Shock Beyond Words: Okinawan Treasure Shuri Castle Destroyed by Fire

Society

Shock spread through Japan as a fire at historic Shuri Castle in Okinawa Prefecture on Thursday destroyed most of the UNESCO World Heritage site’s main structures.

A preblaze photograph of Shuri Castle’s main hall.
A preblaze photograph of Shuri Castle’s main hall.

A fire in the predawn hours of October 31 swept through historic Shuri Castle in Naha, capital of Okinawa Prefecture, destroying the main hall and several adjacent structures of the building.

Flames were reported at the castle around 2:40 am and the blaze quickly spread to other parts of the complex, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Naha City Fire Department evacuated nearby residents and there have been no reports of injuries.

Shuri Castle dates back nearly 500 years to the Ryūkyū Kingdom that ruled over the islands that today are Okinawa Prefecture. First constructed in 1429, the castle, including the main hall (seiden), north hall (hokuden), and south hall (nanden), combined architectural components from both Japan and China, testimony to the kingdom’s importance as a regional hub for trade and exchange.

Fire destroyed the castle several times during its history, most recently in 1945, due to US bombing during World War II. Its main hall was reconstructed in 1992 to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of Okinawa’s 1972 reversion to Japan, and restoration efforts continued up to this year.

Heads of state stand outside the main hall of Shuri Castle during the July 2000 G8 Summit.
Heads of state stand outside the main hall of Shuri Castle during the July 2000 G8 Summit.

In July 2000 the north hall was the site of a banquet for leaders attending the G8 Kyūshū-Okinawa Summit. In December that same year, UNESCO added the castle along with other sites related to the Ryūkyū Kingdom to its World Heritage list.

A Historic and Tourism Treasure

In addition to being a site of great historical importance, Shuri Castle is a popular tourist attraction. The blaze comes just months after the final phase of long-running reconstruction work on the complex was completed. In February, the Ouchibara, an area behind the main hall where residents of the citadel lived and conducted ceremonies, was opened to the public.

Experts involved in the reconstruction work and public education efforts have expressed shock and sadness at the loss of the important cultural property. Dana Masayuki, director of the Okinawa Prefectural Museum and Art Museum, stressed the symbolic importance of Shuri Castle: “The castle manifested the Ryūkyū Kingdom’s sovereignty from the larger nations of Japan and China and Okinawans today see it as a symbol of their own independence. People have tremendous pride in it, and the fact that it was a World Heritage Site makes the tragedy all the more shocking.”

Lost in a Blink of an Eye

Professor Takara Kurayoshi of the University of the Ryūkyūs voiced disbelief at the scale of the loss: “The reconstruction project brought together leading experts from a broad range of fields. I’ve been involved from the start, and since completing work in February it was finally starting to sink in what we had accomplished over the last thirty years. I can’t describe my sorrow at seeing all that we worked for go up in flames in an instant.”

(Originally published in Japanese on FNN’s Prime Online on October 31, 2019. Translated and edited by Nippon.com.)

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