Citadels of Modernity: Exhibiting Castles in Imperial Japan

Saturday, January 6, 2018: 1:30 PM
Calvert Room (Omni Shoreham)
Oleg Benesch, University of York
Castles are some of Japan’s most iconic structures, their expansive size at the center of most Japanese cities defining the urban space. They are prominent symbols of local, regional, and national identity recognized both at home and abroad, and major drivers of international and domestic tourism. The current exalted status of Japan’s castles obscures their troubled modern history, however, and the vast majority of premodern structures were abandoned, dismantled, or destroyed in the 1870s as unwelcome reminders of the recent “feudal” past. The largest and most important castle spaces were taken over by the new imperial army and converted into barracks, arsenals, and administrative centers, providing continuity with their premodern character as highly restricted military space.

This paper examines the process by which castles were “rediscovered” in the early twentieth century and transformed into key symbols of the nation. Castles were some of the favorite motifs for foreign visitors to Japan, and the early twentieth century saw castle imagery increasingly used in overseas exhibitions to project a martial and masculine version of Japan to an international audience. Within Japan, castles became focal points of regional pride, and popular narratives typically drew links between modern cities and prominent premodern warriors connected with the local castle. The utility of castles as physical symbols of an idealized martial past was appreciated by the military, which used them as both sites and subjects of its own exhibitions. From the turn of the twentieth century to the end of the Second World War, castles contributed both symbolically and physically to the militarization of Japanese society and Japan’s international image.

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