Ancient Castles of Japan – Kikuchi Castle, Kumamoto, Kyushu.

Ancient Castles of Japan – Kikuchi Castle, Kumamoto, Kyushu.

Setting the scene.

Kikuchi Castle is an ancient mountain castle built by the Yamato (Japan, also known as Wa) Imperial Court in the late 7th century, about 1,300 years ago.  At the time, there was conflict among the three kingdoms on the Korean peninsula: Goguryeo, Baekje, and Silla. The Tang dynasty of China was also drawn in, allied with Silla, and attacked Baekje in 660AD causing a major reshuffle of political power in Eastern Asia, and a short migration of Baekje nobles to Japan.   

It is hard to imagine that all of Japan’s ancient castle constructions around the 7th century was the result of unrest on the Korean Peninsula.  During this period the Korean peninsula was one of chaos, conflict, political struggles, and a lust for all out power.  The trigger of this conflict was the Tang dynasty’s expedition into Goguryeo.  The expedition was mostly condemned but one kingdom, Silla, actively welcomed the Tang dynasty’s move into the northern regions of Korea.  Silla’s commanders saw an opportunity for glory and became a supporter the invasion, while Goguryeo and Baekje went to war with the hostile invaders.

(Left) Sculpture of one of the Korean noble families who built Kikuchi castle. Father, mother, and their child facing south. A Baekje official overlooking the construction facing west and a High Priestess praying to Mt Yahougatake facing east. On the north side are two Chinese phoenix, Fenghuang. (Right) The famous octagonal drum tower. The oldest excavated octagonal drum tower found in Japan. Modeled on a drum tower found at Iseongsanseoung Castle in Seoul, South Korea. Photos by Stuart.

So, during this time, Japan, which was known as Wa, by the Chinese, or the Yamato kingdom, was in the midst of the Taika Reforms.  These reforms were heavily influenced from Tang China and many Yamato envoys had been sent to Tang China to learn about their political systems as well as education systems, writing, philosophies, religion etc.  Actually, the Yamato kingdom had good relations with all of the Korean kingdoms as well as China.  Visits by envoys who crossed the narrow sea between Japan and Korea are often mentioned in the historic texts, yet, despite having close relations with the Tang dynasty, the Yamato court was confronted with a dilemma when the Tang allied with Silla to invade Baekje.  I won’t go into too much detail as to why all this happened as it goes a little off topic, and haven’t done a lot of research on this, but from what I have read it seems that the Yamato was much closer to Baekje nobility, and some sources also believe that Yamato and Baekje nobility were related.  Thus, the Yamato kingdom was caught up in this great East Asian upheaval while the Yamato kingdom, was still basically made up of smallish groups of chiefdoms, and not yet fully developed as a state power.

(Bottom left) Grain storehouse. (Middle) Soldier barracks. (Right) Haizuka, fire beacon hill. Photos by Stuart

Anyway, let’s move on. Combined Tang and Silla forces estimated at around 50,000 attacked Baekje who was significantly outnumbered with about 5,000.  This battle is known as the Battle of Hwangsanbeol, in 660.  The Baekje army, although smaller in number were much better fighters than their counterparts, but despite holding back multiple waves of attacks the Baekje army was overwhelmed and the kingdom of Baekje was lost.  In the aftermath of defeat, many nobles fled to the Yamato kingdom.

By 663 a resistance force was raised by Baekje loyalists with the goal of liberating their lands from the Silla.  In 663, the Yamato Crown Prince Naka no Oe no Oji dispatched a naval force and army to help restore the Baekje kingdom and support the loyalists. The Tang/Silla alliance were ready, and there was a fierce battle at the mouth of the Geum river, known as the Battle of Baekgang.  However, the Baekje/Yamato alliance suffered a crushing defeat, thus closing the road to restoration of Baekje.

The following paragraph from ‘Japanese Sea Power: A Maritime Nation’s Struggle for Identity’ has a good account of the 663 campaign.

