Kumamoto Castle is still one of the most impressive castles in Japan. It is one of the big three which also includes Osaka castle and Nagoya castle. Feudal lord Kato Kiyomasa (we will learn more about Kato later), renowned for his castle building skills in Japan and in Korea supervised the construction of both Kumamoto and Nagoya castles. Both were built as defensive fortresses and have high, steep walls surrounded by wet and dry moats protecting the castle grounds.
Unlike the other two, Kumamoto castle survived the Second World War without being bombed, but as with most Japanese castles only a few original structures survive. Kumamoto castle hosts large castle grounds and a variety of buildings so it offers its visitors one of the most complete castle experiences in Japan.
The main castle keep has two towers, a main tower with six stories and a small tower with four stories. Great views of the castle grounds and surrounding city can be enjoyed from the top floor of the main tower.
A particularly unique and grandeur attraction of Kumamoto Castle is the reconstruction of the Honmaru Goten Palace building, which was rebuilt in celebration of the castle’s 400th anniversary and was opened to the public in 2008. The original palace building was much larger and included the living quarters of the daimyo, but unfortunately it was one of the many buildings destroyed during the Seinan Civil War.
The current palace building was constructed with original materials and methods. Within the building visitors can see accurate recreations of the opulent surroundings in which the daimyo would receive guests. There are also interesting displays regarding the building’s reconstruction.
Besides the castle keep and palace building, Kumamoto Castle features impressive stone walls and moats, as well as several turrets and storehouses, many of which can be entered. The Udo Turret is one of the few structures that survived the siege of 1877, and dates back to the period of the castle’s construction.
Udo turret (Udoyagura) – Kawase Hasui 1948.
Udo turret as seen today. Photo credit – unknown.
There is also a unique underground passage that leads to the palace building and a former residence of the Hosokawa clan about 500 meters northwest of the main castle grounds. The castle grounds are also a popular place in spring with about 800 cherry trees it is a popular spot, usually in late March and early April to view the blooming cherry blossoms.
The origins of Kumamoto castle date back to 1467-1469 when foundations were built on the eastern side of Chausu hill by Ideta Hidenobu of the Kikuchi clan and named it Chiba Castle. But the Kikuchi clan was in decline due to years of infighting, the town was rundown and people were very poor. The Kikuchi were eventually replaced by the Kanokogi under Chikakazu. The Kanokogi were major landowners in Higo whose estates included Takuma, Akita, Yamamoto and Tamana. The Kanokogi were given authority to extended the fortifications of Chiba castle further to the south and renamed the site Kumamoto Castle in 1496, the Kikuchi clan survived under the Kanokogi.
Conflict between feudal lords in northern Kyushu became more frequent for two main reasons, territorial expansion and the feud between Buddhist and Christian beliefs. Christian Otomo lords from neighbouring Bungo province had been trying to bring Higo province into their domain when in 1550 Otomo Yoshiaki was assassinated by Higo rebels. This brought about a full invasion of Higo by Yoshiaki’s son, Yoshishige. However, conflict was averted as Kikuchi Yoshitake, statesman of Higo was the grandson to the Otomo lords of Bungo and peacefully allowed the Otomo into the castle. From 1550 Kumamoto castle came under Otomo control until Toyotomi Hideyoshi made his final push to defeat the Otomo and Shimazu in 1587. Kumamoto castle began as a small fortification, but when Hideyoshi and Kiyomasa enter the scene, Kumamoto castle is transformed into one of the most impressive and beautiful castles in Japan.
Kato Kiyomasa was born in a village in Owari (present day Nakamura ward, Nagoya), to the son of a blacksmith on June 24, 1562. The village is also thought to be the birthplace of Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Reading numerous accounts revealed that Kiyomasa’s mother may have been Hideyoshi’s cousin, although this cannot be confirmed but may explain Kiyomasa’s strong support of Hideyoshi. Kiyomasa started his service with Hideyoshi from the age of nine. He gained Hideyoshi’s trust and respect and later distinguished himself at Shizugatake in 1583, where he became known as one of the ‘Seven Spears’ of that battle. He participated in the Invasion of Kyushu in 1587 and fought at the Battle of Sendaigawa in June 1587. This was the last engagement in Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s Kyushu Campaign and was highlighted by a suicidal Shimazu charge and a one-on-one duel between Niiro Tadamoto and Kato Kiyomasa. Kato won but spared Niiro’s life. Kiyomasa, at the age of 27, was awarded northern Higo province (including Chiba Castle) in 1588 after Sassa Narimasa was forced to commit seppuku after failing to adhere to Hideyoshi’s instructions in controlling local samurai rebellion. Kato was given full administration of Kumamoto Castle and the northern part of Higo province. He gained the respect and faith of the people within his domain very quickly with his excellent land management skills and made huge profits through Nanban trade (Southern Barbarians) routes.
