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Concerning Rebuilding Castles in Japan


A few days ago I told you about how Takamatsu Castle’s main tower is in the process of being rebuilt.

Sometime this week I’m planning on telling you about Okayama Castle which has been rebuilt in 1966.

Coincidentally, KuyshuDan at Japanese Castle Explorer posted a couple of days ago a very interesting article about Japanese castle rebuilding and how sometimes it’s a good thing, but sometimes they should abstain because nothing is historically accurate in the rebuilding process.

Well, better than me rephrasing it, I invite you to read it: The Rebuilding Phase.

Then, what started as a simple comment from my part on the topic became longer and longer, so in the end, I decided to make it an article here instead.

So, here is my take on:


The rebuilding of Japanese castles.


To say the least, I have very mixed feelings about the whole thing.

Yes, the first time I saw a rebuilt castle (in Osaka) I was disappointed indeed.
While it was impressive, something felt a little bit off from the outside, and to my great surprise, the inside was full of elevators, concrete and other contemporary elements.

Although I must admit that I was not as disappointed as some other people (maybe it was because the museum inside was really interesting).

Okayama Castle
Okayama Castle, rebuilt in 1966

However, giving a few more thoughts on the issue, and while I still struggle with the idea at times, the way some castles are being rebuilt in Japan doesn’t shock me as much as it did that first time.

I’d be curious to know Japanese people’s opinions on the topic (I asked 康代, she doesn’t care), because I have the feeling that this (i.e. wanting anything old that is being rebuilt to be rebuilt exactly like the original building) is really a Western way of thinking.

I’ll need to refresh my memory (college was long ago now), but I think that it can even be traced back to the early 19th Century, with the Romanticism movement (and its love of all things ancient) and the beginning of museums (which are a peculiar thing when you really think of it) and the birth of modern historiography.
“It” being this idea that a castle/church/building has to be (or at least look) old to be legit. Even better if it’s in ruins (a very old building in a good shape is suspicious, isn’t it?)

But, why do we think that?

After all, most -if not all- castles from the Edo Period were different from the original castles that were often located on the same spot and dating from the 12th Century or so (correct me if I’m wrong, my knowledge of Japan’s history pre-Edo is still quite shaky).
Those Edo Period castles were built with 17th Century technology, not 12th Century’s (really I’m picking 12th Century as an example here, it can be 10th or 14th, the reasoning is the same).

So, what is the real difference between rebuilding a 12th Century castle in the 17th Century with 17th Century technology and rebuilding a 17th Century castle in the 20th/21st Century with 20th/21st Century technology?

I don’t see a lot, apart from the fact that in the 17th Century, castles were also houses, and that they’re not anymore in Japan. Yet, in both cases, castles have always been less about housing than about prestige, appearance, local pride and whatnot.

I can’t help but comparing Temples and Castles (as well as Churches and Castles in Europe) on the issue.

Temples and Churches were built with the idea that they should last forever, so it’s all logical that they be restored with original material and techniques. And that even when they’re actually different from the original buildings, only a specialist could tell. As you know Japanese temples are regularly rebuilt, but European Churches are too (except that it’s not a complete overhaul, but small changes here and there during various restorations).

On the other hand, castles don’t have that same function. They were never built for eternity nor for future generations. They were built by a guy/family for themselves and nobody else.
Once they became useless, it makes sense that they were disassembled or simply abandoned.
Also, note that, in Europe, castles that never were abandoned and that are still inhabited today usually look nothing like the original building, as it evolved with time, new technologies, remodeling, etc.

Materials used in construction obviously play a big role in the evolution of those buildings too.

Europe used stone, so buildings tend to last a very long time, even the ones that are not meant to. On the other hand, the use of wood in Japan makes buildings decay really fast, hence they need for constant rebuilding.

And when building techniques evolve, it seems logical that rebuilding techniques do too.

Yet, temples are being rebuilt using traditional techniques, not contemporary ones. However, temples don’t have the same function. They are by nature atemporal, out of time. Castles are not. Also, temples designs too change when they are being rebuilt, we just seem to mind as much, because they still look and feel ancient, while redesigned castles don’t.

So, what should be done to these castles so that they “feel” original (even though I think it’s a Western way of approaching the issue)?
Rebuild with the original techniques? Sure, but then what castle do we rebuild? Which one is the “original” one? The 12th Century one? For most of them we have no way of knowing how they actually looked like except for some drawings? The 17th Century version of the castle usually seem to be the consensus when rebuilding is done. Why is that? What about the 19th Century version of the catle? That one, we have documents allowing us to know what they exactly looked like, we sometimes even have blueprints. Yet, they’re not “original” enough most of the time.

So why not rebuild a contemporary version of the castle? After all this is what has been done at every other time a castle was rebuilt.

Those are just thoughts I’m formulating, not even strong opinions. What about you? What do you guys think about the issue?

Heijo-jo in Nara
Heijō Palace in Nara. 1,300 years old! Or is it barely more than one?

