Traveling to a new place has its own sort of bucket list, full of foods you insist you will try, mountains you’re desperate to climb, and buildings you yearn to see. Sometimes these bucket list entries are personal — the place your birth parents lived or the subject of a less-famous Ukiyo-e print. But for the most part, travelers abroad go to see something big—something that epitomizes “THAT PLACE”.

In this article, I’ll talk about Edo Castle, the NPO (non-profit organization) that wants to rebuild it, and what some people in Japan think about it. Then I’ll share some of my ideas for Japan’s “THAT PLACE.”

Is Edo Castle the symbol of Japan?


You’ve probably heard that Tokyo will be hosting the 2020 Olympics. Naturally, the Olympics will provide an excellent tourism opportunity for the island country, and one organization is hoping to use 2020 as a grand unveiling of their project: The NPO江戸城再建 (Rebuilding Edo Castle NPO) aims to garner enough consensus and financial backing to rebuild what used to be the tallest part of the former Edo castle city-compound.

To get an idea of how big this area was, visit this fascinating page at JCastle. Edo Castle’s outer moat stretched 15 km, while the inner moat was 5 km long. Without stopping for anything, it’d take you about 3 hours to walk the outer moat and 1 hour for the inner one.

Modern-day Tokyo does not have a castle. There’s the Imperial Palace in Chiyoda ward where the royal family lives. There’s a moat and a kind of mini-castle called the Fujimi-yagura. But neither of these are a castle fortress like Nagoya or Osaka’s, and those behemoths are only around half the height of Edo-jo’s tallest tower.

Like a lot of historic places in Japan, the original Edo-jo location didn’t change as much as the important buildings themselves did. Edo was established in the 11th century, but it wasn’t until 1457 that the place got a proper compound and was called a “castle.” This Edo-jo landed in the lap of Tokugawa Ieyasu. Ever ambitious, he devised a large-scale expansion of Edo which included a 59 m. high donjon (central tower). It got built, alright. And then was destroyed, and rebuilt, and destroyed, and rebuilt, and destroyed one last time in the 1657 Meireki Fire. It is said that when the flames spread from the donjon to the surrounding Edo urbanity, 100,000 people died — a fifth of Edo’s population.


Rebuilding the Castle

According to the NPO’s website, after the fire, the shogun’s half-uncle insisted that “Giving relief to the disaster victims and to rebuilding the districts of Edo come first. So forget the tower.” But the shogun and others were so prepared and ready to fund a third rebuilding of the tower that they managed to reconstruct the stone base before coming around to their senses.

And that was it. The tower didn’t get rebuilt. It had stood, then fallen, rinse and repeat, for a mere 50 years of the shogunate’s 250 year government. So then why does this NPO, founded in 2004, want to rebuild this unlucky central turret?


They assert that Edo-jo is necessary to “give future Japanese a historical legacy that is representative of Japan’s traditional and unique spirit” and which would attract visitors from around the world “with its charm and vibrancy”. They argue that currently, tourists mostly come through Tokyo, but when they do, all they get to see is Asakusa or Akiba, “And that’s a little sad, isn’t it?” The really cool stuff is all at a distance from the metropolitan hub.

Their plan is to rebuild a historically accurate 6-floor citadel on the same old pedestal that never got a purpose (except distressing OCD tourists with its mis-matched bricks). The costs would be around 40-50 billion yen (400-500 million USD), and would have to get special permissions for: 1) being such a tall wooden structure, 2) looming over the residence of the imperial family, and 3) being rebuilt on the yet-untouched, unexcavated pedestal remains.

Japan’s Thoughts on Edo-jo


Though the NPO has existed for nearly ten years, in the wake of the recent Olympics news, an Asahi Shinbun article described the Rebuild NPO Project. Japanese responses were various. Let’s start with one that will give you Deja Vu (remember the shogun’s uncle?) :

「そんな無駄金あったら震災復興に使えよ」 “If you’ve got that kind of money to waste, then use it for the recovery of disaster-struck areas.” —Anonymous

Move on to those concerned about taxes:

「寄付だけでやるなら反対はしない。税金は一切使うなよ!」“If they do it solely on donations, then I have nothing against it. But don’t you dare use a penny of my tax!” —Anonymous

Stop at the dream door:

