Osaka: Shogun's castle was key to ancient Japanese history
Osaka, Japan, is a modern city in every sense of the word, with towering steel-and-glass skyscrapers, young professionals sporting the latest fashions, flashing billboards and vibrant restaurants and nightclubs.
Yet there is one building that seems as out of place in its urban surroundings as it is important to Japan’s cultural identity: Osaka Castle. It’s a must-see destination for anyone visiting the city, a place where modern Japanese society collides with the past.
The castle offers stunning views of the city from its citadel, and its eight-story museum is a virtual time machine. It features historical items ranging from the armor of Hideyoshi Toyotomi — a powerful Japanese feudal lord, military leader and politician who had the castle built — to handwritten farewell poetry, weapons and prints that depict an epic battle.
While walking the expansive grounds, one can almost hear the armies colliding, swords and spears in hand. However, no one can stop progress. The shiny modern buildings across the street are a testament to that.
Construction began in 1583, and the castle was a marvel at the time with a soaring main tower, countless gates, turrets, two moats and stones that weighed more than 100 tons — all on grounds that today stretch over a million square meters.
Toyotomi enjoyed an opulent lifestyle and was ruthless with his enemies but is known as a great unifier in Japanese history, according to Stephen Turnbull’s book “Osaka 1615: The Last Battle of the Samurai.” Six years after he built the castle, Toyotomi had conquered all of Japan, uniting warring factions under a single banner. The towering castle was a symbol of Toyotomi’s power and was used as a treasury, armory and observatory.
The rule of Toyotomi changed the face of Japan forever. Not only did he bring the country together, but he also disarmed the peasants, allowing only samurai to bear arms, which solidified both the class structure and his grip on power. He put a travel ban in place and persecuted Christians, ordering burnings at the stake and crucifixions.
However, Toyotomi wouldn’t enjoy his castle for long. Following a disastrous campaign to conquer the Chinese that was fought on the Korean peninsula, he died in 1598, leaving his 5-year-old son Hideyori as heir.
Upon his death, Japan split into armed camps, Turnbull wrote, with some siding with Hideyori and others with rival Ieyasu Tokugawa.
It didn’t take Tokugawa long to destroy rivals allied with the house of Toyotomi. He had pacified his young adversary through political maneuvering.
Tokugawa named himself shogun, or military dictator, and moved his administrative capital to Edo, modern-day Tokyo.
It appeared that Tokugawa planned to leave Hideyori largely alone and rich in his castle in Osaka. He surrounded Hideyori’s territory with his people and joined the two houses in marriage to keep an eye on him. But the relationship between the two houses began to deteriorate quickly. It was solidified in the winter of 1614, when Tokugawa and his son Hidetada, who was now shogun, launched an attack on Hideyori at Osaka. They bombarded the castle and nearly killed him.
Peace negotiations began and ended with Hideyori agreeing to knock down walls, fill moats and submit to Tokugawa rule. He initially agreed but later reneged, leading to another war in the summer of 1615.
The fighting was brutal and the two sides were closely matched despite Hideyori being vastly outnumbered and outgunned. In the end, miscommunication led to Hideyori’s defeat and Osaka Castle was burned to the ground.
Hideyori committed suicide as the castle went up in flames around him. The smoke could be seen from Kyoto, some 30 miles away.
The castle was rebuilt in 1626 by Tokugawa but was destroyed in 1665 by lightning. The people of Osaka rebuilt it in 1931, only to see it damaged again during World War II. The park became a historical site in 1948 and was repaired and opened to the public.
While the castle is one of more than 100 in the island nation, it stands in a class almost by itself due to its historical significance. It was the site of the last pitched battle between two samurai armies, according to Turnbull. Woodblock-printed broadsheets telling of the battles fought there were the first things resembling newspapers in Japan.
These battles were the first major occurrence in Japanese history to be recorded in English, Turnbull wrote. Artillery provided by European traders not only swayed the balance in the fighting, but allowed for the first long-range bombardment in Japanese history.
The castle is located at 540-0002 1-1, Osakajo, Chuo-ku, Osaka City. It is accessible by subway, the JR Line, the city bus, Keihan railway and the Aqualiner.
9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; last admission at 4:30 p.m.
Entry is 600 yen for adults.
No food or drink is allowed inside the museum. However, if the weather is nice, stands in the surrounding park generally offer food and drink.
Telephone: 06-6941-3044; website: osakacastle.net/english.