. These ruins often serve as historical sites and tourist attractions, allowing visitors to glimpse into Japan's feudal past.


Original Castles

Read about Japan's 12 Original Castles

Osaka Castle

Reconstructed Castles

Information on some of Japan's reconstructed castles.

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