「…東京に江戸城とかカッコヨクね?え。なんでみんな批判てきなんだろう。めっちゃカッコイイじゃん。たぶん、超みんな行くと思う。おれ、めっちゃ行きたいもん。」 “…Wouldn’t it be cool to have an Edo castle in Tokyo? I wonder why everyone’s criticizing it. It’d be so awesome. I bet literally everyone would – I would definitely want to go.” —Takuya Sebec Kawamura

And stare down the dream-crusher:

「バッキンガム宮殿、紫禁城、凱旋門。全部本物。東京には歴史的ランドマークがないことを痛感自国の歴史に無知なだけ。東京の事をまともに知らない人間が外国で日本を売り込もうとするから恥をかくのだよ。そもそもレプリカ造って「歴史的」ランドマークだなんてありえないでしょ?」 “Buckingham Palace, Beijing’s Former Palace, The Arc de Triomphe – they’re all the original thing. The people who feel that Tokyo doesn’t have a historical landmark are just ignorant of their own country’s history. The people who flat out don’t know anything about Tokyo are those in other countries. Coming from a platform of “Let’s make Japan into a market for them” is embarassing. And anyway, it’d be ridiculous to build a replica of a landmark and call it ‘hisorical’.” —Mahito Kanayama

Country without a Monument?


A country of earthquakes, monsoons, fires, and constant humidity is naturally a country where frequent reconstruction is built into even the most admired landmarks (e.g., Ise Jingu, home of Amaterasu and the Yata Mirror). But here are three things that could be symbolic and monumental for Japan with no cost, just a bit of marketing elbow grease, and without straying much from Tokyo.


It’s possible that the “Rebuild Edo-jo” folks are onto something. Maybe the remains of the tower, the Tenshu-dai pedestal itself, should be Japan’s symbol. You might think that sounds stupid, as if I’m suggesting your unfinished porch should become the logo for a new restaurant or something. But reconsider the history of the Edo donjon: the third time people thought about rebuilding the tower, somebody said “Let’s put that gold where it’ll count,” and what’s more, the shogun listened. The shogun and the rich folk took care of their town. Edo grew bigger. Edo became Tokyo, and all without that looming tower as part of its identity.

Sometimes its the negative space that’s important. To quote Thoreau: “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them”. Standing on the spot where the shogun’s power-tower used to be, you can gaze unhindered towards the sky and dream. How’s that for a symbol of Japan?

Mount Fuji


Without Googling, can you think of a monument in Somalia, in Argentina, or even in Canada? If you’re from those places, it might be easy. But if you aren’t, it becomes clearer what the NPO for Rebuilding Edo-jo is going for: international recognition. Paris’ Eiffel Tower and Moscow’s Kremlin seem very representative of those cities, their culture, and are literally big things to visit.

Comparing those monuments to spots in Tokyo does make me wonder what Japan’s centrally-located monument could be. Of course, finding something super historical, big, and impressive is a tad difficult considering not much of those things survived the WWII Tokyo Air Raids.

Except, you know, Mt. Fuji. That survived the war. It happens to be the subject of hundreds of Ukiyo-e prints and is surrounded by beautiful tea-farming, lake-dotted countryside. It’s not in Tokyo, though, and it isn’t open all year for hiking. Furthermore, with all the international visitors to Mt. Fuji, apparently some invasive flora has found its way to Mt. Fuji’s ecosystem. Yet, if Tokyo looked closely at the mountain’s naturally grown reputation and also its efforts to chisel more tourism, surely they would build a plan for how to stack a Tokyo landmark up to Fuji’s height.



With skillful marketing, Asakusa’s Senso-ji-area could easily be made into that building-sillhouette or camera zoom that screams “Japan” and makes obaachans proud. Asakusa began as a fishing village, then got famous when two fisherman dragged a golden Bodhisattva from the river. They built Senso-ji, a temple, to honor the Kanon Bodhisattva and people came from everywhere to see. Later, a shrine was made to honor those two fisherman. Asakusa transformed, much the way Edo-jo did, from humble beginnings into something incredible. Asakusa also had a hip-cool-Shibuya kind of phase, but now, with a five-story pagoda, a temple, a shrine, a marketplace, and a giant lantern at the Kaminari-mon, Asakusa is as much a tourist destination for Japanese citizens as it is for international visitors.

