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Castle Hunting

The need for castles arouse after the central government's authority had weakened in the 15th century and Japan had fallen into the chaotic era of warring states (sengoku jidai). During that era, Japan consisted of dozens of small independent states which were fighting each other and, for defence purposes, were building small castles on top of mountains. The feudal lords of Japanese history, called daimyo, built these castles first and foremost for their own defence. If they were being attacked, they could retreat to their castles, and the donjon, or tower, of the castle would contain plenty of food and weaponry. Also, the daimyo built castles to show their own wealth - the bigger the castle, the wealthier and more powerful the daimyo.


When Oda Nobunaga re-established a central authority over Japan about a century later, and his successor Toyotomi Hideyoshi completed the reunification of Japan, many larger castles were built across the country. Unlike the earlier castles, they were built in the plains or on small hills in the plains, where they served as a region's administrative and military headquarters, and became the centres of "castle towns".


With the Meiji Restoration of 1868, castles were no longer a necessity, and as such, the Meiji government passed the Castle Abolishment Law in 1873 to demolish all castles. To the Meiji rulers, castles were a reminder of the days of feudalism, which had ended with their seizure of power. 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 Matsumaro, Inuyama, Hikone, Himeji, Maruoka, Matsue, Marugame, Uwajima, Bitchu-Matsuyama, Hirosaki and Matsuyama. Even these 12 have lost much of their original grounds and outer buildings, but all are now protected by Japanese laws.


Castle Structures and Castle Towns

The typical, large castle consisted of three rings of defence, with the so called honmaru ("main circle") in the centre followed by the ninomaru ("second circle") and sannomaru ("third circle"). The castle tower stood in the honmaru, while the lords usually lived at a more comfortable residence in the ninomaru.


The samurai resided in in the town around the castle, the higher their rank, the closer they lived to the castle. Merchants and artisans lived in special areas, while temple and entertainment districts were usually located just outside the city. Like the castle itself, the size of the home of the samurai showed his rank and these were the only houses in the jokamachi allowed to have walls and gates.


Castle towns, or jokamachi, were also an important feature of castles. The jokamachi that grew up around Japanese castles were an extension of the defences of the castles, with many winding, confusing streets and dead ends. Into these towns moved peasants, artisans and businessmen, and some of the jokamachi became Japan's largest cities of today. The Otemon, or main gate, of the jokamachi was very strong and the road leading from there to the castle was heavily fortified and lined with houses of the most loyal retainers.


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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