During its 550 year history the appearance and significance of the imperial Japanese residential complex changed many times. Originally called Edo Castle and today called Chiyoda Palace, it is both a palace and a castle. The gigantic complex has been the center of Imperial Japan since 1868, after the last Shogun was toppled. Although the complex was largely destroyed in World War II, it was rebuilt to its previous grandeur.
In 1457 Ota Dokan, son of a local feudal lord, laid the first foundation stone of the imperial residence in Edo, today called Tokyo, of what was to become the emperor's palace. In the founding years there was also a Hiramaka Shrine, dedicated to the Kami (Japanese spirit) of poetry and scholarship. Edo Castle first reached its magnificent size in 1590 when the Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu chose the complex as his residence.
And so Edo grew from an unimportant fishing port into Japan's military and administrative center. The period of the Tokugawa shogunate became known as the Edo Period, the longest period of peace in Japanese history. The seat of the emperor, the absolute but powerless ruler, remained in Kyoto.
Although Chiyoda Palace is a typical motif in Japanese art, in its early stages, the complex would hardly be considered traditional. Remains show that it was fortified with moats, banks and walls. The external moats had to yield to the city's expansion in more modern times.
Prestigious castles from this period featured main buildings, which followed the traditional archetype that we know from Himeji Castle. Although earthquakes and fire hazards made smaller and flatter buildings more sensible, excessive fortifications were necessary for the shielding of Japan and to demonstrate the power of the Shogun.
This approach of fortifications changed with the fire of the main castle in 1657 in the Meireki Period, after which the castle was gradually rebuilt as a prestigious palace with multiple smaller towers and gates. It later received the name Chiyoda Palace from the neighborhood Chiyoda, into which the castle was slowly integrated.
Today one recognizes the former boundaries of the castle from street names and the names of places in Chiyoda.
250 years of a system of vassals ended with the Meiji Restoration, a pro west reform of the government, and stopped the disempowerment of the Shogun in 1868. Officially the 15 year old Emperor Tenno Mutsuhito took power and made Chiyoda Palace his imperial residence.
The politcal power, however, was de facto in the hands of the so called Meiji Oligarchy, composed of relatively low ranking samurai, whose leaders were previous shoguns.
The palacial complex began to expand and its exterior faces were refined but not in the traditional Japanese style. Instead historical buildings emerged in western style.
The imperial status of the palace meant that its inner life, i.e. the courtly architecture and governmental buildings, were shielded from curious passers-by by moats and luxurious gardens. Only the east garden is accessible to the public.
The palace opens its doors only twice a year to visitors: once on the birthday of the emperor, December 23, and at the start of the New Year on January 2. People are then allowed to cross the iron Nijubasi Bridge and enter the Chiyoda Palace via the main gates. Rebuilt after having been destroyed in World War II, the palace has shined in all its former magnificance since 1968.
The main building is an elongated two story hall with a basement, whose sloped roof tapers off with a far reaching eave. The stately fore-courtyard frames six lower wings and further smaller buildings. The total canopied area of this main complex is an impressive 22,949 square meters.
Author: Dieter Wanczura