Restoring Castles

  • Peter Barakan


    Born in London in 1951, Peter earned a degree in Japanese from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). An expert on diverse forms of popular music, Peter is also a well-known TV and radio presenter. He has lived in Japan for 40 years and has a deep understanding of the language and culture.

  • Matt Alt


    Born in Washington D.C. in 1973, Matt's interest in Japan was kindled by robot toys in his childhood. He worked as a translator for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office before co-founding a company that produces English versions of Japanese comics and video games. He also writes extensively about cultural trends including yokai, ninja, emoji, and more.

  • Yoshihiro Senda

    Main guest

    Archaeologist and leading expert in the study and restoration of Japan’s castles, Yoshihiro Senda is based at Nara University. As well as contributing to the excavation and maintenance of castles all around Japan, Senda has conducted research into the differences between Japan’s castles and those in locations such as Europe, Mongolia, and New Zealand. Senda is also a member of the committee working for the ongoing restoration of Hirosaki Castle.


September 8, 2016

Restoring Castles

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Osaka Castle is a splendid sight, with its gleaming white walls and green, decoratively tiled roof complete with golden gargoyles in the shape of shachi (a mythical beast combining the head of a tiger with the body of a fish).

Visitors may wonder how it is possible that this imposing stronghold built by the famed military leader Toyotomi Hideyoshi in 1583 can remain in such pristine condition. But venture inside and a rather surprising reality reveals itself. Not only is the structure built from concrete, but the modern, carpeted interior also features a souvenir shop, computerized information points, and even an elevator. “I knew the samurai had sophisticated building techniques,” you might say to yourself, “but not this sophisticated!”

In fact the keep that stands on the site today dates back only as far as 1931, the previous fortress (itself a replacement for the original structure that was razed by the forces of the Tokugawa clan in 1615) having been destroyed by lightning in 1665.

Japan’s castles have been rebuilt and restored again and again. Expert guest Yoshihiro Senda tells us that, “Every castle is different when it comes to which keeps and watchtowers and gates are original structures and which are reconstructions…With proper upkeep structures can last centuries, or even a millennium. Without that care, they become dilapidated. So this kind of repair work has been going on for centuries.”

Nonetheless, of Japan’s 90 extant castles with keeps, 12 retain the original structures (although each of those has undergone repairs to varying degrees, some even receiving modern antiseismic foundations). Others have various other buildings on site, from guardhouses to stables, walls and baileys that are designated either as National Treasures of Japan or Important Cultural Properties.


Peter Barakan and guest Yoshihiro Senda stand in front of the temporarily relocated keep of Hirosaki Castle, Aomori Prefecture.


The keep of Hirosaki Castle was moved to make way for important repairs to the stone walls that have supported the structure for two centuries.

This edition of Japanology Plus offers a fascinating insight into the recent renovation of one such citadel. The 15-meter-tall keep of Hirosaki Castle dates back to 1810 and is officially recognized as an Important Cultural Property of Japan. However, with its stone foundation ramparts beginning to buckle due to subsidence of the motte earthwork encased within, and the keep unable to stand up perfectly straight, a decision was taken to lift it using hydraulic jacks, and set it on a set of rails to be moved 80 meters to a temporary foundation while the walls are taken apart and reconstructed stone by stone.

Another historic keep is the famous “White Heron Castle” of Himeji, Hyogo prefecture. The structure dates back to the early 17th century, although there has been a fort on the site since 1303. In addition to the National Treasure status of multiple buildings on site, and further recognition for the entire castle grounds as a Special Historic Site, Himeji castle was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993.

The current structure survived air raids in World War II and the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake of 1995, although it was almost completely disassembled and rebuilt one piece at a time starting in 1956, with a further five years of extensive repair work initiated in 2010 and completed in 2015.

Other castles have fared less well at times of disaster. The walls of Komine Castle in Fukushima Prefecture were severely damaged in the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 2011, and Kumamoto Castle suffered badly in the Kumamoto earthquakes of April 2016.

But as sad as such destruction is, the subsequent repairs, while very costly, do provide an opportunity for Japan’s peerless preservation skills to be passed on to the next generation of artisans.


Kumamoto Castle has overcome various threats in its 400-year history, although the main keep -- a concrete replica of the original -- dates back only to 1960.


Kumamoto Castle was badly damaged by a series of major earthquakes in April 2016.


Hirosaki Castle as it normally looks, with Mount Iwaki in the distance.


The relocated keep of Hirosaki Castle.


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