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The Wall and Screen Paintings
of Honmaru Palace, Nagoya Castle

Text by Akiko Tsukahara, curator, Nagoya Castle Management Office
Photos courtesy of Nagoya Castle Management Office

Plum tree, bamboo, and birds in the snow

Nagoya Castle, built by Tokugawa Ieyasu (1542–1616), founder of the Tokugawa shogunate (1603–1867), is among Japan’s most famous castles. The donjon was completed in 1612, and the main residential area, the Honmaru Palace, in 1615. The castle was intended to serve as the seat of the lord of the Owari domain, head of one of the three main branches of the Tokugawa clan (the other two ruled the Mito and Kii domains). The soaring donjon, its roofbeam surmounted by two golden dolphinlike sea creatures known as shachi, is widely recognized as the symbol of Nagoya Castle even today.

Unfortunately most of the original castle structures were destroyed in air raids in May 1945, in the closing stages of World War II. The present donjon is a reconstruction, completed in 1959. Nevertheless, 1,049 wall and screen paintings from the Honmaru Palace had been removed ahead of time and thus were saved. Almost all are designated important cultural properties.

Highly decorative paintings on paper-covered sliding screens (fusuma), paper-covered sliding doors (shoji), and wooden sliding doors (sugido) in castles and palaces came into vogue in the Warring States period (1467–1568) as displays of the lords’ power and prestige. Nagoya Castle perpetuated this tradition. The most striking examples are the panels from the part of the Honmaru Palace known as the Jorakuden, built in 1634 to house the third shogun, Iemitsu (1604–51), when he stopped over on his journeys from the shogunal seat, Edo (today’s Tokyo), to the capital, Kyoto.

Iemitsu's uncle Yoshinao (1600–1650), the ninth son of Ieyasu, was ensconced in Nagoya Castle as the first lord of Owari. In anticipation of the shogun’s stay he had the Jorakuden luxuriously appointed down to the smallest detail, including gold- and silver-lacquered fusuma borders and cloisonné door pulls. Much of the work was executed by Kano Tanyu (1602–74) of the 400-year lineage of the Kano school of artists, a genius credited with having revolutionized painting technique. Having steeped himself in classical styles, he first employed his own distinctive style in Nagoya Castle.

If the style preceding Tanyu is likened to a great gorgeous red rose, his is like a more modest but graceful and fragrant white rose. The fusuma paintings from the Jorakuden are the epitome of elegant stylishness. The white paper is decorated with subtly colored ink paintings; the only opulent touch is the generous sprinkling of gold powder. Tanyu’s economy of line is eloquent testimony to his artistry. His birds and plants are delineated vividly, with not one superfluous brushstroke, and their precise placement in wide sweeps of empty space bespeaks his consummate composition.

The Warring States period, with its love of virile, grandiose beauty, had ended. The wall and screen paintings of Nagoya Castle’s Jorakuden reveal an aesthetic of chic befitting the new age of peace. In this sense these artworks are a metaphor for that historical transition.

Nagoya Castle contains many other artifacts from the Tokugawa period, including swords and armor. The national government has designated the reconstructed donjon the equivalent of a museum. In addition to the permanent exhibition of wall and screen paintings, there are permanent or special displays of other works for the enjoyment of the million or so people who visit the castle each year.
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