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Military heritage in Japanese cities: between historical memory and symbol of identity

Military heritage in Japanese cities: between historical memory and symbol of identity

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Key-words: castles, Japan, heritage, reconstruction, identity

Himeji Castle

figure 1 : Himeji Castle. © Delphine Vomscheid

In Japan, the military architectural heritage holds a special position in the urban landscape. First of all, from a quantitative perspective, because there are several thousand archaeological and historical castle sites spread throughout the archipelago, from simple ruins to the grandiose sites of keeps surrounded by moats and fortifications. Also from a qualitative perspective, as the country has five sites listed as national treasures, including Himeji Castle, which was one of the first Japanese cultural properties to be part of the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1993. Finally, from a political perspective, since the end of the feudal Tokugawa regime in 1867, castle sites have played various roles, sometimes neglected for their obsolescence, sometimes used for their strong symbolic value. Today, castles are major assets for cities: their conservation, enhancement and use represent major economic and political stakes.

This paper proposes a double reading of Japan's castles heritage, from the point of view of its value as a testimony of the past but also of its current heritage issues related to tourism and international politics.

A central and monumental position in the city

Since the early-modern period (1573-1867), castles have been built in the heart of Japanese cities. Erected on a plain or on a small hill, they dominate the urban space developing at their foot, organised according to the social hierarchy of the Edo period (shi-nō-kō-shō system: warriors, peasants, craftsmen, merchants) with residential districts for warriors separated from those for craftsmen and merchants. These cities, known as castle-towns (jōkamachi) are the model on which most of the capitals of today's prefectures were built, such as Tōkyō (former Edo), Nagoya, Hiroshima, Sendai or Kanazawa. From the moment they were built, these castles were not only defensive works, but also tools of political communication, designed both to house the local lords called daimyō (and the shogun in the case of Edo) and to display their power.

Map of Kanazawa

figure 2: Map of Kanazawa in the end of the Edo period. © Delphine Vomscheid

Keeps, with their monumentality and architectural features, particularly symbolise the wealth and power of a lord. Reaching up to thirty metres for the highest, they are visible from afar, sometimes even from the countryside, and some streets are aligned in their axis. As they are built in the heart of cities, they are often the only architectural landmark, as the Japanese urban landscape does not contain monumental architecture, with the exception of pagodas, which were erected near the city boundaries in the early-modern era. Thus, like the bell tower of a church in European cities, the keep is a geographical landmark for the inhabitants who have a special attachment to it.

Himeji Castle

figure 3: Perspective view of Himeji Castle, from the train station. © Delphine Vomscheid

Nowadays, castles sites, with an average surface area of around thirty hectares, up to 230 for Tōkyō, can be described as "empty centres", an expression used by Roland Barthes in L'empire des signes to describe the capital's castle. Empty indeed, because the vast majority of the buildings originally built in these sites were destroyed at the beginning of the modern era (1868-1945). In just a few years, this monumental heritage has suffered irreversible damage, with the destruction of most of the castle buildings, which were not yet recognized as historical or architectural heritage assets. The only value they were often recognised for was the weight of their materials, for which they were sold at public auction. The interest of a few men, especially members of Meiji oligarchy from the early-modern warrior class, eventually saved from dismantling several of the current "national treasures", such as the keeps of Himeji and Hikone.

Reconstruction projects and importance of the symbol

It was at the beginning of the 20th century that the heritage and symbolic value of castles was first recognised, with the establishment of a new legislation allowing their protection and enhancement, and the start of a practice that was to become widespread: the reconstruction of castles, particularly keeps. There are three types of reconstructed keeps: "invented keeps" (mogi tenshu 模擬天守), whose historical existence or form is not proven; "reproduced keeps" (fukkō tenshu 復興天守), whose historical existence is proven, but where formal liberties have been taken; and "restored keeps" (fukugen tenshu 復元天守), which presents a high level of fidelity to the original. Of the approximately 80 reconstructed keeps in Japan today, 52 belong to the category of "invented keeps", i.e. about 65%. This important figure illustrates the symbolic dimension of the keeps for the Japanese people, who attach a strong territorial feeling to them, beyond the historical aspect. If the purpose of these buildings was, at first, mainly touristic, a boom in the reconstruction of reinforced concrete keeps can be observed in Japan in the 1950s and 1960s, in the aftermath of the Second World War, as an important stage in the reconstruction process of Japan and its cities.


figure 4: Keep of Hiroshima Castle, “restored keep” (fukugen tenshu), reconstructed in reinforced concrete in 1958 (left side) and keep of Iga Castle, “invented keep” (mogi tenshu), reconstructed in wood in 1935 (right side). © Delphine Vomscheid

Of the hundred or so keeps that exist in Japan, only twelve are so-called original keeps (i.e. 13%). Moreover, only five of the "restored keeps" were reconstructed with a wooden structure. However, the level of authenticity of reconstructed keeps does not seem to be related to their tourist popularity. According to tourism figures, the castles of Ōsaka and Nagoya, with their reconstructed reinforced concrete keeps, occupy the first and third places respectively in terms of attendance in 2019, exceeding two million visitors (https://corporate.kojodan.jp/). The symbolic value of these buildings therefore seems to far exceed their historical value.

