Japanese Patterns of Design
Matsumoto castle against blue sky in Nagano city, Japan.

Japanese Castle: Layout and Architecture for the Defense

Matsumoto castle against blue sky in Nagano city, Japan.
Matsumoto castle against blue sky in Nagano city, Japan.

Japanese Castle – Fortresses constructed mainly of wood and stone built which always incorporated the landscape into their defenses. It featured massive stone walls and large moats just like European cousins. However, they never constructed walls around a castle town based on the unique philosophy of not fearing the invasion. Let’s take a look at Japanese castle history and its functional designs.

Brief History of Japanese Castle

Osaka Castle Sakura
Osaka Castle Sakura

It was the Sengoku period (1467-1615) known as the Warring States period; many castles were first built for governance and protection of the surrounding Han (feudal domain).

They were destroyed and rebuilt again in the later eras. Today there are more than one hundred castles extant, or partially extant in Japan. It is estimated once there were five thousand domains.

Originally conceived as fortresses for military defense, Japanese castles were placed in strategic locations, along with trade routes, roads, and rivers.

Along with the purpose of housing daimyo (feudal lords) and samurai, its lavish exterior and interior functioned to impress and to intimidate rivals not only with their defenses but also with their sizes and architecture.

The beginnings of the shapes and styles now considered to be the classic Japanese castle design emerged at this time and along with the prosperity of its domain, castle towns were developed around or below castles.

Warlords such as Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Ieyasu Tokugawa are associated with many of the castles built in Japan responding to the change of the war tactics, techniques, and warfares.

Especially the arrival of firearms in 1547 changed the course of the thought of architecture, the need for thick stone walls were on the rise.

Built at strategic points to protect the main highways connecting Japan’s major cities (such as the Tokaido and Nakasendo), the cities themselves and the coastline, many old castle towns have developed into thriving, modern towns, while others have stagnated and remain backwaters.

Nawabari – Layout of the Japanese Castle

Matsumoto Castle is one of Japan's premier historic castles, along with Himeji Castle and Kumamoto Castle. The building is also known as the "Crow Castle" due to its black exterior.
Matsumoto Castle is one of Japan’s premier historic castles, along with Himeji Castle and Kumamoto Castle. The building is also known as the “Crow Castle” due to its black exterior.

The Layout of the castle is called “Nawabari”. Japanese castles have many similar forms, but nawabari differ between individual castles.

Shared architectural features may include a defensive hori (moat), ishigaki (stone walls); shooting holes for arrows and guns; stone-dropping windows; and a complex inner layout to confuse intruders.

A complex system of a great many gates and courtyards leading up to the central keep serving as one of the key defensive elements.

Maru (Section) – Japanese Castle

The primary method of defense lay in the arrangement of the baileys, called kuruwa, later maru.

Maru, meaning ’round’ or ‘circle’ in most contexts, here refers to sections of the castle, usually separated by courtyards.

The inner-circle was called the hon-maru where the feudal lord and his family lives, and the second the ni-no-maru and so on.

Other than the residence of a feudal lord, these areas contained the main tower the storerooms, and the living quarters of the garrison.

Some castles were arranged in concentric circles, each maru lying within the last, while others lay their maru in a row; most used some combination of these two layouts.

The common Japanese place name Maru-no-uchi refers to an area within the castle walls.

Ishigaki (Stone Walls) – Japanese Castle

Castle wall of the Ako Castle in Japan
Castle wall of the Ako Castle in Japan

The steep stone walls beneath Kumamoto Castle are known as musha-gaeshi (repelling warriors).

Also, these steep stone walls are considered to protect the castle from the frequent earthquakes.

Apart from the stone walls, Japanese castle buildings were built of wood, making them particularly prone to fire.

White plaster-covered mud walls were the preferred method of protection from fire.

Tenshu (The Keep: Castle Tower) – Japanese Castle

Himeji Castle, also called the white Heron castle, Japan. This is a UNESCO world heritage site
Himeji Castle, also called the white Heron castle, Japan. This is a UNESCO world heritage site

The Tenshu was the central building in the castle and was the command post at the time of war.

