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  • Japan's Castles: Citadels of Modernity in War and Peace by Oleg Benesch and Ran Zwigenberg
  • Alice Y. Tseng (bio)
Japan's Castles: Citadels of Modernity in War and Peace. By Oleg Benesch and Ran Zwigenberg. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2019. xv, 360 pages. $120.00, cloth; $31.99, paper; $26.00, E-book.

Designated a Japanese National Treasure as well as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Nijō Castle in Kyoto each year attracts more than two million visitors. Commissioned in 1603 and utilized by the Tokugawa shoguns until 1867, the site contains an exceptional surviving ensemble of early seventeenth-century architecture, carving, and painting. In recent years, the castle has begun to offer more experiences beyond glimpses into the rarefied spaces and treasures of a powerful ruling dynasty. For ¥680,000 (roughly US$6,000), anyone can reserve the castle to hold a wedding ceremony with up to 30 guests; for those with a smaller budget, a kimono wedding photo shoot on the scenic grounds costs just a fraction. More and more, organizers [End Page 167] of events with no reference to Tokugawa history or the Edo period at large have selected Nijō Castle as the site for spectacular shows, such as the Concorso d'Eleganza Kyoto (a competition of high-end collector automobiles), Art Aquarium (live goldfish swimming in designer glass cases), and Sakura Matsuri (cherry blossoms illuminated by dynamic kaleidoscopic digital projections). The antiquity and authenticity of Nijō Castle serve as exotic background to these contemporary extravaganzas, inspiring playful visual juxtapositions rather than reverent historical preservation.

To understand why a renowned castle like Nijō is being mobilized in these remarkable and palpably commercial ways today, Japan's Castles: Citadels of Modernity in War and Peace by Oleg Benesch and Ran Zwigenberg offers a much-needed historical contextualization. Perhaps the most important contribution that this book makes is bringing to wider attention the significant modern history of castles in Japan, to counter any existing misconception that castles merit mention exclusively in the political, military, and urban history of the late fifteenth to early seventeenth centuries when they were actively constructed and utilized as military fortresses by feudal lords. Benesch and Zwigenberg argue that from the start of the Meiji period to present time, castles of various extraction—whether original to the Sengoku period, restored, reconstructed, or newly invented—have continuously occupied a central place in the politics, militarization, economy, religion, and cultural identity of cities across the main islands of Japan. As physical structures and symbolic features, castles carry the baggage of premodern heritage while also igniting new aspirations for national unity and regional revitalization. The book steers us toward the realization that the majority of castles standing today reveal much less about Japanese bushidō, traditional architecture, and esprit de corps than we would like to believe.

The authors use the year 1945 as the dividing moment to structure the two main parts of Japan's Castles. Part 1 deals with the nearly eight decades beginning with the Meiji Restoration until the end of the Asia-Pacific War when castles assumed precarious positions as either white elephants or imperialist signposts in the national landscape. Part 2 covers the time between the Allied occupation and the 1980s, a period during which Benesch and Zwigenberg identify a "castle boom" propelled by coalitions of historians, designers, builders, and conservative politicians in search of economic and cultural benefits.

Japan's Castles examines much more than a singular building type. The physical, architectural, and functional aspects of castle structures, for better or worse, receive limited treatment. Nor is the book attempting to be a comprehensive inventory of the country's more than one hundred extant castles. Instead, the authors venture into a complex nexus of ideologies implicated in keeping medieval and medieval-looking castles standing in modern city centers throughout 150 years of dramatically changing political governance [End Page 168] and urbanism. They fix their attention on approximately a dozen case studies, and connoisseurs may be disappointed to know that none of these hold the coveted status of "original" castle, referring to construction that dates back to the Sengoku and early Edo periods. Nonetheless, the choice of modern-built examples makes...