Looking for “authenticity”

Since the 1990’s and especially in the early 2000’s, there has been a trend in heritage practices towards the faithful reconstruction of old castle sites (keeps and other military buildings), with respect for old techniques and materials. The case of Kanazawa Castle, whose reconstruction began in 2001, is a concrete illustration of this. Fortified gates, bridges, moats and nagaya have indeed been faithfully reconstructed, based on historical documents and archaeological excavations. At present, the reconstruction work of the residential palace built in the heart of the castle will result in the creation of the largest reconstructed wooden building in Japan, with a surface area of 10,000 m².


figure 5. Nagaya and fortified gate in Kanazawa Castle, reconstructed in wood in 2001 and 2015. © Delphine Vomscheid

More recent events also illustrate a strengthening of these issues in national and international politics, as well as tensions between government ambitions and public opinion. In 2019, at the G20 meeting held at Ōsaka, former Prime Minister Abe Shinzō declared to world leaders: "The castle of Ōsaka, which is the symbol of the city, was first built in the 16th century. All the masonry walls and the great gate date back to the 17th century. Although most of the Ōsaka Castle was destroyed by fire during the Meiji Restoration 150 years ago, the keep was rebuilt to its 16th-century form about 90 years ago. However, only one big mistake was made: they went so far as to install lifts. »

This speech reflects the Prime Minister's, and many Japanese people's, lack of knowledge regarding the history of this heritage. Indeed, the keep of Ōsaka castle was rebuilt in reinforced concrete in 1931 and is not an exact reproduction of the historic 16th-century building, which could not be built due to a lack of historical sources. It is thus interesting to note that Abe shows a desire for authenticity by regretting the presence of lifts, even though the building has neither structure nor appearance faithful to the original. This anecdote seems to illustrate a certain confusion among the Japanese in their perception of this military heritage.


figure 6: Keep of Ōsaka Castle, “reproduced keep” (fukkō tenshu), reconstructed in reinforced concrete in 1931. © Delphine Vomscheid

The current example of Nagoya Castle is another illustration of the use of this heritage in political discourse. Indeed, the mayor of Nagoya, Kawamura Takashi, has launched a vast project to rebuild the keep of Nagoya Castle. Listed as a national treasure in 1930, then destroyed in the bombings of 1945 before being rebuilt in reinforced concrete in 1959, the Nagoya keep will be destroyed and rebuilt "identically" with a wooden structure by 2028. This project has provoked a wave of public protests, particularly because of the colossal costs involved in the construction (about 50 billion yen). The justifications put forward for this project are the economic spin-offs that this building will generate. Situated within just a few hours from Tōkyō, Nagoya is often absent from the tourist circuits of foreigners and an "authentic" keep would allow international tourism to be revived. In a desire to be faithful to the historical model, it was also decided not to install a lift in the keep, provoking the anger of associations of disabled people who demand accessibility for all to the monument.

In a context of strong economic pressure related to tourism and competition between municipalities, does the political discourse around the authenticity of these buildings not reflect a desire to seduce foreign visitors and Westerners in particular, for whom the heritage value is strongly related to material authenticity? The emotional relationship that the Japanese maintain with their castles is independent of its level of authenticity, as illustrated by the national emotion following the recent disasters that devastated the castles of Kumamoto and Shuri, located on the southern islands of the archipelago, both of which were rebuilt in the second half of the 20th century. More than traces of the past, castles thus assume the unique role of urban markers and, above all, of identity symbol, materialising, on the one hand, local particularities and, on the other hand, a certain form of national historical unity.


Delphine Vomscheid is currently a JSPS post-doctoral researcher in Kyōto University, affiliated to the CRCAO laboratory (UMR 8155) and part-time lecturer at the National School of Architecture of Lyon (France). She defended her doctoral thesis in 2019, entitled “The spatial heritage of the warriors in Kanazawa city. Architectural, urban and landscape history of a Japanese castle-town (17th - 21st centuries)” prepared in EPHE (PSL University) under the supervision of Nicolas Fiévé. She is currently working on early-modern Japanese warriors’ dwelling (buke yashiki) and on its heritage status and management in the contemporary Japanese cities. At the same time, she conducts research on military heritage in Japan and is particularly interested in castle reconstruction practices and their social, economic and cultural stakes. Contact : d.vomscheid[at]gmail.com



Vomscheid, Delphine, « L’héritage spatial des guerriers de la ville de Kanazawa. Histoire architecturale, urbaine et paysagère d’une ville-sous-château japonaise (XVIIe - XXIe siècles) », Université PSL – École Pratique des Hautes Études, 2019, 2 volumes.

Vomscheid, Delphine, « Politiques urbaines et patrimoine à Kanazawa : Vers la renaissance de la cité castrale ? », in Ebisu, 55 | 2018 : 139-170. doi.org/10.4000/ebisu.2680

Akagawa Natsuko, Heritage conservation in Japan’s cultural diplomacy: heritage, national identity and national interest, Abingdon, Routledge, 2015, 227 p.

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Himeji Castle