14 thoughts on “Concerning Rebuilding Castles in Japan”

  1. I think the rebuilding of the castles has a touristic purpose, but it serves history. They are not necessarily accurate, but it helps people have an idea of how other eras used to look like. I had the chance to speak with an historian who is helping the restoring of Shuri castle and he was telling me about the huge efforts they put into finding the necessary information to make it as close to reality as it can be. He still believed that the castle should be made in a way that it makes people feel the desire to visit and he was telling he is sure the work on the castle will surely not be finished in his life time (he was maybe in his late 40s!), because the gathering of historical evidences takes much time and a lot of money and they need to think of the utility of the castle. Maybe, I am more on the Japanese side on this. I don’t think rebuilding them based on the exact original plan is important. I think as long as the castle’s reconstructors keep in mind the idea of making history accessible to the people, an elevator or facilities for disabled people are not such a bad thing.

    1. Yes, I didn’t mention the tourism (well I implied it in “local pride”).
      However, in Europe too, tourism is a big factor when you have a castle around, so that alone can’t explain the way Japanese castles are rebuilt.

      But the question is “does it serve history when there are elevators?”

      1. I guess elevators don’t serve history, but they don’t destroy it either. Nobody images that if the castle has an elevator now, it had one in the Middle age too. I think in an aging society like Japan is, ignoring this kind of utilities would be prejudicial. In Europe, there are certain types of tourism for certain type of travellers. We don’t imagine we should make mountains accessible to people of age 70 or over, but Japanese elderly are pretty active even in this type of activities, so maybe the difference of culture/ society has an influence here too.
        No connection with the subject (Gomen nasai!), but, David, your home area is close to my adoptive home area in France (my boyfriend’s home). Internet does make the world frightfuly small. 🙂

        1. I was teasing about the elevators thing. 😉

          Where’s your boyfriend from?

          I’ve briefly mentioned it a couple of weeks ago (and will briefly mention it again when it’s ready) but I’m preparing a new blog about France, mostly my home area, so stay tuned. 🙂

  2. Thanks for this very interesting read.

    To clumsily paraphrase, Japanese castles have continued to be rebuilt, expanded and modified over the centuries. Each time, work was done using the most modern materials/techniques that were available, which no-one really cared about until it came to using steel-reinforce. concrete. Heck, or glass, velcro & kevlar for that matter. Okay, perhaps I’ve gone a bit overboard with the space-age polymers, but that about sums things up, right?

    But still, it isn’t just about the material. A wooden tower built before 1868 (the end of the Edo period) totally trumps an authentically rebuilt tower of recent years.

    Casting aside the “age” argument, can I put forward the “purpose” argument? Samurai-built for war (yeah, and status, blah, blah, blah…) v’s built for tourism. The winner is clear.

    Matsuyama castle’s main tower was built in 1854, we love it. No-one’s writing books about Gifu castle rebuilt tower of 1910.

    Moving on to which version of a castle should be rebuilt, this has become very simple. Nowadays, without solid evidence of appearance, dimensions, it isnear impossible to get anything built on registered historical sites. Just how it always should have been. Check this out: Marugame Castle – up to ¥10,000,000 reward for any old photos Then check the attic for old photos!

    A final thought: I wonder if in the year 2404, our ancestors will be valuing Ōzu Castle’s main tower (built in 2004) in the same way that we value 400 year old castles now. Maybe then the “purpose” argument won’t be so important.

    1. Good point about the “purpose” part.
      Although I could play devil’s advocate here too. 😉
      I always more or less unconsciously take two castles in my home area as reference: Bonaguil and Beynac. Their purposes changed with time and the way they look now (and have been restored) is not really back to their original purpose.

      Basically, Bonaguil was a normal castle that was turned into a super fortress by a somewhat paranoid guy, but it was never attacked. Later on it became a residence, so changes were made for that purpose, then it was torched and burned during the Revolution. Today, it mostly looks like it was after the Revolution (so mostly in ruins) and it has been preserved in that shape since.

      I don’t know the history of Beynac as well, but it has been repaired to the point that nowadays it could be lived in (if you want to live in medieval conditions) and it looks like medieval castles most likely looked in the 13th-15th centuries. It is being used for shooting films, but I always find it strange, because even if it looks “authentic” as in “similar to what castles looked like in the Middle Ages”, it doesn’t feel authentic in as “what a medieval castle should look like today”.

      (I’ll try to tell more about those in my upcoming blog about France… be patient though, it may not be before a few months).

      In any case, glad to hear they’re more strict nowadays (and it makes me hopeful for Takamatsu’s castle), because don’t get me wrong, while I try to understand the “why” on the issue, from a personal and subjective point of view, I’d rather have a castle made of wood (even though I’m never sure if it’s really “authentic” to have something that is gone and rebuilt the way it was).

      About what will happen in 2404, I guess we can’t tell. Tourism is relatively new in history, appreciating the things of the past and such is a concept that comes and goes from one Century to the other, so who knows. 😉

  3. Interesting article and comments.
    If I add a comment, I want to say that there is strictly building standards in Japan.
    Before the rebuilding a castle, the people who plan to rebuild make a tons of effort to persuade the government and academians.
    They need to show the things such as historical value, the evidence for disaster prevention and constructional advantage after the rebuilding.
    It’s really hard and long way.

