Japan is a country that loves its castles. Despite most being decommissioned and dismantled in the late 19th century, they have been on the comeback as more than a hundred ‘rebuilt’ castles have joined the surviving dozen originals. Sometimes these castles are joined by nearby samurai homes that have survived as well and are preserved in ‘samurai districts’ to teach about Japan’s history and entice tourists to visit towns they would otherwise bypass for Nagasaki or Kyoto.
Shimabara has both a rebuilt castle and modest samurai district, but what makes them worth the visit is Shimabara’s place in Japan’s history and this is thanks to its location on the island of Kyushu.
Kyushu is the historic gateway to Japan. The Dutch traded at Hirado and Nagasaki, bringing with them contemporary science and medicine, such as the life-saving smallpox vaccine. Both the Catholic religion and the guns used to unite the nation and end the Warring States period were introduced via Portuguese traders in southern Kagoshima. Not as famous as Nagasaki, Hirado or Kagoshima for its foreign connections, Shimabara was just as defined by its dealings with the Portuguese, their traders and missionaries.
Today Shimabara is a small rural city within a larger prefecture but it wasn’t always that way. Shimabara was once the capital of an eponymous domain. Built around the capital’s magnificent castle, it was made wealthy by foreign trade. This reliance on foreign trade as a means to success would be a factor in the domain’s later woes.
Catholicism came to Shimabara in 1563 and soon Arima Yoshisada, the domain’s daimyo, gave permission to Jesuits missionaries to build churches and seminaries. Many of the people here began practicing the new religion and eventually five local boys were sent to Rome to meet the pope and would later be ordained. Yoshisada himself converted as well.
Four years later Shimabara began trading directly with the barbarians from Portugal. This increased wealth allowed the construction of a new castle in 1618. In a time when rice was money and so the size of a daimyo’s castle was tied directly to how much rice his land’s produced, foreign trade allowed Shimabara’s lord to build a castle with a five-storied keep that was far bigger than his income should have allowed.
The new lord of Shimabara, the ambitious Shigemasa Matsukura, who had taken over from the Amira clan in 1618, sought to curry favor with the shogunate by funding new construction on Edo Castle and helping to plan and fund the joint Japanese-Dutch invasion of the Philippines. He also began construction on a new over-sized castle at Shimabara. Raising land taxes in combination with the money brought in by foreign trade allowed him to accomplish these financially-demanding objectives. This did not endear him to his new subjects.
This was also immediately after the Warring States period ended, Japan was now unified and at peace. A rigid caste system was employed ensuring everyone knew their place and that place was tied to a lord and the land. The country was slowly closing itself off from the disruptive influence of uncontrolled outside thoughts and technology, the same outside influences that Shimabara profited from.
As foreign influences were phased out, the practice of Christianity was made illegal in 1627, which Matsukura cracked down with a vengeance. Unrepentant Christians were boiled alive in the Unzen hells, lethal hot springs, at the nearby volcano. Despite this, many refused to give up their faith and continued to practice in secret.
In 1637 the shogun abolished foreign trade, except for certain ports, leaving the domain with bills to pay and no way to do so. Adding to the problem was a bad harvest, which because of rice’s currency status left many broke and starving. The new daimyo, Katsuie Matsukura, raised land taxes anyway, setting up his domain for one of the only major rebellions to occur during the 250 year Edo period.
Riots broke out throughout villages in the south on Oct. 25, 1637. Almost every peasant from the southern domain villages, roughly 60 percent of the domain’s population, assaulted Shimabara Castle with the aid of ronin, samurai still loyal to the dead Amira and Konishi clans. Their attack failed and so the rebels fell back to the ruins of Hara Castle and dug in along with rebels from the Amakusa islands, awaiting the daimyo’s retaliation.
Despite being 37,000 strong at best and composed primarily of peasants, the rebels held out against a shogunate force of 120,000 that alternated between attacking and besieging Hara for months. Discovering the rebels were low on food and ammunition, the army assaulted Hara on April 12, 1638. After the battle, every surviving rebel was executed.
The mismanagement by Matsukura that led to the rebellion didn’t go unnoticed by the shogunate, and it was decided he would die for his failures, but he would not be allowed the dignity of an honorable death by seppuku, ritual suicide by disembowelment. Katsuie Matsukura holds the distinction of being the only daimyo to be beheaded during the Edo period.
Newly deprived of a lord and the majority of its population, Shimabara started over with fresh immigrants from around the country, with healthy incentives for moving, and a new lord who would both work to remove Christianity from the domain and spy on nearby Nagasaki for the shogun, ensuring that they too stayed loyal.
Shimbara Castle itself served for the next two centuries until the Meiji Restoration and the decision to tear down all castles. This was decision was made due to another Kyushu rebellion in 1877. The towering symbol of power and ambitious was abandoned and later unceremoniously dismantled. Shimabara would not have a castle again until the current replica was erected in 1964.
Matsukura was a man with great ambition who thought highly of himself and his castle feels like the physical expression of that ego. Situated on the stump of a manmade hill rising high from the center of a wide moat, the five-storied tower looks down on you and your smallness. Compared to other sprawling castle complexes, Shimabara isn’t that big but its vertical construction seems to compensate. Being a mid-century rebuilt castle, it looks like the real thing but is actually made of reinforced concrete; its builders did not use original material and methods such as Kakegawa Castle or the ninomaru of Hiroshima Castle.