‘The Battle of Baekgang and the two Korean campaigns ended disastrously for Japan, primarily due to defeat in naval combat. In each case, Japan’s military strategy was focused on ground warfare, with little thought given to seaborne operations other than transportation of personnel and supplies to the Korean peninsula. Consequently, the Japanese forces were ill-prepared for naval combat, both in terms of tactics and equipment. Comprising four engagements that took place over 27-28 August 663, the Battle of Baekgang pitted Japanese naval forces supporting the Baekje restoration movement against the navy of Tang China, which was allied with Silla. The Japanese naval forces numbered 1000 vessels by one estimate, but apparently did not operate as a cohesive fleet when attacking the Tang navy. Instead, the Japanese fleet arrived at the battle zone at various times, with each ship individually entering into combat upon arrival, and lacking the necessary fleet strategies and tactics. From the outset the Japanese force was a ragtag assemblage of commoner soldiers serving under local nobles, without a unified command structure. Eager for glory, the crews of each ship hastily sought to smash through the enemy’s lines, resulting in a disjointed array of attacks that were largely ineffective. In contrast, the smaller Tang fleet – made up of only 170 vessels – operated under a common doctrine and established strong formations.  It also displayed greater tactical sophistication, using pincer movements to pick off Japanese ships one by one. The weaponry employed against the Japanese fleet evidently included flaming arrows, which may have been launched from archers on shore. All four engagements of the battle ended in victory for the Tang fleet, with Japan suffering the catastrophic loss of 400 vessels due to fire.’

Once again, many surviving Baekje loyalists and nobles fled to the Yamato kingdom, but this loss also created a possible threat of invasion on the Yamato homelands by Tang and Silla.  So, at this time, for the first time in its national history, Japan prepared for a possible invasion by a foreign enemy.

The Yamato court embarked on building a defensive wall centered in the western provinces of the kingdom. A number of mountain fortresses were built linking the island of Kyushu to Nara. (Nara is thought to have been the ancient capital of the Yamato kingdom). In Kyushu, Kaneda Castle (Nagasaki) was built as a frontline base, and Ono Castle (Fukuoka) and Kii Castle (border of Fukuoka and Saga) were built to defend Dazaifu which was the Yamato western capital. Kikuchi Castle, located further to the south, is thought to have been a defence facility as well as a logistics base for supplying food and weapons to the front line.  However, no invasion by the Tang/Silla alliance ever happened, as that alliance fell to pieces shortly after the victory over the Baekje.  The threat of invasion eventually settled and Kikuchi Castle slowly transformed into a facility that functioned as a regional government office, stored food, trained warriors and continued to function as a castle until the mid-10th century.  In the early days, Kikuchi fortress was also used as a base for the Yamato court to subdue the southern native Hayato people of the Kagoshima regions.

Below left. Mizuki gate pillar stones. Below right. Ono castle (#2) and Kii castle (bottom) Mizuki defence wall can be seen connected between the mountains marked #3. Dazaifu government buildings marked with #1. Photos by Stuart Iles.

According to the “Nihon Shoki” (Chronicles of Japan) in 664, small fire beacons had been built and warriors were stationed in Tsushima, Iki, and Chikushi (Kii and Ono castle) and used as early warning stations.  In Chikushi, protecting Dazaifu, was an unusually designed water gate called the Mizuki gate.  It got its name because on the western side of the gate was a moat filled with water.  It is called a gate, but in reality, it was a long defensive wall which connected Ono castle to the mountain range where Kii Castle was later built. (Some of the Mizuki gate and water embankments can still be seen today, which is totally nuts!)  In the following year, a castle was built in Nagato Province (Yamaguchi).  In 667, Takayasu Castle (Osaka) and Yashima Castle (Kagawa) were also built.

Building of Mizuki gate and wall (below). My photos, taken at the Kyushu National Museum, Fukuoka.

These mountain castles/fortresses in western Japan built around the 7th to 8th centuries are collectively called “ancient mountain castles of Japan”.   Only those mentioned in classic history books such as the Nihon-shoki and Shoku-nihongi are called “Korean-style mountain castles” and those not mentioned in the classic books are called “Kougoshiki mountain castles”.  On a Japanese language site, and backed up by my castle expert bud Adam, archaeologists who excavated these unknown castles sites mistakenly thought they were ancient rock temple sites, not castle sites, thus naming them as kougoshiki. 