This part of the castle was multi-storied often with curved; tiled roofs and sumptuous decoration became more of a symbol of power rather than the functional section of the war.

Many Japanese castles use both colors as part of their general design for purely aesthetic reasons.

All of that said, however, castles were rarely forcibly invaded.

It was considered more honorable, and more appropriate, for a defender’s army to sally forth from the castle to confront his attackers.

However, the castle was less a defensive fortress than a symbol of defensive capacity with which to impress or discourage the enemy in reality since there was not much intrusion.

Types of Castles – Japanese Castle

There are roughly three types of castles in Japan regarding its design for tactical and defensive functions. Each has its own merit and demerit.

Yamajiro (Mountain Castle)

Takeda Castle Ruins in Hyogo, Japan.
Takeda Castle Ruins in Hyogo, Japan.

It is the first type of castle which used to be on a hill or mountains which appeared in the early era of the Sengoku period.

The best type of the defense using the natural terrain to its fullest, but hard for samurai to live in due to the inconvenience of logistics.

They live in the below town in peacetime and come up at a castle at the time of war.

We can see the origin of Yamajiro with ancient colonies on the highland.

As the number of feudal lords with samurai increased in this period, the number of Yamajiro increased as well.

Takeda castle ruins, Asago, Hyogo, Japan.
Takeda castle ruins, Asago, Hyogo, Japan.

People often call the Takeda castle, a castle in the sky, or Japanese Machu Picchu. Takeda Castle site is located on Mt. Kojo (Old Castle).

It’d been the important military base between the boundary of Tajima (Northern part of Hyogo) and Harima (Southern part of Hyogo).

Constructed in 1443 and destroyed by the Tokugawa Shogunate in the Edo period since it lost its lord.

Hirayamajiro (Castle on a Hill in the Plains)

Kumamoto Castle in Northern Kyushu, Japan
Kumamoto Castle in Northern Kyushu, Japan

In the middle of the Sengoku period, a number of samurai exponentially, they need their castles in a place where a lot of flat land and easy access.

The castles began to have a role of the administrative office, functionally controlled domain enjoyed its prosperity and housed retainers inside the castles who used to reside outside.

Kumamoto Castle

The design of Kumamoto Castle we see today was completed in the early era of the Edo period (1603-1868).

This castle was on the constant development all through the Edo period. With a palace, large and small castle towers, and five-story turret built on the stone walls, Kumamoto Castle enjoyed its reputation as Japan’s best castle.

However, it burnt down with a tiny part remained intact in the Satsuma Rebellion (1877).

Again in 2016, Kumamoto Castle was damaged by the earthquake, roughly the third of the stone wall collapsed and they are working on to repair it with support from the people.

Hirajiro (Castle on the Plains)

Matsumoto Castle and mountain Fuji background with and beautiful sakura cherry blossom festival, One of Japan's premier historic castles.
Matsumoto Castle and mountain Fuji background with and beautiful sakura cherry blossom festival, One of Japan’s premier historic castles.

Hirajiro is a type of castle which stands in the plains which began to appear in the late Sengoku period.

This type of castle can hold more samurai as feudal lords expanded their territories.

However, flat land made the defense weaker; they started to build moats and hedges. Some feudal lords used rivers as their defense system.

At this time around, the value of the castles was more in political functions than its original value as fortresses.

Matsumoto Castle

The Matsumoto Castle is also known as the “Crow Castle” due to its black exterior.

The keep (tenshu), which was completed around the dying years of 1500s, maintains its original wooden interiors and external stonework.

Its complete defenses would have included an extensive system of inter-connecting walls, moats, and gatehouses to make up the weakness of Hirajiro.

There are only twelve castles that are considered original today and most of these are in areas of Japan that were not subjected to the strategic bombing of World War II while many others often served as military headquarters were targeted and burnt down.

Once the symbols of Japanese warrior traditions, now become the physical sites to tell us the history.


城の種類と縄張 (www.geocities.co.jp)

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Hiroko Matsuyama


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