Several weeks ago, Japan lost one of its most iconic cultural landmarks. A devastating fire ravaged part of Naha City and blazed through Shuri Castle, reducing it to a pile of rubble and debris. This castle was more than just a tourist attraction, however. It boasted a tremendous amount of history, and was a valuable cultural asset to the Okinawan people. To understand the impact of this tragedy, it’s important to understand the history of Shuri Castle, and its impact on citizens, tourists, and the country as a whole.
Ryukyu Kingdom: A Royal Dynasty
Shuri Castle has been an important part of Okinawan history since its construction hundreds of years ago. It was a major part of the then-flourishing Ryukyu Kingdom.
Though the exact date of Shuri’s completion is undocumented, it is believed to have been constructed during the Sanzan Period (1322-1429). This period overlaps the Gusuku Period (1187-1429). “Gusuku” refers to the fortresses constructed at that time.
During this time, Shuri Castle flourished as the center of politics and economy, as well as other cultural aspects. It was also the residence of the Ryukyu leaders and their families.
The Ryukyu Kingdom was a royal country that existed in Okinawa from 1429 to 1879. It spanned about 500 years, although people had inhabited the islands for at least 32,000 years. Ryukyu was established as a maritime kingdom through the unification of the islands under King Sho Hashi during the first Sho Dynasty. The kingdom continued to develop through diplomacy with China, Japan, and Korea, amongst other Southeast Asian countries.
A World Heritage Site Tells of the Glory of the Ryukyu Kingdom
The Buildings and Construction of the Castle
The architecture of Shuri Castle was unique in comparison to other royal structures in Japan. This is due to the island’s long history of exchange with China. You can see many Chinese influences in its design and structures, including the symbolic red lacquer and its dragon imagery. Shuri was also the largest wooden structure in Okinawa.
The inner and outer walls of the castle were constructed at different times: the outer during the 15th century, and the inner in the mid-16th century. The castle grounds also had three separate main areas: the central administration area, the living quarters, and the ceremonial areas.
The central building, or Seiden, was the heavily-guarded main hall of the castle. Located on the top of the hill, it was accessible through several gates and entrances, including Shureimon Gate. This was the main site of political affairs.
Una Plaza, the wide, empty area that stretched out in front of Seiden, was the main venue for traditional ceremonies. At the time of the Dynasty, these restricted areas were only open to the king, his family, and his nobles.
Other structures of the castle encircled the plaza, connected through a long passageway. These were the Hokuden (North Hall), Nanden (South Hall), and Houshinmon Gate. Built between 1506-1521, these halls served as the original trading hub between Ryukyu Kingdom and other Asian countries, as well as other parts of Japan.
There were a number of other important buildings and structures. You can read more information about each of these, and the history of Shuri Castle, on the official Shuri Castle Park website.
Religion, Culture, and Politics
Shuri was important not just politically, but religiously as well. Many shrines dotted the grounds, which hosted many rituals and ceremonies.
Though their specific belief systems and rituals and are still unclear to this day, it seems to share similarities to Shinto, the traditional and ancient religion of Japan. Some known celebrations included royal feasts, banquets, and dances, as well as rituals honoring kings, and holiday celebrations.
Additionally, the castle also served as a culture and arts center. There were a number of performing arts and musical performances held here. Shuri Castle was a very active environment important not just to the government, but to people’s daily lives.
Politically, the castle remained the center of Okinawan governmental affairs until the last monarch of Okinawa, King Sho Tai. The king lost his throne to the Meiji government in 1879. This was when the Empire of Japan annexed the Ryukyu Kingdom, now known as Okinawa Prefecture.
The government converted Shuri Castle into a barracks for the Imperial Japanese Army. It was the designated headquarters of the Japanese military during WWII until 1945, when it came under attack in battle.
(JP) Link: Shuri Castle
Destruction and Restoration
Shuri Castle faced partial destruction several times in history as the result of wars and fires. The most recent incident was the Battle of Okinawa in World War II In 1945.
The government made serious efforts to restore the castle after the war. