Three towers in the main enclosure, from left to right: Uto Tower, Small Dungeon and Large Dungeon
- the cream of samurai culture
Kumamoto city is located in the heart of Kyushu Island in the southern part of Japan.
If you visit Kumamoto for the first time, your eyes must be drawn to its castle. Kumamoto Castle was built around 1600 by Kiyomasa Kato
(1562 -1611) on the preceding medieval castles and enjoys since then the reputation as one of the best constructed castles. Kiyomasa was awed as strong worrier and genius castle constructor. Fortunately, his Kumamoto castle preserves till now a great part of the original plan and buildings and we can be impressed by his splendid work.
Japanese military fortresses improved their defense capability towards the end of the long lasting civil war period (from ca. mid 15th century till late 16th century). From the mid 16th century the main part of the fortress came to be built on the high dry-stone wall, obviously inspired by the model of European castles whose information was brought to Japan by Catholic missionaries.
However, when peace prevailed in Japan during the Edo Period (1603 - 1867), the number of castles was limited by the government to the number of domains governed by feudal lords. Already at this stage the number of castles was largely reduced. After Meiji Restoration (1868), those limited number of castles were either used by the military or sold out. In either case, buildings were usually torn down and only the dry-stone wall remained.
Therefore, the number of castles with original castle buildings standing on the majestic high dry-stone wall is very small. Most of the remaining castles have lost many buildings and keep only its dungeon "tenshu-kaku"
) and the surrounding area. Therefore, the size and complexity of Kumamoto Castle is all the more impressive.
Iidamaru Five-Story Tower
Dungeon at night
Kumamoto Castle was used by the Meiji Government as the military headquarter of Kyushu region. In the first years of the Meiji Period (1868 - 1912), except for the main part of the castle, the surrounding defense buildings were destroyed and the size of the total defense facilities was greatly reduced.
Then, in 1877 the most dangerous rebel movement in the Meiji period occurred in south Kyushu. It was led by Takamori Saigo
, the then most popular and powerful general and the conqueror of Tokyo. Saigo was not happy in the leadership of the Meiji Government and retreated back to his home region, Kagoshima. There, he was set up as leader of samurais, who were not satisfied with the new government and tried to overthrow it. The rebel army counted 14,000 samurais and they rushed to Kumamoto to defeat the military headquarter of the Meiji government in Kyushu.
The defending side in the Kumamoto castle had only 4,000 soldiers, but was very stubborn, despite the expectation of the rebels. During the battle the tenshu-kaku and other important buildings were burnt down, but the attacking side could not send even a solder into the castle and the defenders could hold the castle for 52 days till the reinforcements arrived and they together crushed down the rebels.
Before committing honorable suicide, Saigo said he was not defeated by the governmental army but by Kiyomasa. He had right. Kiyomasa Kato indeed saved the Meiji government by his excellent fortress 370 years after his death.
The son of Kiyomasa Kato was dismissed from his position by the Edo Government and the Hosokawa clan (*)
became the master of the castle for the rest of the Edo period. Nevertheless, seen from outsiders like me, the popularity of Kiyomasa Kato outshines everything else in Kumamoto.
- Hosokawa is an influential samurai clan, gained its significance already in the 14th century. The present head of the Hosokawa family, Morihiro Hosokwa (1934-), served as Prime Minister (1993-94).
Two watch posts rising 20m above the ground in the north-east corner of the main enclosure are from the time of Kiyomasa.
The representation room in the restored main building