Japanese Gate Typology (9)

This is a series of posts describing the many varieties of Japanese gate, or mon (). If you look at the preceding kanji more closely,  you can think of it as a picture of a pair of swinging doors, reminiscent of saloon doors in a wild west movie. I thought that it would be a nice idea to bring more awareness to a western audience as to the tremendous diversity in forms and types of Japanese gates. This series intends to be a gateway to gates.

Previous posts in this series:

  1. Heijūmon 
  2. Kabukimon 
  3. Kōraimon 
  4. Yakuimon 
  5. Yotsu-ashimon 
  6. Munamon 
  7. Commentary
  8. Uzumimon


I’ll stick with castles for the time being, as there are many types of gates associate to castles.

Yaguramon (櫓門)

As one might expect, fortifications of all kinds require some sort of lookout post, which is typically a raised platform or tower. A Yagura () is a tower, and there are towers which also serve as gates, hence, Yaguramon:

The character read yagura,  (櫓) is an interesting one in that it combines tree/wood (木) on the left, and on the right we have fish (魚) over sayeth (曰). A speaking fish? No, it -魯-  meant the repeated puckering of the mouth of a fish, a reference to stupidity and absurdity. However, when used in compounds with other elements, it connotes ‘long and drawn out’. A long and drawn out wooden thing then. Originally, ‘櫓’referred to a pair of wooden oars, however it came to mean tower or turret. Those meanings are a bit diverse, however with character that are a few thousand years old, that’s what you get sometimes. Yagura were not just an appurtenance of castles – a fire lookout tower is a hinomi-yagura (火の見櫓).

Yaguramon were most often associated with a type of gate we just looked at, the kōraimon. Together, these two gates formed a courtyard complex which is termed the masugatamon (桝形門) of a castle. Masugata (桝形) means shaped like a masu (). A masu is a square wooden measuring cup, like this:

The castle courtyard complex with the two gates, yaguramon and kōraimon, are arranged around a square, walled courtyard. The English term for the masugatamon is a ‘barbican gate complex‘. Usually the yaguramon is constructed 90˚ to the first gate, which is the kōraimon. Here’s a photo from the  JAANUS site which shows the typical relationship between the two gates in the square courtyard, ‘a’ being the yaguramon, and ‘b’ the kōraimon:

Here’s a yaguramon at Matsudai Castle in Niigata Prefecture:

The same gate as part of the masugatamon complex:


A photomontage by cameraman Chee Hian of Matsuyama Castle, where the full panorama of the two gates and masugata are clearly seen:

The yaguramon at Saiki Castle (a remains) in Ōita Prefecture:


As you can see, yaguramon are two-story timber structures fitted in between runs of stone wall fortifications. Typically they are three bays in length, and in some configurations the castle’s stone walls provide ready walkable access into the second story – otherwise stairs or ladders are involved.

Here’s the one that remains from Ibariki Castle in Ōsaka:


A little curious as it doesn’t seem to have any upstairs view ports. Perhaps the boards in the upstairs wainscot can be slid aside for that purpose.

At Kawanoe Castle, where there is a – hold your nose – concrete re-creation of the 1337 original castle, there is an imposing yaguramon:


Another castle ruins, located in Nagasaki Prefecture, is that of Kane-ishi Castle, which has a rather tall yaguramon, a 1990 rebuild (this, the third rebuild after the original 1678 structure burned down in 1813, and its replacement having been torn down in 1919):

Another view:


Yaguramon were sometimes plated with metal to give them better fire-resistance, like this example:

A closer look at the copper cladding:

Finally, a more primitive and archaic yagura gate, located in Ishikawa Prefecture at the remains of Torigoe Castle


The site lies at the top of a 312-meter high mountain, overlooking the Tedori River. There’s a good account of the structure in Steven Trumbull’s book Japanese Fortified Temples and Monasteries AD 710-1062

Thanks for visiting the Carpentry Way. A detailed look at the many types of Japanese gates will continue.  On to post 10.