At the tower museum entrance was a collection of child-sized armor and kimono for kids to try on as well as some attendants in period dress. Throughout the day they do short shows where they pantomimed fighting with fans and performed to recorded music. It was a bit odd yet still entertaining.
The most interesting pieces in the museum related to Shimabara’s religious heritage, this included both ‘hidden’ artifacts and original artwork. Their painted interpretation of Mary holding the baby Jesus for example, has a Japanese mother and child wearing kimonos and drawn in a Japanese style. Before anyone calls blasphemy, remember at the same time in Europe artists were also depicting religious scenes and figures wearing contemporary clothing and sporting the blonde-haired and blue-eyed look Jews are so famous for. It fascinated me because I’ve never seen this kind of religious art in Japan that wasn’t from an Eastern religion.
Other artifacts from before the religion’s banning were items from the seminaries and churches and katana hand guards adorned with Christian iconography.
The other pieces were more discreet, hidden in plain sight. At a glance they appear to be typical statues of Kannon or Buddha seated in a small shrine, but subtle differences change them to be figures of Mary and Jesus. It may not be much and if I wasn’t told they were Christian figures I wouldn’t have guessed but that’s not really what’s important. What’s important is that to the people willing to die holding these things, it represented those people to them.
This collection by itself made Shimabara worth the visit as there are few places in Japan with these kinds of religious items. Catholicism didn’t make it far past Kyushu and it was concentrated in these trade areas, after it’s banning the practice continued in secret locally so it’s a local peculiarity one really only finds in Nagasaki Prefecture.
There is also a contemporary painting and replica battle flag of Amakusa Shiro, the 16-year old boy chosen to lead the rebellion. Shiro, like most of the rebels, was a Christian and his flag, adorned with angels, a chalice and cross and Latin inscription looks like it belongs in a church. The rebellion is sometimes considered a religious uprising because of the shared faith aspect and it provided justification for the continued drive to kill the religion.
Most of the exhibit placards and write-ups were translated into English, which made it easier to understand and appreciate what I saw.
The castle also holds the obligatory armor and sword collection, and it didn’t disappoint. There is a row of original armor in good shape and in different styles. Small placards stated former owner and position but unfortunately, unlike on the Christian artifact floor there isn’t much explained here.
Outside the main keep there are two small museums located in the castle towers, one is dedicated to sculptor Seibo Kitamura and the other is for folk implements, everyday items from the late 19th and early 20th century. Seibo Kitamura created the famous statue of Peace at the peace park in Nagasaki and this tower has his earlier potential versions and preparatory miniatures of the famous statue.
About a five minute walk from the castle is a “samurai residence street.” If you’ve seen Matsushiro, another former domain-capital castle town, now absorbed into Nagano City, and its samurai homes there’s nothing new to see here. These are the three preserved homes of lower-level samurai and are quite small, but if you’ve never seen a samurai home or are just love Edo-period architecture they’re good examples to see.
Most of the houses on the street are not old samurai or even pretending to be, but the walk itself has pleasant contrasts because while most of the homes on the street are modern, their version of white picket fences are Edo-period volcanic stone walls. The walls are a neat local touch as the stone is from the nearby volcanoes. A small “canal” also runs down the center of the street, a holdover from the days when residents drew their water from it for their daily needs.
If this sounds rather mundane, that’s because it is. Welcome to the world of the Edo-period samurai. Most people think of samurai as warriors, and they were, but primarily they were civil servants, clerks, supervisors, accountants and worked other white collar (white kimono?) jobs.
The samurai who lived on this street were low and mid-level administrators, the Edo equivalent of the middle class and I could easily imagine it as the setting for “Leave it to Beaver-san.” Here the effects of 250 years of isolation and technological stagnation are also apparent as the house built in 1868 is identical in style to the one built in the 1600s. Inside the rooms are kept as if in use, with tools and cooking implements in their places. Unlike modern homes with lots of ‘set’ furniture that never moves, the rooms were utilitarian spaces and things not in use, like bedding, were squirreled away until needed at night. The addition of dressed mannequins performing daily tasks or playing shogi help complete the feeling you’re looking into the life of the castle’s samurai.
Beside the volcanic stone wall another local construction peculiarity seemed to be house roofs, which have a thatch upper layer and tile lower layer. Most houses I’ve seen elsewhere have one or the other.
Like with the castle, there are English-language signs at all homes that tell their former owner’s stories.
Getting to Shimabara from Sasebo I rode the JR line to Isahaya and there had to switch. The bigger company doesn’t run to Shimabara, but according to the schedule at the station I could catch a ride on the local Shimabara Railway at Platform 0. I’ve seen Platform 9 ¾ before, but a Platform 0 was new to me.
In case Platform 0 in itself wasn’t enough of a setup for whimsical trip, the train was. The Shimabara Railway “train” consisted of a single cartoonishly bright yellow car with drawings of flowers and a kimono-clad woman with a baby on her back adorning it. Why ride a train, when you can ride a cute train?
The ride itself was 70 minutes from Isahaya but the scenery was nice as it changed from green mountains to fields to seascape. I even saw the impossible here in Japan- a point on the horizon that didn’t terminate in mountains or ocean, just fields.
Complimenting the cartoon train I rode was Shimabara-eki, which looks like a big castle gate instead of a typical train station.
David Krigbaum is a U.S. Navy mass communication specialist assigned to Commander U.S. Fleet Activities Sasebo Public Affairs. He enjoys travelling to see historic sites and World War II artifacts.