This is despite the fact that most of its buildings (e.g., Senso-ji, the lantern, etc.) are not original. Various fires, plus the WWII Tokyo Air Raids, destroyed many cultural landmarks here, but Asakusa meant enough to be rebuilt. For comparison, unlike the gigantic Edo Tower, Asakusa’s gate has been at the same spot, with more or less the same features despite multiple reconstructions, for about 400 years. If it’s good enough to make some famous Ukiyo-e artists depict it, it’s right up there with Fuji in being a monument of Japan. If Tokyo capitalized on the Kaminari-mon and its lantern, the symbolism would be on par with the Olympics’ torch lighting the way for some cross-cultural, cross-generational bonding. Due to its long history, the lantern as a symbol could be picked up by both the younger folks and the older generation in Japan.

So What’s Japan’s Symbol?


Photo by A. Davey

When I went to Japan, I didn’t know about any landmarks aside from Tsukiji Fish Market and Mt. Fuji. My bucket-list destination revealed itself after hours of Ukiyo-e research for a class: the Kameido Tenjin Jinja taiko bridge. It’s just a red bridge that used to be so circular that it was dangerous. Now it has steps so it doesn’t even look that drum-like, but it was still quixotic to stand there, looking at all the skyscrapers, looking at those stupid helper-steps (I can handle a slope!), and imagine what it was like from those Ukiyo-e I’d seen of the exact spot I was standing.

We find symbols in the smallest and simplest things, so while it might be helpful for Japan’s economy to market one, which one is still clearly a debate. Whether you fall into the Edo-jo or the Edo-no camp, I hope I’ve helped you think a little bit about Japan’s historical monuments. And even if you’ve never taken a marketing class, I want to hear what you think could be ‘that symbol’ and why you think so.


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Bonus Wallpapers!

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  • Can’t get enough

    I don’t understand the point of this thread. Obviously, Japan’s number one symbol is Koichi. The search is over.

  • koichi

    Thank you for finally acknowledging this.

  • Michelle Klein-Hass

    The symbol of Japan is the Hinomaru. A banner that has been used since time immemorial. Red circle, white flag. It’s unmistakable. Instead of trying to do a tourist trap reproduction of Edo Castle, Japan has all it needs for branding. Well, that, and Fujisan. Kami-sama help Japan if Fujisan ever reactivates, because everyone knows Fujisan and it says “Japan” without saying a word.

  • Momo

    Wha- You mean there’s no symbol for Japan? Well, if nobody’s gonna claim one, don’t mind if I do.

  • NelemNaru

    I agree with all the previous posts.

  • orangedude

    Much awsum. Such inspyer.

  • lazuli

    comments below are so funny xDD
    anyways what I think about this article: rebuilding a castle, man so freaking cool!!!! I wanna volunteer there XDD
    I admit it’s a bit a crazy thing but Japaneses can do this XD

    and Japan’s symbol…well hard to tell
    could notice that apart from the Japanese flag sakura flower is used a
    lot here to picture Japan, so maybe it is a symbol for Japan?

  • Rochelle

    It sure would be an interesting Olympics if that became Japan’s official marketing logo. >.> /shudder

  • 古戸ヱリカ

    Looks like great minds Photoshop alike.

  • Rochelle

    Tourist agencies are generally trying to establish physical and specific areas that people can go to and walk around. It’s a specific, easy-to-plan and evaluate revenue tool that also helps to make sure that the place (temple, historic building, park, etc.) can be maintained against the elements of time and weather.

    How could you plan and evaluate revenue for “the cherry blossom”, and would it ever increase, and what would be the benefits to even trying? When you’re talking about general things that could be symbolic or logo, sure- I definitely agree with sakura: Japan, and have a lot of friends who have weighed in with the same comment.

  • Aya


  • 古戸ヱリカ

    I was going to make a joke where I pretend to think you wanted the host to be the symbol of Japan, but then I realized I can’t tell any of them apart.

  • Rochelle

    Thanks for weighing in! I wasn’t a tourism/marketing major, so maybe I lack the right jargon, but Fuji and other marketable tourist traps are the kind of symbol I’m talking about here. An abstract symbol that happens to be the national flag is a hard thing to generate international revenue from (since, you know, if the potential consumer is from another country, chances are they’ll feel weird waving around Japan’s flag).

  • Rochelle

    I’m emailing Shinzo Abe right now. This would solve all of Japan’s problems.

