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Will Edo Castle’s tower rise again?

A citizens' group aims to grace modern Tokyo with a medieval masterpiece lost to fire in 1657

by Tomoko Otake

What does Tokyo have as a genuine landmark?

Well, there’s 52-year-old Tokyo Tower, but that’s not the draw it once was. Or there’s Tokyo Sky Tree, which, at 603 meters high, is set to be the world’s tallest broadcasting tower when it’s completed soon. But so what?

What Tokyo really needs is a historical monument symbolizing the essence of the Japanese spirit, culture and lifestyle, argues a Tokyo-based citizens’ group whose aim is to rebuild what it considers the ultimate symbol of Tokyo: the main tower of Edo Castle.

“Paris has the Palace of Versailles nearby, London has Buckingham Palace and Beijing has the Forbidden City,” Shizuo Kigawa, one of the group’s executive members, told The Japan Times recently. “Tokyo has nothing that embodies Japan’s history. In this sense, Asakusa or Tokyo Tower don’t qualify.”

The group, called Edo-jo Saiken Wo Mezasu Kai (The Group to Aim for the Reconstruction of Edo Castle), was founded in 2004 by Naotaka Odake, former managing director of the major travel agency JTB Corp., along with several retired senior executives. According to Kizuka, Odake, who now works for a nonprofit tourism information center, came up with the idea of rebuilding the castle tower after comparing tourist attractions in Tokyo with those of other cities around the world.

Rebuilding the castle tower, the group argues, would attract more tourists to Japan and also help cheer up the spirit of many Japanese people. And right now a lot of Japanese do need cheering up, as many of them have lost faith in the future of this country, Kizuka said.

Over the years, the group has grown in size, by word of mouth and the occasional press coverage of its campaign, to now boast 1,800-plus subscription-paying members. Several high-ranking public officials and business people, including Tokyo Metropolitan Gov. Shintaro Ishihara and lighting designer Motoko Ishii, have also expressed support.

Some experts have already estimated the economic effect of this project, including Tomoyoshi Terasaki, a researcher for the semi-public Development Bank of Japan. He wrote in the November 2009 issue of the Nikkeiken Geppo, a monthly journal published by the Japan Economic Research Institute, that, given foreign tourists’ keen interest in traditional and historical sites, the number of people visiting Tokyo would dramatically increase if Edo Castle’s tower is rebuilt — possibly yielding an additional revenue of ¥180 billion or more.

Obviously, though, the project faces a mountain of challenges before it goes anywhere. For one thing, no one alive ever lived in Edo (as present-day Tokyo was known prior to the 1868 Meiji Restoration) or has seen the actual castle. The first tenshukaku donjon (main tower) of Edo Castle was built on the orders of the second Tokugawa Shogun, Hidetada, in 1607, and then underwent massive repairs in 1622 before finally being completed in 1638 on the orders of the third Shogun, Iemitsu.

Back then, the five-story, 59-meter-high structure built of cypress timbers was by far the tallest building in the entire city, rising up as it did to the height of a modern 18-story apartment block.

Only 19 years later, though, the magnificent tower was burned down in the Great Fire of Meireki, which razed most of Edo in 1657. Since then it has never been rebuilt.

To bring the castle tower closer to modern-day people — 350 years after it disappeared — Masayuki Miura, a Hiroshima University professor who specializes in researching and restoring traditional buildings, screened a three-dimensional video of the castle tower at a Tokyo symposium organized by the group last month.

As reference, Miura explained that he had relied on a plan of the Kan’ei-do- tenshu castle tower (named after the time it was built, in the 1624-43 Kan’ei Era of the 1603-1867 Edo Period) drawn by hand by its head builder on a piece of paper.

The builder’s plan — archived at the Tokyo Metropolitan Library — is the only one left for any of Japan’s medieval castles, since in those times people were not in the habit of keeping a written record for reasons of security, Miura said. He also described it as a “miracle” that such an important historical record has survived to this day.

According to Miura, who is a passionate member of the group, the uppermost roof of the tower was covered with copper tiles and adorned with the golden shachihoko (fish-like ornaments) still to be found on many surviving (and rebuilt) medieval castles around the country.

However, according to Miura, Edo Castle’s tower was the highest and most spectacular one ever constructed in Japan. That was because one of its key purposes was to project the grandeur and authority of the Tokugawa Shogunate far and wide from this mighty city the feudal regime made its political capital.

“The castle not only showed the shogunate’s majesty, but it also served as a deterrent for wars (throughout the Edo Period),” Miura told the symposium packed with more than 200 attendees. “It was a symbol of peace. It helped to keep the nation from falling into chaos.”

Indeed, many of the “offensive” features typically seen in medieval castles in Japan — like slits in the walls through which weapons could be fired, or openings on high from which rocks could be rained down on attackers — were not in evidence at Edo Castle, Miura pointed out — even going so far as to declare that the castle had a “virtuous character.”

All that is undoubtedly well and good, and rebuilding the timber castle would almost certainly be a revenue-raising morale booster for the nation, too — but it’s anybody’s guess right now who might shoulder the cost of such a project.

Kizuka, who says the group has yet to calculate the cost, stresses that, instead of relying on government money, the members are pushing for a castle tower funded by citizens — meaning that a popular movement would really need to spread nationwide to make it happen.

But perhaps the most contentious issue here would not be the cost, but where to build it. The founders of the citizens’ group have so far pushed for the new tower to be constructed on exactly the same site as the original — atop its stone foundations that are still there to this day. That site, though, happens to be right in the middle of the 210,000-sq.-meter East Gardens of the Imperial Palace.

Group members who spoke at the symposium, which was also attended by top tourism agency officials, all said they haven’t sounded out the Imperial Household Agency, or any other government agency, on the possibility of the tower being rebuilt there. However, Odake said that while opposition to reconstructing the tower in such a “sanctuary” was predictable, public opinion could sway the debate.

“I find it odd to consult with the Imperial Household Agency about what is merely a dream,” he said. “I think we would be ready to talk with the agency only after we know for sure that we are able to build it, and that we have the resources and technologies to do so.”

Miura concurred, saying that the decision will ultimately be in the hands of the public. “I think the Agency for Cultural Affairs will not even listen to us until we have everything ready,” he told the meeting.

For Kigawa, the purpose of the campaign is not just to rebuild the tower, but to make people aware of the values and lifestyles of the Edo Period in Japan — which he believes the country has lost and should get back.

“Take how ecological life in the Edo Period was,” Kigawa said, citing the example of how farmers back then used human sewage as fertilizer.

“Well, a cesspool might not be a realistic option today, but we can still think about how to turn waste into soil. Their thinking in the Edo Period was actually cutting-edge in a sense,” he declared with towering pride.