Kumamoto Castle: rising from the rubble

In 1994 I planned a three week journey from Tokyo to Kagoshima with a friend who was a Japan neophyte. I included in the itinerary several of Japan’s castles. When my friend saw the itinerary, he scoffed saying, “I’ve seen plenty of castles in Europe; I don’t need to see more castles.” Nevertheless, I left the castles on the itinerary.

As I had anticipated, my friend was both fascinated and charmed by the castles (and by just about everything else we saw and did, actually). At the end of the journey he declared that the best castle of all had been Kumamoto Castle, with its impregnable defensive stone walls.

Kumamoto Castle was built in the 1590s under the supervision of feudal lord Kato Kiyomasa (1562-1611). Kiyomasa had learned much about castle construction while campaigning in Korea with the great Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-1598) and applied those skills to construct his home base atop a hill formed by 90,000 year old lava flow from Mt. Aso, some 50 kilometers to the east. The modern city of Kumamoto grew around it.

The original castle grounds were 9.8 hectares, surrounded by 5.3 kilometers of stone walls, some as high as 20 meters. At its peak, the castle grounds contained 49 yagura turrets, 18 yagura gates, and 29 castle gates, as well as the two towers of the tenshukaku (central keep) and Kiyomasa’s residential palace. Thirteen of the original late 16th/early 17th century structures survived to the modern age and were designated by the Japanese government as Important Cultural Properties.

Fast forward to 2016. Japan—and possibly other parts of the world—watched the TV news in horror when, in the aftermath of a devastating M7.3 earthquake, many of Kumamoto Castle’s fine ramparts crumbled. All 13 of the listed historical structures sustained damaged as well.

The damage seemed so extensive that one could be forgiven for concluding that the castle was doomed to become nothing more than rubble.

Fortunately, the people of Kumamoto are made of sterner stuff.

Within two months of the fateful earthquake, plans were already afoot to repair the damage.

One of the most innovative aspects of the repair work was the decision to keep the castle open as a tourist attraction while the repairs took place.

Catwalks were constructed so that visitors could still access the center of the castle grounds, and even view the damage and ongoing repair work, without interfering with it.

The earthquake’s tremors destabilized a number of the castle’s massive stone walls, causing many to simply slide downward. The yagura watch towers and other structures sitting atop the walls were then also destabilized. Wherever possible, scaffolding and other temporary stabilizers were quickly put in place, although some of the yagura were badly damaged when the walls fell away and had to be disassembled so as to minimize the risk of further damage to both the buildings and the walls. There are plans to restore these various structures in due course.

The castle’s tenshukaku, actually a 1960s ferro-concrete reconstruction, was also substantially damaged, though not destroyed. Once everything was stabilized, the top priority was repairing the distinctive two-towered structure so that it could be reopened to visitors. I’m pleased to say that repair work has been completed and the keep was re-opened last month with a number of 21st century improvements, including wheelchair access and dampers to minimize the risk of quake damage in the future.

Needless to say, the 2016 earthquake was not the first disaster to befall this 400 year old castle. In 1877, when the castle served as a garrison for imperial troops, the tenshukaku and a number of the castle’s other buildings were destroyed by fire. After the fire no trace could be found of a number of food supplies that were supposed to have been stored in some of the destroyed buildings, raising questions that remain unanswered to this day as to whether the fire was an accident or an act of arson to conceal theft.

In 1889, a M6.3 earthquake also damaged a number of the castle’s walls. Interestingly, some of the walls to crumble in the 2016 quake were among those damaged in 1889 and subsequently repaired, while many of Kiyomasa’s original 16th century walls stood fast.

Not long after the fire in 1877, Saigo Takamori (1828-1877) laid siege to Kumamoto castle, then a garrison for imperial troops. Takamori, already famous for having led the imperial troops that ousted the last Tokugawa shogun, had become disillusioned with the direction of Japan’s modernization and fomented rebellion against the imperial government. After three months, Takamori was unable to dislodge the defenders and was forced to abandon his rebellion. As he decamped back to Kagoshima Takamori is said to have observed “I have lost to Kato Kiyomasa.”

Part of Kiyomasa’s original design that enabled the successful defense of the castle was the existence of a number of freshwater wells inside the castle. Also key were the castle’s famous Ginkgo trees, planted by Kiyomasa in the expectation that the nuts from the tree could keep besieged soldiers from starvation.

The most famous of Kiyomasa’s Ginkgo trees stands between the tenshukaku and the Honmaru Goten Palace, a reconstruction of Kiyomasa’s palace opened in 2008 to commemorate 400 years since the completion of the original. Also damaged in the quake, its repairs are ongoing. An underground passageway running beneath the palace, used to surreptitiously reposition troops, is a fascinating part of the castle’s strategic defenses.

The western part of the castle ground, known as ninomaru, included a parade ground and areas where samurai could train in martial arts. In the 17th century, the great swordsman Miyamoto Musashi is said to have trained troops here.

While the castle stands guard over the city of Kumamoto and even the region, Kato Shrine also on the castle grounds, situated just north of the tenshukaku, stands as the castle’s guardian. The main deities of the shrine are Kiyomasa and other key members of the Kato family. Who better to watch over the castle as it is rebuilt?

Okay, in our modern times, maybe Kumamon, Kumamoto’s official mascot, and a daruma with a Kumamon face are pretty good guardians, too. As the daruma says, Ganbare, Kumamoto!


© 2021 Jigsaw-japan.com and Vicki L. Beyer
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