“A bird with one body but two beaks, pecking itself to death.” – Anonymous, c. 1500CE.
There is a lot to say about the people and culture of an archipelago of 6852 islands, some 3000 km off the coast of mainland China, that we call Japan. The Japanese empire has been a cultural powerhouse for more than two and a half millennia. In all this time, Japan has been slowly gaining a reputation that justifiably still stands untarnished to this day. From the Japanese military to its emperors and leaders, throughout the lower classes and peasants, everyone holds such immense pride in belonging to this small island nation; such daring emotion of loyalty and patriotism that since its inception, Japan has never been conquered by an outside force. But as history would tell, no one, not even one of the greatest empires in the eastern hemisphere, is immune to the internal upheavals of politics, socio-economic issues and revolutions.
Amidst all this turmoil lies a story about a place built to serve one of its great leaders, a castle surrounded by moats, on an island surrounded by the great ocean. It is the 438-year-old Osaka Castle, in the heart of Osaka, Japan.
Architecture as a Socio-political Force
Studying and preserving heritage is a vital discipline. It expands our understanding of history, culture, politics and social development. By analysing the past in its preserved artefacts, we can trace the steps back to their inception to understand the reasons for their existence. Our past allows us to study the clues that played a crucial role in the evolution of our societies, help us examine our traditions and history, and develop awareness about ourselves. Though some communities are more conservative about their history, some on the other end of the spectrum are equally critical of theirs. Japan is an extremely traditionalist society, and this very conservative orthodoxy has been its mightiest protector throughout centuries of geopolitical drama and international turbulence. One such monument of Japanese tradition erected in 1585 in Osaka was aptly named The Osaka Castle. Most traditional Japanese castles that we associate with modern-day Japan can trace their roots to the Sengoku period, which lasted from 1467-1603. This period saw the most dramatic shift in military architecture, with heavy fortifications, stone foundations and sturdy cross-framing of structure.
Whereas castle building had been going on since the 8th Century in Japan, they were more like entry gates and sentry posts rather than residences or permanent military outposts. All that started to change with the end of the 16th century, and Osaka Castle was one of the earliest models.
Accentuating the Past
The period between 1467-1603 is of particular importance and interest to historians. Named after Sengoku Jidai (1467-1568 CE), the Sengoku Period was particularly violent and warring. It also explains why most of the castles built in this period survived to this day, going through numerous wars, revolutions and sieges. Their stone foundations and heavy plinths, supported by timber cross-beams, gave them the cutting edge advantage compared to the castles of the previous generations. Brutal wars that spanned over centuries were fought with pride and for the sole control of Japan until the Oda Period began in 1568 CE and saw the Great Unification of the Japanese archipelago. The Osaka Castle is a remnant of one such tumultuous time but built for an entirely different purpose, to unify Japan. Today, it stands as a symbolic shrine reminiscent of the time when the clashing ideologies of Japan were unified, during the 16th century Azuchi-Momoyama period. Widely known as Hideyoshi Toyotomi’s emblem of power and fortune, the Osaka Castle stands on the former site of a Honganji Temple that was in turn built on the site of an earlier shrine. With the construction of the final turret in 1585 CE, almost immediately, the magnificent castle was said to be unparalleled in the country. A status it still gloriously holds today.
Famous to almost mythical proportions, Osaka Castle, with its unparalleled engineering, was the most formidable castle ever built in Japan at the time. Its most notable feature is the magnificent stone walls that rise to 20m in height and span 90m in length, and were built entirely without any mortar. Achieving this feat involved a technique called Burdock piling, where stones are neatly fit together like pieces of a puzzle. It also allows the wall to be self-sufficient during construction as there is no single point of compression or fault. It is remarkable when one notices that some of these cut rocks are more than 6m in length and weigh over a tonne each. The Castle Keep is five stories high to create an illusion of grandeur to the observer but eight stories from inside. All the traditional Nihon kenchiku (Japanese Architecture) elements are present in Osaka Castle. With its timber superstructure, built on an elevated stone foundation, the castle is the epitome of classic Japanese architecture. The interior, however, has been heavily restored and modified. Shining timber flooring and freshly painted walls now accommodate the populace that visits Osaka Castle every day to admire its medieval history. The spectacular gold-gilded interiors and furnishing are relics of a bygone age and are now only vested as a motif that appears on the exterior awnings today.
Pre-eminence over Societal Norm
The historical relevance of traditional structures can hardly be overstated. They allow us, in actuality, to look through time and understand the societies of the past. It is easy to admire the beauty of ancient Pagodas and the brilliance of timber carpentry in these structures, but there are limitations to how much we can grasp the meaning of these design ideologies and conscious choices that ruled in those times. But trying to understand from a purely historical point of view, the picture becomes much clearer.
Osaka Castle has been destroyed and rebuilt numerous times throughout the centuries. Sometimes as a result of collateral in war, and sometimes as a result of natural catastrophe. In 1665, the castle keep was obliterated during a lightning storm, after which nothing happened for the next 200 years. Until the Boshin war when enemy bombs almost entirely razed it to the ground. The current iteration of the Osaka Castle is an outstanding reconstruction that stands as a testament to traditional Nihon kenchiku by being one of the most visually spectacular re-creations in the country.
- Osaka Castle. (n.d.). [Digital] Available at: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/c1/Osaka_Castle_Keep_Tower_in_201504_016.JPG [Accessed 30 Dec. 2021].
- Kobato (2018). Osaka Castle as it was between 1620 and 1868. [Digital] Available at: http://kobato019.blogspot.fr/2015/04/201517.html [Accessed 30 Dec. 2021].
- New York Public Library (2007). Destruction of Osaka Castle in 1663. [Digital] Available at: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/2c/Caron1663.jpg [Accessed 30 Dec. 2021].
- Peternel, L. (2018). View of cherry blossom around Osaka Castle in spring. [Digital] Available at: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/b0/Osaka-Castle-cherry-blossom-2018-Luka-Peternel.jpg [Accessed 31 Dec. 2021].
- Peternel, L. (2017). View of Osaka Castle during twilight. [Digital] Available at: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/90/Osaka-Castle-twilight-2016-Luka-Peternel.jpg [Accessed 31 Dec. 2021].