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Himeji Castle in Spring         Source: CreEngine / Adobe Stock

Himeji Castle’s Fascinating Feudal History

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Himeji-jo, known also as Himeji Castle , is located in Himeji City, in Japan’s Hyogo Prefecture. A fort was originally built during the 14 th century AD on the present-day castle site, though the current structure dates to the 17 th century AD. Himeji Castle is an important monument for a variety of reasons. For instance, it is one of Japan’s 12 so-called ‘original-construction’ castles, and widely considered to be the finest surviving example of a feudal Japanese castle.

The castle is admired not only for its beauty but also for its defensive ingenuity. Moreover, the castle is connected to some of the most important figures in Japanese history . The cultural significance of Himeji Castle is evident in the fact that it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site , and five of its structures are designated as National Treasures.

Himeji Castle is located on the top of Himeyama Hill, in the central part of the Harima Plain. This means that Himeji Castle is a hill castle, one of three types of Japanese castles, the other two being the mountain castle and the plain castle. Hill castles were built throughout Japan’s feudal period , and became especially prominent from the middle of the Sengoku period (Age of the Warring States). These castles not only served a defensive purpose, but also a political one. In addition to being a fortress, hill castles were also a reflection of the social hierarchy of feudal Japan. At the top of the hierarchy was the daimyo or feudal lord. Next came the samurai, whose homes were built around the castle. The higher the rank of the samurai, the closer he lived to the castle. There were also quarters designated for merchants and artisans, while temples and entertainment districts were located on the fringes of cities, or just outside of them.

Himeji Castle in the fall, Himeyama Hill, Himeji City, Japan. (f11photo/ Adobe Stock)

Himeji Castle in the fall, Himeyama Hill, Himeji City, Japan. ( f11photo/ Adobe Stock)

First Fort Built at the Himeji Castle Site in 1333 AD

In 1333 AD, a fort was built on the site where Himeji Castle stands today by Akamatsu Norimura, a samurai warrior. The Akamatsu clan ruled over the historical Harima Province, which is the southwestern part of the modern-day Hyogo Prefecture. Initially, Norimura supported Emperor Go-Daigo in his revolt against the Kamakura Shogunate and the Hojo clan. Subsequently, however, Norimura switched his allegiance, and sided with Ashikaga Takauji when he went to war with the emperor.

The warrior Akamatsu Norimura who built the first fort where Himeji Castle stands today (Public domain)

The warrior Akamatsu Norimura who built the first fort where Himeji Castle stands today ( Public domain )

When the Ashikaga Shogunate was established, Norimura was rewarded with a ministerial post in the new government. Norimura’s fort was demolished in 1346 and replaced by a castle, the first Himeji Castle, built by his son, Sadanori. This castle was meant to defend the Amakatsu clan against rival lords in times of political instability.

The next two and a half centuries of Himeji Castle’s history was relatively peaceful and uneventful. This, however, was not necessarily the case with the rest of the country. The year 1467 is regarded to be the start of the Sengoku period, a period of chaos and near-constant civil war. In 1577, Harima Province was captured by Oda Nobunaga , one of the most prominent daimyo of the Sengoku period. Nobunaga gave Himeji Castle to one of his retainers, Toyotomi Hideyoshi , who was originally a peasant. Hideyoshi went on to become the second of Japan’s three ‘Great Unifiers’, the first being his lord, Nobunaga, and the third being Tokugawa Ieyasu , another of Nobunaga’s retainers.