  • Michelle Klein-Hass

    So yeah, Fujisan. They’ve got one. Why mess with a rebuild of Edo Castle? Take that money and invest it in a place that needs rebuilding: TOHOKU.

  • lazuli

    oh from that tourist point of view…indeed I don’t have much experience of Japan as a tourist but I’d say it’s a area focused type of tourism
    It seems there is 2 major cities: Kyoto with the all traditional temples (I’m not sure there is some temple more promoted than other) and Tokyo
    as for Tokyo I’m not sure there is a symbol either: I’d say they focus on pop culture tourism attracting people with Shibuya, Harajuku and AKihabara
    maybe Japan hasn’t such a symbol in the end?

    I wonder what can be that symbol for a country like the US?

    Statue of liberty maybe?

    Maybe it can be Tokyo Skytree. But I personnaly can’t see it as a touristic place lol

  • Rochelle
  • Rochelle

    Interesting opinion. But think – Tofugu didn’t exist at one point. Some people might have said, “Man, you can’t make a thing for that.” And then someone smashed ‘tofu’ and ‘fugu’ together and this place has an awesome and recognizable logo. That’s the beauty of smart PR/marketing/branding.

    Going back to a visitable-place, I think Japan could do it. Out of the three I outlined in the article, which would you vote for?

  • lazuli

    I think I’d give my vote to Asakusa.
    Because when I see that big red lantern with those characters on I know it’s Asakusa, Tokyo, Japan.


    Fuji-san is Japan. But I think the flag is the most identifiable Japanese thing (obviously).

  • koichi

    so emotion. much amaze.

  • Yuki

    I would think it was sushi, or Maneki neko, or Fuji, or Koi Carp, or sakura….. theres loads!

  • Candy Rendon

    damn those bath salts. damn them.

  • Rochelle

    Mmm, but that’s like saying that ‘beets’ are the symbol of Russia. They aren’t, because they can be grown or bought anywhere. And even if they were, how could the country turn that into something extremely profitable and that could attract visitors? Even if Russia’s symbol were vodka, a tad more popular than beets, I doubt people would want to visit a frigid (and more!) place just to see a vodka distillery/brewery/fermentery.

    What about a PLACE- what do you think Japan’s marketable PLACE or monument is? Besides Fuji, that is. (Because woh- invasive water cucumbers infesting the lakes and rivers around Fuji is not cool).

  • aisusenpai

    “40-50 billion yen (4-5 billion USD)”
    Wouldn’t that be 400-500 million USD?

  • Rochelle

    Invasive species in Fuji’s area are already hard to control, and they are important to control considering the lack of arable land in Japan which is already pretty maxed out. Invasive species are no joke, especially not in tea-farming land.

    So what other monumental locations around Japan do you think could work? Do you think maybe Kyoto should try harder to become an economic center? That’s why everyone goes to Tokyo- it’s where most of the (higher-paying) jobs and business deals happen.Or is it kind of nice to have a section of the country chalk-full of cultural monuments, while the other section is more practically business-oriented?

  • zoomingjapan

    I have the feeling that this is more about representing Tokyo than Japan.
    Personally I think it’s impossible to choose just ONE symbol … and if it’s a castle, I would never choose Edo Castle to be the one.
    I guess Mt. Fuji works best, although it doesn’t represent all of Japan.

  • DJ

    Great article.
    It’s ironic that Japan has so much to offer yet it has this problem promoting itself. I don’t think picking one symbol out of the blue is going to fix this.

  • Raymond Chuang

    If there is anything that symbolizes Japan, how can you not have a Shinkansen train crossing the Fuji River Bridge with Mt. Fuji in the background?

  • Makis

    Japan’s number one symbol is probably Fuji, and a secondary one are the cherry blossoms. I get the feeling though from the article that we’re talking more about man made structures, landmarks etc that are preferably in the capital of Japan, Tokyo.

    I have visted Asakusa, can’t say that i was super-enthused by what i saw. Don’t get me wrong i thought that it was nice but i don’t see it becoming the number one symbol of anything. I can see the attraction in re-building edo castle. Sure many people may think for a little while: “this is not old”, but as time goes by this problem will probably slowly fade away. Anyhow, Tokyo generally lacks old stuff so the Castle is surely not a bad idea.

