Japan’s Castles


Dr Oleg Benesch, University of York

  • oleg.benesch@york.ac.uk

In spring 2014, the Social History Society Conference at Northumbria University provided a welcome opportunity to visit Newcastle for the first time in some years, and I extended my stay to explore the city, including the various museums, galleries, and the waterfront. I was most interested, however, in the remnants of Newcastle Castle, which may at first glance seem an odd destination for a social and intellectual historian of East Asia.

The castle can be clearly seen from the platforms at Newcastle Station, and the tracks leading Eastward out of the station seemingly head directly towards the castle keep, only 300 metres away. Just before they reach the keep, the tracks veer off to either side – South to Sunderland and North to Edinburgh and beyond.

Newcastle Castle

The East Coast Main Line passes directly through the castle site, cutting between the keep and the Black Gate in a fascinating juxtaposition of tradition and modernity. The image would have been very different if plans from the 1840s had been realized, calling for the complete demolition of the castle and the construction of the railway station in its place. Only the intervention of the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle upon Tyne saved the remnants of the castle, and the station was ultimately built to the West of the castle with only the elevated tracks running across the site.

This physical clash between the medieval and modern, between historic buildings and industry, was echoed throughout the world in the wake of the industrial revolution. Perhaps nowhere was it as dramatic as in Japan, where the transition to modernity in the late nineteenth century occurred at a dazzling pace. Japan’s cities had evolved little in more than 200 years before the 1860s. The majority of population centres were castle towns, organized around vast fortifications that reflected the regimented structure of a society ruled by samurai warriors. In contrast, by the early twentieth century, Japan’s cities boasted some of the most modern infrastructure, including trains, subways, streetcars, electricity, department stores, and telephones.

Pre-modern symbols and structures often fell victim to these processes, with castles specifically attacked as embarrassing reminders of the ‘feudal’ past after the Meiji Restoration of 1868 ushered in a new era of ‘civilization and enlightenment’. Walls and structures were torn down, while moats were filled in for roads, rail lines, and modern buildings. By 1880, however, a growing awareness of heritage slowed the pace of destruction and many castle structures were saved. This was part of a transnational process involving Western visitors to Japan who admired local art and architecture, as well as Japanese travelers to Europe. The famous Iwakura Mission of the early 1870s, which spent considerable time in and around Newcastle seeing both industrial and historic sites, also visited dozens of castles throughout Europe. The symbolic power of castles and martial heritage in the age of nationalism was not lost on Japan.

In spite of the rush of demolition in the early Meiji period, castles continued to define the shape of most Japanese cities. A large number of castles were converted to host schools, parks, and administrative buildings for the new state. These formerly restricted sites of authority now became public spaces as part of a fundamental reconfiguration of the relationship between the state and its citizens.

In a parallel development, however, many of the largest castles were converted into garrisons for the new imperial army, while the shogun’s great Edo Castle was renamed the Imperial Castle and became the seat of the emperor in the new (and old) capital of Tokyo. In other words, major castles remained largely restricted sites of military authority as they had been before the fall of the shogunate in 1868.

Military maneuvers and arsenal in Osaka Castle 1930s

The increasingly powerful military soon began to draw on the symbolic power of castles, casting the troops of the Imperial Japanese Army as the heirs of the heavily mythologized samurai. Castles also had practical advantages, as the massive urban garrisons were used to suppress strikes, unrest, and social disturbances in the early twentieth century. For scale, the Osaka Castle garrison contained the largest arms factory in Asia and was larger than Hyde Park, Green Park, and Kensington Gardens in London combined, or roughly the same size as Central Park in New York City. Most large cities in Japan had military garrisons, rather than large public spaces, at their heart, contributing to the militarization of urban society in the decades before 1945.

In our book, Japan’s Castles: Citadels of Modernity in War and Peace, Ran Zwigenberg and I explore the role that castles have played in the social and cultural history of modern Japan. In the first part of the book, we examine the fierce conflicts over castles in order to reconsider relations between the state, military, and civil society in the imperial period (1868-1945).

After 1945, conflicts continued as castles were used by both conservatives and progressives in their attempts to define the new japan. Under the American Occupation of Japan immediately after the war, military castles were decommissioned and converted into parks, universities, museums, and sports facilities. Beginning in the 1950s, dozens of lost castle keeps were reconstructed from steel-reinforced concrete in an attempt to recover earlier heritage and an idealized premodern masculinity that was deemed ‘safe’ in comparison with the excesses of the imperial state. Castle-building was used to redefine and highlight regional identities vis-à-vis the national government in Tokyo, which was often portrayed as the root of the turmoil and devastation of the recent past. As part of this process, the recent military history of castles was comprehensively erased, and the public history of these sites came to focus almost exclusively on the premodern past.

Osaka Castle

These developments are the focus of the second part of the book, which explores the history of castles in the postwar decades, and provides the context for the very prominent role castles continue to play in Japan today, as UNESCO World Heritage Sites, tourist destinations, sites of government, and even as military installations. This is echoed in castles in the UK, which are not only heritage sites, but continue to host government buildings such as law courts and administrative offices, while many retain a connection to the military through the presence of regimental museums. As in the case of Newcastle, developments in Japan had parallels elsewhere and should be seen in a global context. To this end, our book takes a comparative approach to consider how castles and other heritage sites have influenced the construction of identity, memory, and society in modern Japan.


Japan’s Castles: Citadels of Modernity in War and Peace
is published by Cambridge University Press

Read about more new books here


About the Authors:

Oleg Benesch is Senior Lecturer in East Asian History at the University of York, specializing in the transnational history of early modern and modern Japan and China in global perspective. His recent publications include the book Inventing the Way of the Samurai: Nationalism, Internationalism, and Bushido in Modern Japan (Oxford, 2014). For more information on Oleg and his research, please go to his website.

Ran Zwigenberg is Assistant Professor at Pennsylvania State University. His research focuses on modern Japanese and European history, with a specialization in memory and intellectual history. He has published on issues of war memory, atomic energy, psychiatry, and survivor politics. Zwigenberg’s monographs include Hiroshima: The Origins of Global Memory Culture (Cambridge, 2014), winner of the 2016 Association for Asian Studies’ John W. Hall book award. For more information on this and other projects, please see this page.

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