Old painting of the Himeji Castle complex in the Edo period (Public domain)

Old painting of the Himeji Castle complex in the Edo period ( Public domain )

In the meantime, Hideyoshi made significant modifications to Himeji Castle, including a three-storey keep, thus turning it into a proper fortress. There is a folk story called Ubagaishi, or ‘Old Widow’s Stone’, related to Hideyoshi’s construction of the keep. According to this legend, when Hideyoshi was building the keep, he realized that he did not have enough stone to complete the project, and became extremely worried. There was an elderly widow staying in the surrounding town who made a living by selling roast rice cakes. When she heard of Hideyoshi’s dilemma, she came to the castle, and presented her stone hand mill to him. This was in spite of the fact that her life was completely dependent on this object. Hideyoshi was touched by the widow’s sacrifice and used the stone for his construction. Apparently, other people heard of the widow’s story, and began offering stones to Hideyoshi as well. As a result, the keep was completed.

Ubagaishi stone in a wall at Himeji Castle (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Ubagaishi stone in a wall at Himeji Castle ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Ubagaishi is not the only folk story connected to Himeji Castle. The castle is also associated with the ghost story of Okiku, which takes place during the 15 th century AD. There are several versions of the tale, and in the Himeji Castle one, Okiku is said to have been a servant of Aoyama, a retainer who was plotting against his lord. When Okiku overheard the plot, she reported it to her lover, a loyal retainer, thus foiling Aoyama’s plans. Subsequently, Aoyama learned that Okiku was the cause of his failure, and decided to kill her. The retainer accused the servant of losing one of ten valuable dishes, had her tortured to death, and threw her body into a well. The well is said to be the one in Himeji Castle, and it is believed to be haunted by Okiku’s ghost. It is alleged that each night, Okiku’s ghost can be heard counting dishes in the well.         

The “haunted” Okiku well at Himeji Castle (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The “haunted” Okiku well at Himeji Castle ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Himeji Castle and the Rise of the Tokugawa Shogunate

Hideyoshi died in 1598 and was succeeded by his son, Hideyori, as the de facto ruler of Japan. Shortly before his death, Hideyoshi formed the Council of Five Elders. These were five powerful daimyo who were supposed to act as regents to Hideyori, who was still a child. These regents, however, did not perform their duties, but began to quarrel amongst themselves for power. This culminated in the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600, which saw the defeat of the forces loyal to Hideyori by Ieyasu Tokugawa and his supporters. In the following year, Himeji Castle was given as a reward by Ieyasu to Ikeda Terumasa, one the shogun’s supporters, and his son-in-law. Terumasa obtained permission from Ieyasu to rebuild Himeji Castle. He is said to have intended to model the new castle after Nobunaga’s Azuchi Castle . Terumasa’s completed the construction of his castle in 1609, and this is the castle that is still standing today.

It was important for Terumasa to construct a well-fortified castle, as the region he ruled, Harima, Bizan, and Awaji, were full of Toyotomi sympathizers. From Himeji Castle, Terumasa was able to assert his control over these potentially problematic provinces. In order to construct the new castle, a large amount of stone was required, and this was acquired by tearing down Hideyoshi’s older fortresses for raw material. A similar situation to the Ubagaishi legend occurred, when the builders found that they did not have enough stone to complete their work. Therefore, they were forced to loot gravestones, and even stone coffins. Some of these substitute stones can still be seen in the castle walls.

In total, Himeji Castle contains 82 buildings, which are spread out over an area of 107 hectares (264 acres). Apart from the five-storey keep, the castle also includes gates, ramparts, and stone walls. These structures demonstrate the defensive capabilities of Himeji Castle. For example, numerous switchback gates were built to hamper the progress of attackers to the castle’s central compound. In addition, loopholes were added into the gates and walls of the castle, so that defenders could fire down at the attackers from a safe position. The majority of the castle’s structures retain their original, 17 th century composition and condition.

The keep of Himeji Castle (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The keep of Himeji Castle ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The most distinctive feature of Terumasa’s Himeji Castle is its white exterior, which has led to its nickname, Shirasaga-jo, meaning ‘White Heron Castle’. This is a reference to the castle’s five-storey keep, which is supposed to resemble a flock of herons in flight, when viewed from afar. The castle’s exterior is white in color, being covered in plaster, which had a practical purpose. Following the arrival of the Portuguese in Japan in 1543, firearms were introduced into the country. This meant that the design of castles had to be adapted in order to counter this new type of weapon. Plaster is supposed to be a flame retardant, which is the reason why this substance was used to coat the castle’s exterior.