    1. I’ve heard similar things. For example, the “palace” of Goryōkaku Fort in Hokkaido had to be reduced in size as it was deemed a hazard by some bureaucrat. But to completely contradict that, it was decided that the main tower of Ōzu Castle would not conform to modern building regulations. They saw value (for craftsmen) in building it as authentic as possible.

      Anyway, cocomino, do you have any examples?

  4. I was going to comment about “purpose” as well… Thank you for this thoughtful, insightful, and thought-provoking post. After reading it, I think the key difference between “rebuilding a 12th Century castle in the 17th Century with 17th Century technology and rebuilding a 17th Century castle in the 20th/21st Century with 20th/21st Century technology” is purpose.

    If your purpose in rebuilding a castle, or church, or shrine or temple, is connected to continuous use and the continuing evolution of that architectural style and the religion or culture behind it, then of course styles would change as tastes and technologies change. A daimyo rebuilding or renovating a castle in the 17-19th centuries to serve as his home and base of operations (and as an impressive symbol of his power and wealth) would of course rebuild according to his needs, using the latest technology of his time, and building according to the fashions of his time. It doesn’t make sense for him to care about historical accuracy, because this is a residence and administrative center in active use, not a historical site or museum.

    But then we jump forward to the 20th-21st centuries, and these sites *are* historical sites and museums. If you’re intentionally rebuilding a castle from the past in order to represent the past, in order to speak about the past, then isn’t there inherently an importance to doing it in a historically accurate fashion? I suppose, if you’re just building ‘a’ castle (and not ‘the’ castle) to look cool, to be impressive, to lend a historical air to your park/neighborhood/city, and to attract tourists because it looks cool, then, fine, I guess. But if that’s the case, why even bother being historically accurate at all? If you’re not going to go for historical accuracy, then why even build in an Edo pd castle style? Why not take some crazy liberties? Why not rebuild a copy of Cardiff Castle instead of a Japanese-style castle, if all you’re trying to do is build something that looks cool and will attract tourists?

    But, if the chief purpose of the castle is to serve as a historical site and/or museum, to recreate the past and make history accessible for people, to teach about history, then isn’t there some degree of obligation to teach history that’s accurate history? I don’t know of any specific examples of inaccuracies in castles when it comes to style or height of the towers or anything, but just for the sake of argument, I would argue that giving people the mistaken impression that (for example) Fushimi Castle looked just like this and was located on exactly this site is just as irresponsible and unethical for a historian as if Shuri Castle was rebuilt to look like a Japanese castle, or if some other gross inaccuracy was perpetrated as fact – e.g. if we were pretending that a given building was never destroyed and has always stood there when in fact it’s been rebuilt numerous times.

    It all comes down to purpose. If your purpose is to create a sort of theme park of history, or a “new” building in old style to serve as a symbol of your city and neat thing to look at, then, sure, go ahead and build in concrete. Have a ball. But, if your purpose is to build something that genuinely recaptures the history and restores what was lost in more recent times (e.g. in the bombings of the 1940s, or in the sweeping changes of the 1860s-70s), to restore a part of your city to what it once was, creating a stronger sense of continuity with the past, then I think you are beholden to rebuild in traditional materials and techniques, or else it is all a farce.

    Maybe these ideas of authenticity are indeed Western concepts. But I have yet to hear an explanation from the Japanese point of view as to why this is okay or preferable, or what the Japanese view on the authenticity of concrete castles is. I would listen with an open mind, and would be genuinely eager to hear such explanations. But, in the meantime, I have nothing to go on, no way to judge “what were they thinking” other than to employ my own Western attitudes and beliefs.

    1. Hi Toranosuke,

      Thanks for stopping by and even a bigger thanks for this well developed response and argument.
      I don’t think I have anything to add to it, except that you’re making some very good and valid points.
      Thanks again.

    2. I think the Japanese “explanation” can be seen in the actions of the last 25 years or so. The beginning of the end of the age of concrete appears to have started about then. Since about that time gates, turrets and keeps have been reconstructed at castle sites all over the nation and (to my knowledge) almost all of them have tried to be “authentic” at least in the use of materials, if not necessarily in terms of design or original location. Today, I can’t imagine any reconstruction project being carried out in concrete (And that goes for temples and shrines, too. I strongly doubt we will ever see another monstrosity built like today’s Shitennoji in Osaka). There seems to be a renewed understanding that wood and traditional Japanese architecture are inextricably linked. Traditional Japanese architecture executed in concrete has no soul (My opinion). Other than that, I would guess that the views of those responsible for today’s reconstructions are very similar to Toranosuke’s.

      1. Thanks for stopping by and for your extra information.
        I really enjoy getting all of your point of views and the extra-info, as I’m still quite a novice as far as Japanese castles are concerned)

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