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?

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