From 1591 to 1600 the original Chiba castle and extensions are transformed into a much bigger main keep and castle grounds with much bigger stone defensive walls. But it was the death of Kato’s long time lord, Toyotomi Hideyoshi that started a huge power struggle between the lords of the East and the West.
Hideyoshi’s sudden death in 1598 was the catalyst that sent all feudal lords into a frenzy to gain support from fellow lords as they all knew war was inevitable. Kato was the head of a formidable and skilled army that had served in Hideyoshi’s Korean campaigns so both Tokugawa Ieyasu (The Eastern Army) and Ishida Mitsunari (The Western Army) courted for Kato’s support. Kato was a Hideyoshi loyalist within the Western Army, but turned against his old allies during the Sekigahara campaign. Two major factors are to be considered why he did this. Firstly – the Western forces were led by Ishida Mitsunari, whom Kato loathed as a civilian interloper and had quarreled with during the Korean campaign. Secondly, the Western forces included Konishi Yukinaga, Kato’s Christian Higo neighbour whom he also hated. Although Konishi’s navy had aided Kiyomasa quite a bit at the Siege of Ulsan in Korea, the two men despised each other as much as ever. Kato finally joined with Tokugawa and during the Sekigahara campaign (August-October 1600) fought Ishida’s allies on Kyushu and took a number of Konishi’s castles. He was preparing to invade the Shimazu domain further to the south of Kyushu when the campaign ended and Ieyasu ordered him to stand down. For his service, Kato was awarded the other half of Higo province (formerly owned by Konishi), bringing his income to nearly 500,000 koku.
After the battle of Sekigahara, with his castle building experience gained in Korea, he built an incredible fortress that was completed in 1607. The castle expertly utilizes the geography to make one of the most impregnable castles ever built in Japan. The castle grounds were huge covering having a five kilometer circumference. The size, height of the stone walls and moats had never been seen before in Japanese history. Ieyasu Tokugawa was so impressed that he employed Kato to build Nagoya castle which was completed after Kato’s death in 1612.
Kato suddenly passed away in 1611 at the age of 50 just after a planned meeting at Nijo-jo in Kyoto – he was on his way back to Kumamoto in a boat when he became ill. There are many rumours surrounding his passing and whether or not Ieyasu had a hand in it. Kato had become very close with Toyotomi Hideyori, Hideyoshi’s only son and it seems Kato acted as mediator between Ieyasu and Hideyori as the relationship between the two became increasingly distrustful. Despite Kato’s alliance during the Sekigahara campaign Ieyasu knew Kato was a Toyotomi loyalist and may have seen Kato favouring the young lord who was his only hurdle to becoming supreme shogun of Japan. However, this is speculation and no-one really knows the cause of Kato’s death because around the same time, the ‘Chinese pox’, as it was called, had already claimed a number of lives as well as a couple of lords (such as Honda Masanobu and Kuroda Kanbei).
Kato Kiyomasa’s son Tadahiro became lord of Higo, but his rule only lasted 21 years. In 1632 he was arrested for conspiring against Tokugawa Iemitsu, who was Ieyasu’s grandson and the third Tokugawa shogun. The Tokugawa shogunate under Iemitsu began “cleaning house”, so to say with a wide range of reforms. One reform was the introduction of Sankin Kotai (forcing regional lords away from their homelands to live in Edo) which allowed the Tokugawa to keep a close eye on all lords and their activities and restricted how much wealth and power these lords could gain by staying in their region. Iemitsu began awarding domains to family members and close childhood friends, centralising power around Edo. I can only suggest Kato Tadahiro objected to these new reforms and thus was accused of conspiracy, then simply removed from his post. The Kato family was replaced with a loyal Tokugawa follower, the Hosokawa family. Hosokawa Tadatoshi (1586-1641) was given Higo domain in 1632, in the same year Iemitsu’s father, Hidetada, the second Tokugawa shogun passed away.
In contrast to the warrior rule and humble beginnings of the Kato, the Hosokawa were a family with a long history of status, influence, and culture. Descended from the Minamoto, through the Ashikaga, the Hosokawa could claim the blood of two shogun families in their veins. They held many prominent positions and, over time, governed in Shikoku, Kinai, Kokura, and lastly, Kumamoto. Thus begins a new period for Kumamoto castle. The warrior age had ended and the peaceful Edo period had begun.
After nearly 240 years of relative peace and prosperity a new war was to make its mark on Kumamoto castle and unfortunately for us saw the destruction of most of the original structures.
A few years after the Meiji Restoration in 1868, the castle played a pivotal role during the Seinan Senso or Satsuma Rebellion (1877).
