Oleg Benesch / ベネシュ・オレグ / 贝奥雷

Japan’s Castles

This is a collaborative project with Prof Ran Zwigenberg of The Pennsylvania State University (please also see his award-winning book: Hiroshima: The Origins of Global Memory Culture). The project has received generous support from the U.K. Arts and Humanities Research Council, Great Britain Sasakawa Foundation, the Japan Foundation Endowment Committee, and the University of York Department of History.


Benesch, Oleg. “Castles and the Militarisation of Urban Society in Imperial Japan,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Vol. 28 (Dec. 2018). pp. 107-134.

Zwigenberg, Ran. “Hiroshima Castle and the Long Shadow of Militarism in Postwar Japan,” Japan Review (War, Tourism, and Modern Japan Special), vol. 33 (Dec. 2018)

Benesch, Oleg and Ran Zwigenberg. Japan’s Castles: Citadels of Modernity in War and Peace. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019 (forthcoming).

Citadels of Modernity: Reclaiming the Past and Proclaiming the Future through Japan’s Castles

From Tokyo to distant rural towns, castles have given shape to the majority of Japanese cities throughout their history. Whether they have become UNESCO World Heritage sites, religious centers, or public parks, Japan’s castles are among the most important landmarks and important components of local, regional, and even national identity. Typically on raised land in the heart of cities and towns, castles represent some of the most important and valuable space in the country. The great importance of Japan’s castles, in political, economic, and symbolic terms, has made them the sites of fierce contention well into the twenty-first century. In spite of this, and the ample scholarship on castles’ early history, their fate in the modern period, when most castles were destroyed before being restored or rebuilt, remains largely unexamined.

This project is the first significant attempt to understand the development of Japan’s castles from the late nineteenth century onward. We approach the modern history of castles on a national level, but also in the context of the international and local developments that helped to shape Japanese attitudes towards them. Beginning with the role of castles in the conflicts of the 1860s, we examine the destruction of many castles in the 1870s as undesirable “feudal” relics, and the appropriation of strategically important castle sites by the new imperial army. Others were turned into parks or became sites for industrial exhibitions and government buildings. It was only in the 1890s, as appreciation for Japan’s cultural heritage increased, that wider efforts to preserve and protect remaining structures were initiated. Castles became the sites of struggles between civil society groups, the government, and the military. For example, civil society groups and local government were successful in gaining control of the center of the Osaka Castle grounds from the military. This success culminated in the reconstruction of the great keep of Osaka Castle from steel-reinforced concrete in 1931. This was, however, a short-lived victory. Like many of Japan’s great castles, Osaka Castle was primarily the site of a major military base, and civilians were once again banned from entering it as the war with China intensified. Due to their military purpose, castles were important targets Allied bombing raids on Japan, and many old structures were lost.

After the war, many of Japan’s greatest castles were in ruins, and their grounds were confiscated by the US occupation. Within a few years, however, in cities such as Kokura, castles acquired a new symbolic power as movements to reconstruct the destroyed keeps combined with independence struggles for both local communities and Japan as a whole. The 1950s saw the beginning of a postwar castle-building boom, with dozens of castles rebuilt in concrete as symbols of peace and recovery, but also as important ties to Japan’s pre-imperial past. Castles were also closely linked to the nation’s ambitions in science and technology, which many felt could benefit from traditional virtues associated with an earlier age. There were also significant continuities, as many postwar castle reconstructions were based on unrealized prewar plans that were now shorn of imperial sentiments and repackaged for the new order. By the 1990s, evolving views of heritage and authenticity contributed to a shift in castle construction towards the use of wood and traditional building materials, and many large-scale projects over the last twenty years have taken this approach.

The complex dynamics involved in the history of Japan’s modern castles necessitate an interdisciplinary and comparative approach. While rooted in social and cultural history, this project draws on scholarship and approaches from a wide variety of fields, including architectural history, intellectual history, political history, economic history, and military history. As some of the most prominent spaces in Japan, castles provide a unique opportunity for examining broader changes in Japan over the past 150 years. The comparative approach helps us to understand the dynamics behind Japanese attitudes and approaches to castles, as these were often influenced by, and had a formative influence on, transnational ideas of heritage and reconstruction. In this way, the lessons learned from the study of Japan’s modern castles can provide points of departure for examining developments in other countries.

Aizu-Wakamatsu Castle soon after Boshin War

Aizu-Wakamatsu Castle soon after Boshin War

Okayama Expo

Okayama Expo 1879 (岡山博覧会)

Ran Matsumoto

Matsuyama Castle (keep built mid-19th century)


Shimabara Castle (1964 reconstruction)