8 Replies to “Japanese Gate Typology (9)”

  1. Hi Chris,
    This has been a fascination series. Any ideas why these gates are so “durable” that they (at times) outlast the inner constructions? This may be a similar question to the one someone asked on an earlier post about why they are preserved when they are not “used” in the traditional way.

    The Kane-ishi Castle gate is breathtaking. It must be amazing to see in person.

    Harlan Barnhart

  2. In the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, there is a Japanese themed section, including a small lake. I have often wandered why there is a “gate” built in standing water. Is this a common practice? You can see a picture on their website.

    Harlan Barnhart

  3. Harlan,

    thanks for the comment. I've been to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and seen the gate you speak of: it is a torii. While these are a form of gate, they have a somewhat different function than the kinds of gates we have been looking at so far. I'll be looking at torii later in this series, so I'll hold off in answering further until then.


  4. Harlan,

    it's not that the gates were more durable that the rest of the castle complex (they aren't). One of the outcomes of the Meiji Restoration, which saw the restoration of the Emperor and the disbanding of the Shogunate, was the abandonment of feudalism. The old was tossed out and a rush to embrace new modes of warfare took place, modeled on Western military technologies. This all occurred in a breathtakingly short period of time. Sword-carrying was banned, and the warrior class moved into business, in certain cases. Men discarded Japanese clothing and hairstyles in favor of Western ones. Castles were razed to the ground, as they were considered irrelevant.

    By 1906 Japan defeated the Russians in the battle of the Tsunagaru Straight using a modern naval ship with British-trained sailors. An amazing result, considering that only 50 years or so had gone by since commodore Perry's black Ships overturned the entire system.

    Rebuilding an entire castle, an outmoded military structure, was out of the question after the modern Japanese state had been created (this sort of project only be justified in modern times for the purposes of attracting tourism to an area). Rebuilding or reconstructing a former castle gate was not and unreasonable idea, and thus you will see these gates standing among the castle's excavated remains, which may have wall remnants, foundations, etc.. The gate is perhaps most symbolic of the edifice that was once there. In some cases, during the razing of the castle, a smaller type of gate in the compound might have been dismantled and set up at a wealthy person's house, or perhaps in association to a nearby park. Some old castle gates have been moved several times in the past 125 years, getting 'lost out in the woods' for a time, so to speak.

    Thanks for your question and good to hear from you!


  5. Hi Chris,
    If you tire of these questions, I suppose you can ignore them at any time but I'm still curious. When I mentioned the “durability” of these gates, I was thinking of more than physical durability. If the castles were deemed outdated and razed to the ground, why not the gates as well? It seems to me they must serve a function that is not related to their ability to keep people in or out.
    Harlan Barnhart

  6. Harlan,

    thanks again for your question.

    First, Japanese gates do not always function to “keep people in or out”, as some have no doors, though with castle gates that control of movement was of course a primary function. Gates mark the edge of a space, and mark the entry or exit from that space.

    I can't really answer your question with complete conviction as I was not there when these gates were dismantled. I have little idea what motivations and politics affected the details of those dismantlings. I image in certain locales there would have been resistance to the dismantling program.

    I think the smaller gates were easy to re-purpose or adapt to other places, other walls, and that often is what happened. And if the gate was left at the castle, it was perfectly logical to choose a gate as a symbol for the edifice that once was.

    It's not unusual for people to leave markers of some kind to remind us of historical artifacts. Massachusetts has hundred of historical monument signs by the roadsides, describing sites of former battles, former important homesteads, and so forth. Sometimes nothing remains, and if not for the sign, there would be nothing to indicate what had happened at a particular spot. I think that leaving a gate behind as the marker for a castle makes a lot of sense, for anyone who had visited or approached the castle would have been familiar with, or passed through, the gate, even if they had never a glimpse of what was inside the castle itself.


  7. MatsuYAMA not Matsumura!.. Just spent 1/2 hour trying to locate this castle and had to resort to trawling thru Chee Hian's Flickr..

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