Within the burgeoning and hyper-modern metropolis of Tokyo, surrounded by a valley of skyscrapers, apartment complexes and dazzling electric lights, sits a timeless oasis of green trees, elegantly sloping roofs, and graceful European-style structures. It is here that the Emperor of Japan dwells, the palace complex forming the central hub from which the ancient Japanese monarchy continues to function.
Although the Emperor does not even rule Japan in a nominal sense, described as he is in the 1947 Constitution as a “symbol of the nation,” the Imperial Palace forms a spiritual centre of sorts for the Japanese people, where it plays host to numerous national and cultural events throughout the year. Unlike European palaces, the complex is largely closed to the public for much of the year, save for a few areas specially set aside for public visitation, specially arranged private tours, and notable events such as the New Year or the Emperor’s Birthday. Much like the Emperor himself, it is largely invisible to the public eye even as it remains steadfastly rooted in the Japanese identity and culture.
The First Palace — Edo Castle
As is common with buildings that carry with them lots of history, the Imperial Palace is built directly on top of an older structure, Edo Castle. This, in turn, was built on top of an even older structure. Edo Castle was a military installation constructed in 1457 by Ota Dokan, a retainer of a branch of the Uesugi clan, upon the remains of a nobleman’s residence dated from around the end of the Heian period. The former ruling clan, from which the town and castle took their name, had perished as a result of the numerous uprisings in the region, and Edo Castle would continue to be struggled over later in its history. At this period, Edo was little more than a relatively insignificant fishing village on the eastern reaches of the Japanese state, and the early castle would likely have been fairly modest as a result.
During the Sengoku period, forces under the command of the Hojo clan laid siege to Edo Castle in 1524 to expand their reaches deeper into Uesugi territory. Despite commanding a strong position within the walls of Edo Castle, its commander, Uesugi Tomooki, sought greater glory on the field of battle and sallied forth to meet the Hojo in the open. Outmanoeuvred when Hojo Ujitsuna managed to flank Uesugi’s forces and attack his rear, the defending army attempted to retreat to Edo Castle and make a stand there. Unfortunately for them, the castle gates were opened by the garrison commander, and the Hojo forces were left free to enter and seize the castle.
The Hojo would continue to hold Edo until being forced to evacuate by Toyotomi Hideyoshi towards the final years of the Sengoku era in 1590. Tokugawa Ieyasu then received the castle along with several other provinces in the region as a reward for his services, and he made Edo his new primary residence. The decision was a particularly counter-intuitive one, as Kanto was formerly a Hojo-dominated region with uncertain loyalties. Further, Edo was something of a backwater at the time, poor and undeveloped compared to the more advanced areas in the south. Nevertheless, Tokugawa made it work. He solidified his control over the populace, built up the local infrastructure and economy, and Edo’s remoteness from the capital afforded Tokugawa a degree of autonomy that was denied to Toyotomi’s other vassals.
Through his efforts and acumen, Tokugawa became the second most powerful man in Japan. Upon Hideyoshi’s death and the defeat of his son in the Siege of Osaka, Tokugawa Ieyasu was designated by the Emperor as the Shogun of Japan, and Edo Castle became the centre of the new Tokugawa shogunate in 1603.
Upon taking control of the castle, Tokugawa undertook a massive rebuilding project to make Edo Castle more suitable as the centre of his authority. This included not only improving the castle walls and defences but also altering the very landscape about the castle — most of the castle was on the edges of a beach. Construction started in 1593 and was not completed until the lifetime of Tokugawa’s son, Tokugawa Iemitsu. Construction also allowed Tokugawa the opportunity to secure his authority over the other daimyo of Japan — each lord had to contribute in some way to the castle’s construction.
As well as improving the castle’s defences, Tokugawa also wanted to make the castle the centre of a new town within the Kanto region, and much planning was dedicated to properly set up areas where merchants could settle and trade. By the castle’s completion in 1636, the town of Edo housed 150,000 people. By the 18th century, it was one of the largest cities in the world with a population of one million. Edo Castle itself possessed 38 gates, and ramparts as high as 20 metres, and numerous moats and ditches. Many parts of the ramparts survive to this day.
The Tokugawa Shogunate would dominate Japan for the next 263 years, ushering in an era of peace, stability and isolation. However pressures from the Western world outside, as well as discontent with the Shogunate amongst many of Japan’s nobles, spiralled into the Boshin War and the Meiji Restoration in 1868, which saw the Shogunate overthrown and the 16-year-old Emperor Meiji restored as the direct ruler of Japan. He entered Edo in triumph after its capture from Shogunate forces, took Edo Castle as his primary residence instead of the Old Imperial Palace in Kyoto, and renamed the city “Tokyo,” meaning “Eastern Capital.”
The Modern Palace
Traditionally, the Japanese preferred to build using only paper and wood, as these light materials were more resistant to the many earthquakes that trouble the islands, or at the very least would cause less damage and are easier to remove if they end up collapsing. On the other hand, it made them very flammable as well. Subsequently, when a fire broke out in the castle in 1873 it quickly ravaged the old palace and rendered it uninhabitable.
A new imperial residence was constructed in its place in 1888, with many of the older Shogunate-era buildings being torn down to make way for the new palace. Externally the palace followed traditional Japanese styles and conventions. However, the interior was decorated with a blend of Japanese and European fashions, reflecting in many ways the Japanese nation as it had come to be by that point — Western ways, but a Japanese spirit. Typically whether or not Western or Japanese styles held precedence depended on who was primarily using them. Public rooms tended to be decorated in a very European style, while residential areas followed more traditional lines.
Many innovations were also installed. Instead of the traditional cypress shingles often used in Japanese architecture, the roof of the palace used copper tiles to make them more flame resistant. Further, during the Taisho period, numerous concrete buildings were added for the Imperial Household Agency and the Privy Council. These buildings were more distinctly European and had only token Japanese elements.
In total, the Meiji-era Palace and its grounds were around 737 metres square in total surface area.
During the Second World War, American bombing of Tokyo devastated much of the city, and the Palace was not spared. Almost the entirety of the compound was destroyed, and when Emperor Showa ordered the unconditional surrender of Japan in 1945, he did so from within an air raid shelter. The utter destruction of the palace was left as it was as Japan struggled through the trials of the American-occupation and the devastated post-war economy. However, reconstruction began in the 1960s, and by 1968, the Eastern Gardens had been opened to the public, with construction finally completed in 1993. The design of the new imperial residence as it came to be called was overseen by architect Shozo Uchii.
The Emperor and the Imperial Family primarily reside within the Fukiage Gardens, which is usually off-limits to the general public.
The modern structure is a lot more modest compared to its predecessors, but still, plays host to some state and imperial events and functions. Its architecture follows a modernist style, yet still, incorporates distinctive Japanese accents such as sloping roofs and Japanese-style beams. In total, the palace grounds cover 1.32 square miles, of which only the East Gardens and the Imperial Household Agency are open to the public. Guided tours operate each week from Tuesday to Saturday, and access is eased during special occasions. At the height of the Japanese property bubble, the Imperial Palace was valued to be more than all the real estate in California.