In spite of all these defensive features, Himeji Castle never saw battle, as the Tokugawa Shogunate was a period of relative peace. The need for castles diminished during this era, which is evident in the shogunal edict on 1615, known as Buke shohatto , or Law for the Military Houses . One of the articles of this edict states that there should only be one castle per province. As a result, many castles throughout Japan were destroyed, and Himeji Castle was one of the roughly 170 to have survived. Nevertheless, Himeji Castle served an extremely important political purpose for the shogunate. From this castle, the shogun was able to control the feudal lords of western Japan.

This meant that the lord of Himeji Castle had to be fit to rule, neither a minor or a sick person, and with unwavering loyalty to the shogun. During the entire period of the Tokugawa Shogunate, there were a total of 31 feudal lords who resided in Himeji Castle. The castle, incidentally, did not remain in the hands of the Ikeda clan for long. After Terumasa’s death, he was succeeded as lord of Himeji Castle by his son, Toshitaka. A few years later, Toshitaka also died, and the castle passed into the hands of the Honda clan in 1617. The first Honda lord of the castle, Honda Tadamasa, added several buildings to the castle. Apart from the Honda, the other clans that came to control Himeji Castle included the Okudaira, the Matsudaira, the Sakakibara, and the Sakai. Considering the political significance of Himeji Castle, these clans carried out regular repair campaigns on the buildings and thus contributed to the castle’s excellent state of preservation.       

Honda Tadamasa daimyo (Public domain)

Honda Tadamasa daimyo ( Public domain )

Himeji Castle After the Fall of the Tokugawas in 1868

The Tokugawa Shogunate ended in 1868 and was replaced by a new imperial government. Himeji Castle lost its political importance due to the abolishment of the feudal system. Instead, it was turned into a military establishment, as part of the west bailey. The samurai houses were demolished and military structures were built in their place. Interestingly, the castle was once auctioned off by the Meiji government . A successful bid was made by a Mr. Kanbe of Himeji, who intended to develop the land. When he realized that it would be too costly to demolish the castle, he abandoned these plans.       

Himeji Castle was also threatened with destruction by government policy. Many castles in Japan were demolished, but thanks to the intervention of army officials, the most notable being Colonel Nakamura Shigeto, the fourth Deputy Director of the Ministry of the Army, the castle was spared. The colonel succeeded in persuading the Chief of the Army, Yamagata Aritomo, to retain Himeji Castle as an example of a feudal Japanese castle. Thus, Himeji Castle was saved, and a monument was set up inside the castle’s Diamond Gate in honour of the colonel.

During the Second World War, Himeji castle was extremely fortunate to have escaped the bombings conducted by allied forces. In fact, apart from the few demolitions during the Meiji period, the only damage suffered by the castle was the destruction of the daimyo’s living quarters by a fire in 1882. Subsequently, the remains of this complex were meticulously restored. When the war ended in 1945, the military structures in and around the castle were demolished, and replaced by public buildings for official use. Nevertheless, the original 17th-century structures were left untouched.

Today, Himeji Castle is an important Japanese cultural site, as well as a popular tourist attraction. Recognition for the castle’s cultural importance is evident in the fact that it was designated by the Japanese government as a Historic Site in 1929. Two years later, it gained the status of National Treasure. In addition to Himeji Castle, there are four other Japanese castles designated as National Treasures–Matsumoto Castle, Hikone Castle, Inuyama Castle, and Matsue Castle. In 1993, Himeji Castle was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In addition to being a major recognition for Himeji Castle, it was also an important milestone for Japan, as the castle was one of the country’s first World Heritage Sites.

Top image: Himeji Castle in Spring         Source: CreEngine / Adobe Stock

By Wu Mingren

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