    Tokyo, unlike many other cities, feels like a huge mess of skyscrapers, wires, noise, and technology. Some may look at that and be dissapointed, but that’s part of its character. It’s a city where lots of people live, work, have fun, create etc etc. Someone must treat it as such in order to experience it properly and be charmed by it. In my opinion you have to know a little bit about Japan, and dig a little bit under the surface – past the typical top10 bs tourist guides to find the beauty of Tokyo. Its beauty depends on the interests of the people who visit it… things like the awesome Food, the underground music scene, old (and new) game arcades, Anime stuff: Akiba-nakano broadway-ghibli museum-maid cafe’s-komike & watching the huge gundam 1/1 statue, akb48 theatre performances, Sundays at yoyogi, shopping fashion stuff at i wouldn’t know where etc etc. In my opinion most of what remains of old Japan can be found and be experienced much better elsewhere, in some other city of Japan. What i’m trying to say here is that i’d be against promoting the very rare parts of Tokyo that are old and/or traditional as a symbol for Japan because that’s simply not Tokyo. Maybe the symbol should somehow be something that signifies both old and new Japan.

    Anyway, the olympic games are certainly a rare opportunity to rebrand Japan, to change the way that people from other countries view Japan, and i guess that the Japanese government knows this very well.

  • Rochelle

    Word. Thanks for sharing!

  • Rochelle

    Yeah, but they got that ganbaru spirit. It’s not easy being surrounded by lots of water and constantly shifting tectonic plates.

  • Rochelle

    You might be totally right.

  • Rochelle

    I’m checking – I was correcting the mis-translation in the Japancrush English version of the Asahi article, and the Japanese version uses the 10,000, not 100 separation system, so…

  • Rochelle

    Yup, you’re right. Thank you for pointing that out! I’ll see what I can do to make the article reflect this.

  • Rochelle

    Did you see that Tofugu re-post a while back about how there are going to be more JET hires to pump up cross-cultural stuff before the Olympics? Tokyo is the capitol and major center of business. It’s either time-intensive or expensive to go very far from there, so it seems like a lot of agencies in Japan are concerned about how to integrate people’s images of “japan” with their images of “Tokyo” and to use that to stimulate the economy more.

  • jo

    I know the artical is more about traveling in Japan so this is a little off topic but here in England for the kids, older folks and I guess more so the people uneducated about Japan, the ichiban symbol is most likely kitty-chan. I found they were the best gifts to bring back for people too as they could relate to them as a symbol of Japan.

  • Yuki

    Russia….Beet…?? what the..? I wasnt even talking about that. Im just making some light suggestions, no need to get all worked up. Sheesh!

  • Lenna Stites

    neat article! I think Mt. Fuji is a great recognizable symbol but I also tend to think of Miyajima when I think of Japan.

  • msmo

    i just wanted to say that you are very correct. those mismatched tiles drove me bonkers.

  • Naryoril

    that’s what i thought as well. i think the toori of miyajima is one of japan’s best known pictures worldwide, even though probably hardly anyone knows where it is exactely.

  • Rochelle

    I’ve made the change; thank you again for correcting me!

  • Brittany

    When I think of Japan, I instantly think cherry blossoms then Mt. Fuji. But I guess this is man made structures they’re talking about.

  • Guest

    Symbol? Definitely Mt. Fuji. Took this picture while I was in Lake Kawaguchiko a few days ago. The view is just too breathtaking and amazing.


    very nice article. I think the key in this debate is not actually what is “Japan’s” symbol, but how to build a better tourist trap for Tokyo. As mentioned in the comments there are plenty of fine symbols for Japan. As far as a castle being a symbol of Japan goes, no reconstructed tower will ever rival the symbolic nature nor drawing power of Himeji Castle on the national level. This is all about Tokyo, whose typical tourist scene is rather lacking. The guy behind the NPO to rebuild the castle is a quack and it’s a lame idea. The main tower of Edo Castle existed for such a short period of time. If you want to put the funds into rebuilding something from the castle. Redo the palace, like they are doing in Nagoya. It may not have the drawing power of a towering symbol to stand over Tokyo’s horizon (Sky Tree…) but it has all the stories of shogun debauchery and political intrigue to make a fascinating and historically relevant site.

  • chikaraginger

    Fuji. Then the bullet train. In that order. Then geisha. Then maybe the golden temple. I am not sure people really think of cherry blossoms. Although of course Japanese do. Akihabara screams Tokyo for many tourists. Harajuku also does. This article is not about a symbol for Japan, it is about a symbol for Tokyo.