The history of Osaka Castle, spanning almost 430 years, is filled with wars, violence, tragedy and destruction; the magnificent fortress has been rebuilt several times, and now, restored to its XVI Century splendor, the castle houses a historic museum.
An interesting and valuable feature of many Japanese cities is the mix of the modern with the traditional and historic. Osaka, the third largest city in Japan is mostly a modern city where traditional architecture, temples, shrines and castles are not as abundant as in other ancient Japanese locations such as Kanazawa, Kyoto and Nara.
However, one outstanding set of historical structures exists in Osaka with sections which have either remained intact or have been meticulously restored to their former glory. One such location is Osaka Castle Park. The park has an area of about 1 square kilometer; it is located just south of the Okawa River, which runs through the center of Osaka. The park contains several constructions of which the most important are the outer and inner moats, the giant stone walls, several bridges, and the main tower of Osaka Castle.
Gokurakubashi Bridge provides access to the hill where the castle stands. The original bridge was destroyed by fire in 1868. The present bridge is similar in appearance to the original; it was built in 1965.
Huge walls hold the terraces where the Castle is located.
The elegant bridges, river-wide moats and colossal walls surrounding the castle have been somewhat restored, but they essentially remain similar to the original structures constructed by the end of the XVI century by thousands of workers under the orders of General Hideyoshi Toyotomi, a warrior and feudal lord considered one of the main unifiers of ancient Japan. Toyotomi made great efforts and nearly succeeded in putting an end to the “Age of the Country at War” which plagued Japan for over a century, from the middle of the XV Century until about the beginning of the XVII Century.
The fortress has had a tumultuous history. The construction of the Castle started in 1583, and the outer defenses, walls and moats were built soon after, and completed in 1598. Exceptionally large stones, some of them weighing as much as 100 tonnes were brought from quarries about 100 kilometres away to build the huge walls. How those colossal stones were moved and assembled into massive walls, with the technology available 400 years ago, is still a mystery.
Main tower of Osaka Castle. This estructure is a replica of the original building constructed in the XVI Century by Hideyoshi Toyotomi.
Unfortunately, Hideyoshi died shortly after the castle was completed, and his son Hideyori Toyotomi, age 5 was too young to succeed him. A “Council of Five Elders” was named to rule Japan on Hideyori’s behalf. Very soon the Council disintegrated when one of the members, Tokugawa Ieyasu was appointed Shogun by the Emperor, moved the capital to Edo (Tokyo), took political control of Japan and resolved that the power of the Toyotomi clan in Osaka had to be stopped.
Starting in 1614, the Togunawa shogunate, led by Tokugawa Ieyasu, attacked the Toyotomi’s Osaka castle. The intermittent siege lasted for almost two years. In order to weaken Hideyori’s resistance, Togunawa’s forces began to fill the moats to gain access to the castle. In the summer of 1615, Togunawa achieved the upper hand. Soon it was evident that the defenses of the Castle had been defeated. Hideyori, at the age of 22, committed suicide by seppuku (harakiri). His mother Yodo-dono, did likewise, and his 8-year-old son, the last in the Toyotomi clan was decapitated. The castle was burned and destroyed.
By 1629, the castle had been rebuilt by the Tokugawa clan, but it did not last long. Twice, in 1660 and 1665, the tower was hit by lightning and was finally destroyed. The beautiful former fortress remained almost forgotten for nearly two centuries until 1843 when part of the castle and some of the turrets were re-constructed. Again, in 1868, as a result of civil conflict with the Imperial forces, Osaka castle was attacked and one more time burnt to the ground.
View from the observation deck of the main tower. There are many of these beautiful gold-plated fish adorning the roof of each level of the main tower. The background shows a section of Osaka Castle Park with threes in fall colours.
In 1931, the main tower was rebuilt and became the regional headquarters and the park became an arsenal for the Japanese Imperial Army. It would prove to be a disastrous decision. In 1945, the historic Osaka Castle was deemed by the United States as a legitimate military target. Several air raids were conducted over Osaka between March and August 1945 resulting in about 10,000 civilian deaths. On August 14, the day before the end of WWII, 150 B-29 bombers dropped 700 tonnes of bombs over central Osaka, destroying Osaka Castle, the arsenal at the Castle’s compound, and other army factories in Eastern Osaka.
Once again, Osaka Castle was reconstructed. In 1995, the people of Osaka donated money to rebuild the majestic structure following the original plans. The Japanese Agency for Cultural Affairs designated the park, including the moats, walls and the main tower of the Castle as a Special Historic Site. Currently, the park is a place of recreation for Osaka residents, and the Castle has become the symbol of Osaka and a major tourist attraction. The main tower houses the Osaka Castle Museum displaying the turbulent history of the Castle, highlighting the life and achievements of Hideyoshi Toyotomi.
“Everything is a dream; Man’s ambition is a dream of dreams; With a big Osaka in my mind, I must disappear like dew” (Farewell poem by Hideyoshi Toyotomi, composed and written on his deathbed, 18 Sept. 1598).
Children perform on stage in front of the main tower during the 2012 Autumn Festival at Osaka Castle Park.
Several festivals are celebrated in the grounds and gardens around the castle including the Cherry Blossom Festival (Hanami) in April, and the Autumn Festival in November. Osaka Castle Park is accessible from Osakajōkōen Station on the JR West Osaka Loop Line.