Hara Castle Ruins and the Amakusa/Shimabara Rebellion, Minami Shimabara, Nagasaki Prefecture.

For about a year I have wanted to visit Hara Castle ruins. I first heard of Hara castle when I visited Amakusa, a short distance across the Ariake Sea. Both regions made famous during the Amakusa Rebellion in 1589-1590 and the larger Amakusa-Shimabara Rebellion in 1637/38.

I covered the rebellion in Amakusa a little in a past post. You can find it here.. https://rekishinihon.com/2019/02/27/amakusa-and-the-shimabara-rebellion-kyushu/

Hara castle was built in 1604 by Christian lord Harunobu Arima (1567-1612) of Hizen province. Hinoe Castle was the primary residence of the Christian daimyo (feudal lord) of the Arima Clan, which held most power in western Hizen province.  The Arima clan was well established in Hizen and Hinoe castle dates back to the 13th century.  It is believed Hara castle was built to support Hinoe castle to its southern side and to keep watch over the main waterway of the Ariake Sea.

A Jesuit report from 1604 notes the completion of Hara castle which mentions that it is a large and strongly-fortified castle which covers an entire hillside overlooking the Ariake Sea and has five sections. The honmaru (main compound) , ni no maru (inner compound) and san no maru (outer compound) , Hatoyama Fortress and the Amakusa ward. The honmaru was built with large stone walls which was the same as most other castles of the time but the sannomaru and ninomaru were only made using the natural geography which cleverly formed a natural rampart and ditch defence topped with bamboo palisades.

Christianity in Kyushu had a strong following since Francis Xavier arrived in Kagoshima in 1549, but from the rule of Toyotomi Hideyoshi in the late 16th century through to the Tokugawa shogunate tensions became strained between the shogunate and various Christian lords in Kyushu.  The shogunate was gradually suppressing the Christian population throughout Japan and especially in southern Kyushu.  The first casualty was Arima Harunobu who lost his position as lord of Shimabara in 1612 due to his involvement to kill a Tokugawa official in Nagasaki.  He was first exiled to Kai Province but later forced to commit seppuku, however , due to his Christian beliefs, he refused so he was beheaded.  Harunobu’s son Naozumi succeeded his father as lord of Shimabara as he was a Tokugawa loyalist who gave up his Christian beliefs and carried out the Tokugawa order to suppress the Christians in Shimabara.  This didn’t go well, after two years as lord of Shimabara he had no way of dealing with the continuous peasant revolts and asked to be transferred to Hyuga Province (Miyazaki Prefecture).  After nearly 300 years the Arima clan was removed as lords of Shimabara.  Interestingly, during the Shimabara rebellion Naozumi who was still very much a Tokugawa loyalist sent 4,000 troops to help with the attack on Hara Castle.

After the departure of Naozumi, Matsukura Shigemasa from Yamato Province (Nara) was made lord of Shimabara inheriting both Hinoe and Hara castles in 1616. Shigemasa had proved his heroism during the 1614/15 Summer Osaka campaign against the last of the Toyotomi forces in Osaka castle, which won him favour with Tokugawa Ieyasu.  He eagerly and robustly carried out the Tokugawa purge of suppressing the Christian population.   Although, I say he was eager, in actual fact Matsukura was brutal in his actions against the Christians which did not go down well.

Not only did Shiegmasa begin a terrible persecution of the Christians he also began the construction of a huge castle later to become Shimabara castle.  Hinoe and Hara castles were both abandoned in 1618 as the massively expensive Shimabara castle was completed.  Tokugawa edicts by Tokugawa Iemitsu forbid more than one castle per province.  Shigemasa’s Shimabara castle costs were way beyond the finances available in his relatively small domain so he did what any greedy lord would do and heavily taxed his citizens.

In 1621 further Christian persecutions took place as Tokugawa Shogunate tightened its grip in the region.  Over the next 6 years Christians were burned alive, crucified, beheaded, suspended in excrement and the worst persecutions occurred in 1627 in the sulphur fields of Unzen.  Christians who did not denounce their beliefs were tossed into the steaming sulphuric vents and boiled to death.

In 1630 someone must have thought enough was enough and poisoned Shigemasa while he was staying at Obama onsen village.  It is unknown who poisoned him and there are some people who think it was actually someone belonging to the local shogunate office in Nagasaki as they were worried about his iron rule and that the local population were likely to revolt.  Alas, Shigemasa’s replacement was no other than his son Katsuie.  Like father like son?  Let’s see.

Katsuie inherited the position of lord of Shimabara at a difficult time.  Christian persecutions, famine, taxes from foreign trade drying up and he still had to pay a hefty bill for the construction of Shimabara castle.  What is a lord to do?

