The Japanese Castles

The Japanese Castles

Japanese castles (城, shiro) are fortresses, fortifications, and defensive structures built mainly in the medieval period of Japan’s history. Castles in Japan were built to guard important or strategic sites, such as ports, river crossings or crossroads, and often incorporated the landscape into their defenses to gain tactical advantages.

Contrary to the image of a medieval European court made of banquets, knights, and palace life, the function of these structures was almost exclusively military-defensive. Daimyōs (Japanese feudal lords) did not live in castles and carried out their political-administrative duties in other structures, only in the event of imminent attacks they take refuge in fortresses.

Architecture and defenses

The Japanese castles, unlike the European ones, were all built following almost the same pattern with some variants dictated more by the surrounding environment than by an architectural choice. In all structures there is always a tenshu天守 (the Japanese version of the European keep) facing an enclosed courtyard; given the raised position of the castle, it is necessary to pass through the courtyard, where the battle often took place, in order to reach the main fortress. Around the keep usually, there are several defensive concentric circles delimited by walls, ditches, and turrets; moreover, inside the castle compound, there was the goten 殿 that is the palace of residence and offices of the feudal lord.

Castles conservation through the ages

The first Japanese castles date back to the Sengoku period (1467-1603) when the various warlords were fighting for the country with fierce battles and bloody conquests. Although plenty of stone was used for the fortifications, the Japanese castles were mainly built of wood like most of the Japanese buildings at the time. Many battles combined with natural disasters and last century bombings are the reason why today only about fifteen castles survived in their original structure. Some castles have been completely or partially rebuilt in modern times and are turned into museums, representing a historical memory; designed to be visited, these structures are much more accessible and welcoming than the original fortresses. The construction of castles is a peculiarity of Japan, unknown to other East Asian countries.