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Japan: The Kumamoto Earthquake and Its Impact on the Castle

Updated: Mar 24

The Kumamoto earthquake in April 2016 caused considerable damage to its iconic castle and the surrounding area, illustrating the vulnerability of historic structures to natural disasters. Among the most significant damage to the castle, the collapse of important centuries-old stone walls is lamented.


Japan: The Kumamoto Earthquake and Its Impact on the Castle

© O. Robert


These imposing support structures, which had perfectly withstood the vicissitudes of time, ended up yielding under the impressive force of the shakes. These walls, known for their specific construction technique that prevented assailants from climbing, saw entire sections collapse, scattering rocks and debris around the site.


The main keep, although previously restored in concrete, also suffered significant damage, especially to its tile roofs and some of its wooden frames. This resulted in endangering the structural integrity of the building.


In this article, I would like to briefly revisit the damage caused to this emblematic castle and the resilience of the local community in the face of adversity. My regular trips to Kumamoto and the various encounters I have had there have allowed me to witness this determination to rebuild this historical and cultural symbol.


To learn more about the history of Kumamoto Castle and its features, you can read my dedicated article.


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Other Damaged Monuments

Unfortunately, the surrounding area was not spared by the earthquake. Many homes, infrastructures, and roads were damaged or destroyed, disrupting daily life and the local economy. The earthquake not only affected the region's material heritage but also left a deep imprint on the community.


In addition to Kumamoto Castle, several famous monuments and sites in the region also suffered significant damage. These damages not only impacted the cultural and historical heritage of the region but also affected the local economy, especially the tourism sector.


The restoration and reconstruction efforts in these areas have been a complex and prolonged process, highlighting the importance of heritage preservation and community resilience in the face of natural disasters.


Among the most notable sites affected by the earthquake are:


1. Suizen-ji Jōju-en (Suizenji Garden): Suizen-ji Jōju-en, created in the 17th century by the Hosokawa clan, is a classic kaiyū-shiki style landscaped garden. This historic garden, which spans approximately 64,000 m2, was also affected, although to a lesser extent. It is designed to represent the Tokaido, the historic road connecting Tokyo to Kyoto, with Mount Fuji symbolized by an artificial hill (Tsukiyama).


Suizen-ji Jōju-en is famous for its picturesque beauty, its ponds, its hills, its meticulously trimmed trees, and its Noh theater. The garden includes a small Shinto shrine (Izumi Jinja) whose Torii gate has collapsed due to the earthquake. Damage was also observed on some paths, the main basin was cracked leading to a significant loss of water, and the vegetation was also disturbed. Read my article on Suizen-ji Jōju-en.


Suizen-ji Jōju-en before the earthquake, 2014 | Fine Art Print © O. Robert

2. Aso-jinja (Aso Shrine): This Shinto shrine, one of the oldest and most important in Japan, suffered considerable damage. The emblematic torii gate and some parts of the main building were severely damaged or destroyed.


3. Traditional houses and infrastructures: Several residential and historic buildings in the Kumamoto region, built in the traditional Japanese architectural style, suffered damage, ranging from cracks to partial collapses.


4. Roads and public infrastructures: The earthquake caused significant landslides that damaged many roads and bridges. This resulted in disrupting transport networks and making access to affected areas very complicated.


5. Mount Aso Region: Mount Aso, an active volcano and a major tourist attraction in the region, saw its surroundings, including access roads and tourist infrastructures, affected by the earthquake.


Restoration of Kumamoto Castle

To restore the damage caused by the earthquake to Kumamoto Castle, a long-term restoration plan has been put in place by the government. It aims not only to repair and preserve this historic site for future generations but also to ensure the continuity of tourism, an important source of income for the region.


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Here are some key elements of this monumental reconstruction project:


Restoration Measures

Repair of stone walls: The collapsed or damaged walls are rebuilt stone by stone. This is done using as much as possible the original materials and ancestral techniques (some of which had been forgotten) to preserve the authenticity of the castle.


Renovation of buildings: The damaged structures, including the main keep and the watchtowers, are meticulously repaired by calling upon the country's best craftsmen. This includes the restoration of roofs, wooden frames, and decorative elements.


Structural reinforcement: Drastic measures must be taken to strengthen the castle's resilience to future earthquakes. This includes improving the foundation and using modern construction techniques that respect the historic appearance of the site. This is something Kumamoto Castle had already benefited from in 1960, during its post-war restoration. This approach had, however, sparked strong criticism.


Japan: The Kumamoto Earthquake and Its Impact on the Castle

© O. Robert


Duration and cost

It is therefore easy to understand that the restoration of Kumamoto Castle is a large-scale project, planned to extend over a significant period. Initially, some estimates suggested that the work could last up to 20 years, with key phases first targeting the most critical repairs. But it now seems that we are heading towards a longer duration without being able to set a time limit.


The total cost of the restoration has been estimated at several billion yen. This budget covers not only the physical restoration work but also feasibility studies, the archaeological research necessary before reconstruction interventions, and measures to support the local community.


The Japanese government, local authorities, as well as private funds and donation campaigns contribute to the financing of the restoration. Special grants have been allocated to accelerate work on cultural sites damaged by the earthquake.


My library: Samurai Castles

My library: Samurai Castles


Impact

Beyond simply repairing the damage, the project also aims to revitalize the region, strengthen the castle's tourist appeal, and convey the importance of preserving cultural heritage.


These restoration efforts demonstrate a deep commitment to heritage conservation and preparation for future challenges. They underline the importance of combining traditional techniques and modern innovations in the restoration of historic monuments.


Japan: The Kumamoto Earthquake and Its Impact on the Castle

The Final Word

The Kumamoto earthquake and its inevitable ravages on the castle remind us of the precariousness of our existence in the face of the indomitable forces of nature. Yet, in this ordeal, a lesson in resilience and hope is revealed. The collective response to the disaster, marked by restoration efforts and community support, testifies to the human capacity to rebuild, renovate, and rise from the ashes of destruction.


This healing process, where heritage and community ties are strengthened, illustrates the unshakable Japanese optimism in the face of adversity. Kumamoto Castle, a symbol of strength and perseverance, stands not only as a monument to the country's cultural legacy but also as a beacon of hope. It reminds us that even in the darkest moments, unity, commitment, and hope can engender a promising new future.


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