Himeji-jo is the finest surviving example of early 17th-century Japanese castle architecture, comprising 83 buildings with highly developed systems of defence and ingenious protection devices dating from the beginning of the Shogun period. It is a masterpiece of construction in wood, combining function with aesthetic appeal, both in its elegant appearance unified by the white plastered earthen walls and in the subtlety of the relationships between the building masses and the multiple roof layers.
Himeji-jo is a masterpiece of wooden construction, the finest surviving example of early 17th-century Japanese castle architecture, and preserves all its significant features intact. The castle is also a powerful and evocative symbol of the feudalism that prevailed in Japan until the Meiji restoration of 1868.
Himeji is situated at an important communications centre and as a result the regent Toyotomi Hideyoshi built a castle there in the closing years of the 16th century, part of the network of such fortresses that he created all over Japan to ensure its continued unification. The first castle was destroyed by Ikeda Terumas, who became the feudal lord of the area under the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1600, but he quickly erected a new fortress, most of which survives to the present day. It comprised two concentric enclosures defined by walls and moats, containing keeps and turrets as well as residences for his samurai (warriors). Part of the west bailey (Nishi-no-maru) was remodelled by Honda Tadamasa, lord of the castle in 1617, as quarters for his wife, daughter of the Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu. It remained the centre of this feudal domain for 270 years and a town grew up around it.
With the end of the shogunate and the restoration of the Meiji dynasty in 1868, Himeji-jo was taken over by the new government as a military establishment, when part of the west bailey and the samurai houses were demolished and replaced by military structures. Unlike many other feudal castles in Japan, Himeji-jo was preserved in its original form, thanks to the intervention of army officers such as Colonel Nakamura Shigeto, and it was given protection under successive monuments protection acts.
In 1945 the military facilities in and around the castle were demolished and replaced by public buildings for official use. The inner buildings were, however, not touched and retained their 17th-century form.
Himeji-jo is an archetypal early 17th-century castle complex in design and layout, comprising 83 buildings in all. Only the east gate of one section of the second bailey survives from the castle built by Hideyoshi; the remainder dates from 1601-9, plus the towers of Nishi-no-Maru (after 1617).
The centre of the complex is the Tenshu-gun, consisting of a main keep and three subsidiary keeps, with connecting structures. This is surrounded by a system of watchtowers, gates and plastered earthen walls. Set on a low hill, it is visible from every part of the city. The main keep (Dai-Tenshu) has six interior storeys and a basement. The main access is from the south-west, through a covered corridor.
The striking appearance of this great wooden structure with its white plastered walls is the source of the name by which it is often known, the Castle of the White Heron (Shirasagi-jo).
Many castles were built in Japan in the early years of the shogun period. Most of these have subsequently been demolished and others were destroyed during the Second World War. Of the handful that survives, Himeji-jo is the most complete and unaltered, largely thanks to the efforts of army officers after the Meiji restoration. The conservation work between 1934 and 1964 was carried out using the advanced techniques developed in Japan for large wooden structures and in conformity with established principles of authenticity in design, materials, techniques, and environment.