Kumamoto Castle (熊本城)
Kumamoto Castle (熊本城) in Kyushu is one of the most beautiful and fascinating cultural landmarks in all of Japan. The Castle plays a key role in two of the most important plot points in Japanese history. Though not as well known internationally, and not really located in a popular tourist location, it is definitely worth the trip down to Japan’s southern-most main island.
Kumamoto Castle’s combination of history and 400 yearly blossoming cherry trees make it a highly admired destination in the hearts and minds of the Japanese people. They have rated it one of the top three castles in the country using the Japanese “Three-Most-Whatever” rating system. It also does well on Japanese Castle Explorer (ranking #2) and J-Castle.com (getting “5 stars”). These are both excellent English resources for Japanese castle information.
Kumamoto-Jo, as its called, started as a fort in 1467. But the imposing and intimidating form of the Castle you see today was the work of Kato Kiyomasu in 1607. Kiyomasu was a cross between a civil engineering genius and a ferocious military warrior. He was known as Japan’s greatest castle builder through out Japan, China, and Korea. He was a military leader in a powerful clan in Kyushu leading up to the Battle of Sekigahara. This famous defining battle that established the Tokugawa family as Shogun, and established Tokyo as the Capital of Japan. Though Kato Kiyomasu was not directly involved in the famous battle near present day Nagoya, Tokugawa Ieyasu had asked him to attack opposing clans in the island of Kyushu. Which he did successfully. For his efforts, Tokugaewa Ieyasu rewarded him with a huge raise and more land around Kumamoto. With his newfound wealth he turned Kumamoto Castle into the formidable powerhouse you see today.
The Satsuma Rebellion
Fast forward to the end of those 2 centuries of Tokugawa rule. Its 1877 and we now have Kumamoto castle in the hands of the newly established Meiji Empire. The countries newly reinstated Emperor is attempting to bring Japan up to date with other turn-of-the-century industrial powerhouses. To do this he introduces huge sweeping changes to the Japanese people. Two of these changes were a political power system, and a national army.
These fast changes set the stage for the Satsuma Rebellion. An uprising and revolt against the Government by disenchanted samurai warriors who were upset over said changes, and their loss of power because of them. The “new” Japan was not samurai friendly.
This Rebellion led by Saigō Takamori leads right back to Kumamoto castle. The new Imperial troops were in Kumamoto City as Saigo’s samurai army started its march north to Tokyo. Cut off from the main military and low in numbers, the new Japanese Army decided to hold out and defend Kumamoto Castle until the main army can arrive with support.
Saigo arrived with his 20,000 samurai and attacked Kumamoto Castle. Saigo’s army was not only well trained samurai warriors with superior sword skills, they are also armed with the latest guns, rifles, and artillery that the imperial army had been using to their advantage. The few thousand defending troops learned very quickly that the 250-year-old wooden structures of the castle were no match for modern artillery. The main tower of the Castle (called the tenshu in Japanese) was blasted by artillery and burned to the ground. To make matters worse, another one of the buildings that caught fire was holding their food supply.
Even with all these factors in Saigo’s favor, He could not penetrate the defensive structures of Kumamoto Castle. It is a tribute to Kato Kiyomasu’s design and engineering skills that the samurai army could not get through the maze of gates or over the curved stone walls.
The Castle and defending troops held out for 7 weeks cut off from support and under constant attack. When the main Imperial army of near 100,000 troops arrived by land and sea, the tired and depleted samurai army was chased out of Kumamoto. It is such a dramatic and epic story that they should make a movie about it. Oh wait… They did make a movie abut it. Its called The Last Samurai.
The Last Samurai.
The problem with The Last Samurai is that Kumamoto Castle is not part of the movie. In fact I am very disappointed to report that there is barely any part of “actual” Japan in the movie. Aside from a few temple stairs and garden shots, Japan has been relocated to Hollywood and New Zealand. So in the same way that The Wizard of Oz was not filmed in Oz, The Last Samurai was not filmed in Japan. Which disappoints me as much as it disappoints the people of Oz.
The most puzzling part of not filming on location is that, as opposed to Oz, there is already a place that looks like a Japanese countryside. Is called the “Japanese countryside”. And there is already a castle built that looks like something out of a movie. It’s called Kumamoto Castle: A visually stunning cultural icon that literally bookends the Edo period that the Meiji restoration has ended.
But alas, I can’t harp too much about the producers of the movie. I always give Hollywood a little suspension of disbelief. Filming on location is difficult and costly. To their credit, the creators of the movie have said that they are not following the factual account of Saigo Takamori and his samurai army. The last Samurai is loosely based on the Satsuma Rebellion, and by loosely based, I mean no belt, pants down around your ankles loose.
I have a lot of respect for the Producers, Writers, and Set Designers of the Last Samurai. They were captivated and motivated by Japan’s history and culture in the same way that I was. That includes Tom Cruise, who was influenced by Japan in similar ways to the character he plays in the movie. So much so that he became a co-producer of the movie.
In the end The Last Samurai was not intended to show you the Japanese countryside, or Kumamoto Castle, or even how good-looking Tom Cruise is. It was made to showcase the Japanese value system and how much it is different than our own. And in that light, it is an incredible movie.
Kumamoto Castle’s main tower, which was destroyed in the Satsuma Rebellion, was rebuilt in 1960. By the time of the Castle’s 400th anniversary in 2007, many of the renovations and restorations of the area buildings, gates and turrets had been completed. Kumamoto Castle also houses an excellent museum with detailed information about its history. It also has a reconstruction of the Honmaru Goten Palace, the house of the Higo Prefecture daimyo during the Edo Period.
In the spring you are greeted by hundreds of pink cherry blossoms lining your path up to the main tower. At night it is illuminated to show its majestic stature as the guardian of the city. If you are in Kyushu, Kumamoto Castle is a must see attraction.