The Imperial Palace (Kokyo, meaning Imperial Residence) was completed in 1888 and stands on the former site of Edo Castle. Located in the Chiyoda area of Tokyo, the palace is just within walking distance from Tokyo Station.
The palace compound is comprised of several buildings including the main palace, the private residences of the Imperial family, an archive, a museum and several administrative offices. The total palace area including the gardens is 1.32 square miles.
After the defeat of the Shogunate who ruled Japan from 1603 to 1867, the inhabitants of Edo Castle, including the Shogun Tokugawa Yoshinobu, were forced to vacate the premises. In 1868, the emperor relocated from Kyoto to Edo Castle and renamed it Tokei Castle. On May 5th, 1873, a fire destroyed the Nishinomaru Palace (formerly the shogun’s residence) and the new Imperial Palace Castle was constructed on the site in 1888.
From 1888 to 1948, the compound was called Palace Castle. On the evening of May 25th, 1945 a majority of the structures of Palace Castle were destroyed by the Allied fire-bombing raid. It was from the basement of the concrete library that Emperor Hirohito declared the surrender of Japan on August 15th, 1945, bringing an end to World War II. Due to the large-scale destruction of the palace, a new main palace hall and residences were constructed on the western portion of the site in the 1960s. The area was renamed Kokyo in 1948 while the eastern part was renamed Higashi-Gyoen (East Garden), which became a public park in 1968.
Except for the Imperial Household Agency and the East Gardens, the palace is generally closed to the public. On each New Year (January 2nd) and during the Emperor’s Birthday (December 23rd), the public is permitted to enter through the Nakamon (inner gate) and gather in the Kyuden Totei Plaza in front of the Chowaden Hall. The Imperial family appears on the balcony before the gathered crowd and the emperor delivers a short speech greeting and thanking the visitors.
From Kokyo Gaien, the large plaza in front of the Imperial Palace, visitors can view the Nijubashi, two bridges that form an entrance to the inner palace grounds. The stone bridge in front is called Meganebashi (Eyeglass Bridge) for it resembles a pair of eye glasses. The bridge in the back was formerly a wooden bridge with two levels, from which the name Nijubashi is derived.
Although many are not in existence today, the inner citadels of Edo Castle were protected by multiple large and small wooden gates, constructed in between the gaps of the stone wall surrounding it. From south to southwest to north, the main gates are Nijubashi, Sakuradamon, Sakashitamon, Kikyomon, Hanzomon, Inuimon, Otemon, Hirakawamon and Kitahanebashimon. The Otemon gate was once guarded by 120 men, while the smaller gates were guarded by 30 to 70 armed men.
The Sakurada Gate is well known for an assassination which took place there. Known as the The Sakuradamon Incident, it involved Ii Naosuke, the Japanese Chief Minister and a proponent of the reopening of Japan after more than 200 years of seclusion. It is said that Naosuke had also made strong enemies in the dispute for the succession of Shogun Tokugawa Iesada.
The assassination took place just as Ii Naosuke was reaching the castle. He had been warned about his safety and many encouraged him to retire from office, but he refused, replying that “My own safety is nothing when I see the danger threatening the future of the country.”
Ii Naosuke was ambushed by 17 men and a samurai named Arimura Jisaemon. Arimura cut Ii Naosuke’s neck and then committed seppuku.
Although tourists can see very little of the palace, it does not impact the numbers visiting the compound on a daily basis. Tours offered by various agencies such as Hato Bus Tours are common and would probably serve as the best means to see the Imperial Palace, combined with other historic sites such as The Diet Building and Tokyo Station, for example.
The Nakamon (Inner Gate)
Imperial Palace contrast with modern Tokyo which surrounds it