The new Meiji period saw rapid modernisation and reforms and unfortunately the abolition of the privileged social status of the samurai class which deeply undermined their power and financial position. In 1873 wearing of swords was made illegal and and for most samurai, income (stipend) dropped by 30%. This reduction in income struct at the heart of samurai identity especially in Kyushu. Unrest quickly followed and on the 24th October 1873, 200 furious samurai stormed Kumamoto castle. They killed the garrison commander, and mortally wounded the prefectural governor. The garrison were unprepared for such a quick assault but soon regrouped and by the following day the rebellion was over. Several other rebellions broke out, Saga-1874, Akitsuki near Fukuoka-1876 and Hagi (Choshu) also in 1876.
Saigo Takamori, native of Satsuma province (Kagoshima) was one of the instrumental figures in the Meiji Restoration who received a position within the new Meiji government. He was however, one of many people who became dissatisfied with the direction Japan was heading. Although not directly involved in these rebellions Saigo was certainly sympathetic towards these samurai rebellions. He established a number of education centers throughout Satsuma which taught among other things, military training. These education centres soon numbered 132 with a force totaling 12,000 men. While juggling official government land reforms, tax, inequalities and Tokyo bureaucracy things turned for the worse at the beginning of 1877. Although Saigo had full support of the rebels to become their leader he still hadn’t accepted the role. But in February he was forced to confront the central government in Tokyo after hearing of failed assassination attempts on his life under orders from Tokyo and decided to make a stand.
On the 15th February, heavy snow fell, the first time in 50 years, as the Satsuma army began its march north to Kumamoto castle. On the 19th of February, three days before the army got within range of the fortress castle a huge fire broke out within the walls of the castle. The fire broke out in the kitchen and destroyed the Honmaru Goten Palace (main hall) and main keep and a few smaller warehouses. To this day it is still unknown how the fire started or if it was arson. Some rumours suggest it may have been the new garrison commander or one of the senior officers who was sympathetic to Saigo. On the 23rd and 24th of February the siege of Kumamoto castle began.
Kumamoto castle was the main garrison of government troops in Kyushu which held around 3,800 soldiers who were essentially local samurai. Saigo had probably hoped the local garrison faced with overwhelming odds in terms of numbers may have came to a peaceful resolution and given up the fight, but did this scenario did not develop. Kumamoto castle was not an easy victory, the defenders weren’t defending a small wooden tower, the castle fortifications themselves were more than enough to keep the best of armies out. A tribute to the building skills of Kato Kiyomasa I will acknowledge at this point. Despite being outnumbered and losing many buildings, the government forces were able to withstand Saigo’s two month siege, forcing the rebel forces to retreat in April after government reinforcements arrived to lift the siege. After about 2 months of fighting the castle garrison suffered only 20% losses but were just about out of food. Lucky for us 13 of the main buildings survived the battle for us to enjoy.
In the 1960s a ferro-concrete reconstruction of the main keep was built. Inside the building, however, there is a modern museum with displays on the castle’s history and construction rather than a reconstruction of the original interior. The castle has undergone further rebuilds since the 1990s restoring a number of buildings including the magnificent Honmaru Goten Palace.
Reconstructed main keep.
Kumamoto Castle Timeline
1467 Fortifications were established by Ideta Hidenobu.
1496 Additional fortifications were built on the other side of the mountain by Kanokogi Chikakazu.
1587 Fief awarded to Sasa Narimasa by Toyotomi Hideyoshi after the defeat of the Shimazu.
1588 Kato Kiyomasa was transferred to a former incarnation of Kumamoto Castle.
1601 Construction on a vastly expanded Kumamoto Castle commenced.
1607 Kumamoto castle completed. The original castle consisted of 49 turrets, 18 turret gates; 29 smaller gates.
1610 The Honmaru Goten Palace was completed.
1632 Fief transferred to the Hosokawa clan.
1640 The legendary swordsman, Miyamoto Musashi became a guest retainer of the Hosokawa clan.
1877 The main tower & half of the other structures burnt down in the Seinan war (Satsuma Rebellion).
1960 The main tower was reconstructed using concrete.
1998 A major restoration of the castle began.
1999 Restoration of the Nishi demaru enclosure started as did the rebuilding of the Minami Ote Yaguramon Gate (completed in 2002.)
2001 Rebuilding of the five-story Iida Turret began (completed in 2005.)
2004 All key buildings of the Nishi demaru, Bugyo maru enclosures were completed.
2008 The Honmaru Goten Palace was completed.
Written and edited by Stuart, information resourced from – Japan Guide, J Castle Japanese Castle Explorer, Samurai History and Culture Japan, Kumamoto Castle Homepage (Japanese), Tofugu, Lords of Kumamoto and “The Last Samurai”, Mark Ravina.