(Below) Diorama showing the locations of fire beacons linking Kikuchi with Ono, Kii and north up to Kitakyushu. Photo by Stuart

Also found in the “Chronicles of Japan” are the names of two Baekje scholars, Okurai Fukuryu and Sibi Fukufu, who fled to Japan.  I haven’t looked up these names at the writing of this article, so I’m only going from a single source, but it says that these two men are the brains behind the building of Ono and Kii Castle.  The two Korean scholars took their knowledge of civil engineering and the latest castle building techniques to the backwater islands of Wa, and built the first mountain fortresses.  

Distribution of ancient mountain castles in Japan

Ancient mountain castles built by the Yamato Imperial Court for national defence after their defeat in the Battle of Hakumurae are distributed throughout western Japan.  In particular, many ancient mountain castles were built around the city of Dazaifu (the ancient western capital) in northern Kyushu.  It is evident that the Yamato court at that time regarded the defence of northern Kyushu as very important.

The distribution map below shows that ancient mountain castles are distributed from northern Kyushu to the Seto Inland Sea. This was the route leading to “Naniwa-no-miya” and “Omi-Otsu-no-miya,” which were the ancient capitals of the time. It suggests that the Yamato Imperial Court was attempting to fortify its defences in anticipation of an invasion of the capital by the combined forces of the Tang and Silla dynasties.

Kikuchi Castle in Literature

Kikuchi Castle first appears in literature in the Shoku-nihongi, an article dated May 25, 698, during the reign of Emperor Monmu, which states, “In the year of Koshin, Dazaifu was ordered by the Yamato central government to mend the three castles of Ono, Kii, and Kikuchi”.  Ono Castle and Kii Castle are mentioned in the Nihon Shoki as having been built in 665. The fact that Kikuchi Castle also required repairs at the same time suggests that it was also built around the same time.

Later, Kikuchi Castle appeared again in the “Montoku Jitsuroku” in February of the 2nd year of Tenan (858): “In the year of Hinoetatsu, the country of Higo says (now Kumamoto), the Hyogo drum of Kikuchi castle courtyard beats,” and “In the year of Hinotomi, it beats again”. In addition, the article continues on 20th June of the same year, “Hyogo no Tsuzumi (the drum of Hyogo) beats by itself at Kikuchi Castle in Higo Province,” and on the 11th June the Fudokura that are permanent storehouses which stores grain in case of emergency were on fire”. The discovery of large quantities of carbonized rice and fire-exposed foundation stones in Chojabaru and Chojayama confirms that eleven Fudokura were indeed, destroyed by fire.

Lastly, in the article “Sandai Jitsuroku” dated 16th March, the 3nd year of Genkei (879), it is written, “In the year of Hinoeuma, Hyogo no tsuzumi in Kikuchi, Kikuchi-gun, Higo Province the drum beats by itself.

After these series of articles were written, Kikuchi Castle was no longer mentioned in any further literature.

Description of Standing Bronze Bodhisattva

During excavations of Kikuchi castle many artefacts were uncovered.  The most interesting piece for me is a bronze statue of a bodhisattva.  The figure below is a standing bronze statue of a bodhisattva excavated from the rear of the reservoir site. The height including mount is 12.7cm, width is 3cm and has a graceful S-curve when viewed from the side. The bottom mount is for inserting into a pedestal and is characterized by its thick moulding.

(Below) Replica bodhisattva which was found in the reservoir. Photo by Stuart

The face is rounded and serene, and the three-faceted crown of treasure, the hair hanging down to the shoulders, and the heavenly robe draped over both shoulders are well rendered. She is also holding what is thought to be a Shariyouki (container for the remains of Buddha) in front of her navel, as if holding it with both hands.

It is considered highly likely that this Buddha image was made in Baekje and brought to Japan, since it has the characteristics of a late 7th century Baekje Buddha. Such a statue could only be owned by a person of very high status in Baekje. The Nihon Shoki contains an article in which an exiled Baekje aristocrat instructed the construction of an ancient mountain castle. It is highly probable that this Buddha statue was brought by an exiled Baekje nobleman who came to Kikuchi Castle to instruct the construction of the castle.  Bloody amazing!

Written and translated by Makoto Nakajima and Stuart Iles.

Original Japanese source materials obtained from Kikuchi Castle Historical Park and Onkosouseikan.

Kyouichi Tachikawa and Naoko Sajima.  Japan Sea Power: A Maritime Nation’s Struggle for Identity. 2009.

Photos by Stuart Iles.


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