Katsuie increased taxes on the peasants.  Not only were the local Christians being persecuted, non-Christians and Christians alike were now forced to pay even more taxes.  After years of lost crops peasants were driven to starvation but were forced to pay terribly high taxes.  In the end peasants did what anyone would do in the same situation and began to riot.  On the 25th of October 1637 peasants and local ronin from the southern regions of Shimabara were also joined by peasants from the Amakusa islands.  Amakusa Shiro became the unofficial leader of this rebellion.  On the following day the riot also reached Shimabara castle where a number of rebels attacked the castle.  Shimabara castle was well defended and this attack failed but it did raise the rebellion to first priority throughout Japan.

Hara castle had been abandoned since 1618 but was still in good condition so the rebels used it as their base.  It is estimated that between 20 to 37,000 rebels took part in the rebellion.  Just about every citizen from the southern provinces of Shimabara took part in the rebellion.  They were met by 140,000 Tokugawa troops who came from all over Kyushu.  The Amakusa/Shimabara rebellion lasted about four months. The first main Tokugawa attacks were repelled so morale among the rebels was good.  After suffering a large number of losses the Tokugawa attackers decided to starve the rebels inside the fortress knowing that any type of reinforcement or resupply was impossible.  Dutch and Tokugawa ships sat out in the Ariake sea to stop any type of resupply from the sea.  The last attack in April 1637 finally led to the downfall of the castle and all inside.

The rebellion was an important turning point in history as future Tokugawa reforms led to a full ban on Christianity including any Christian trade and the Portuguese were expelled from Japan.   Dejima in Nagasaki became an empty trade island until the Dutch (VOC) were awarded sole trade rights after showing loyalty by bombarding Hara castle during the rebellion.  Years of oppression finally lead to this rebellion.  It is known as the Christian rebellion because the majority of the rebels were Christian but I think anyone put into this long oppressive situation would have done the same thing.  The rebellion was a Christian massacre which wiped out the remaining population of Christians from southern Shimabara.  Few survivors escaped to isolated islands around Kyushu who later became know as the ‘Hidden Christians’.

Finally, a little redemption.  Despite successfully putting down the rebellion Lord Katsuie Matsukura was later called to Edo to explain why he allowed his province to rebel.  He was found guilty of misrule and brutality and beheaded.  He was not given the option to commit honourable seppuku.

30th May 1938 Hara castle was designated a National Historical Site and on the 4th July 2018 it was registered as a World Cultural Heritage site (Christian sites of Japan).

Map of Hara castle complex and defences from the northern san no maru.


Honmaru ishigaki (stone wall).  This wall would have been a lot higher as most of it was destroyed after the rebellion.

Main gate. Today and a VR image of what it would have looked like. This is where fighting took place for the whole length of the campaign.  Standing here today it’s is hard to imagine how many people died right here.  There is a dry moat to the right of the gate and also a lotus pond called a ‘hasu-ike’ to the left so all attacks had to come up to this gate.  As you can see from the VR photo, the front gate was big.  Foundation stones and the earth embankment confirms the size of the gate and it is thought that the style of the gate was watari-yagura which had a room across the top where defenders could rain down arrows and bullets on their attackers.


Koguchi (Tiger’s mouth) – this was a passage that linked the outer gate to the inner gate.  There were five bends in this heavily defended area which included a long yagura stretching for 25m with two corner turrets.  The final stretch narrowing with slight rise then another sharp right turn to meet the inner gate.

Three floor turret – Yagura.  There is a drawing in a Jesuit report from 1600 which shows the three storey yagura.  From the size of the base it can be calculated that the bottom floor was about 15.8m x 13.8m.  The yagura had a commanding position looking out over the Ariake Sea, the Amakusa Islands to the south and Mt. Unzen to the north.    All shipping which sailed through the Hayasaki Strait would be able to see the tall yagura showing the strength of the Arima clan.  This turret was also torn down in 1618 along with the tenshukaku so it was not standing at the time of the rebellion.

Christian statues looking out the the Ariake sea.

Honmaru and a VR image of the southern Yagura.  Tenshukaku remains – Torn down in 1618 due to the construction of Shimabara Castle and the one province one castle order.  Thus, it was not standing during the rebellion.  During excavations the layout of nine huts were revealed however there were no fireplaces or cooking stoves.  This may suggest that there was a limited food supply and that a central area was rationing it.  The seaside was patrolled by Kuroda (Fukuoka) and Dutch ships and the castle was surrounded with Tokugawa troops, so any kind of resupply was impossible.

Ikejiriguchi- north gate or back gate (karamete). It was built with a corridor leading to it and could be used as an escape route.  From the foundation stones the gate is thought to be koraimon style – the stepping stones are large and are steep.  The construction simplified as it was the back gate.

Northern gate and a VR image of the gate.

Amakusa Shiro statue.

Rear gate looking south.

Honmaru wall

Natural earthen ramparts looking west (where the Tokugawa army was camped) between the ninomaru(left) and sannomaru(right).

Words and photos by Stuart Iles.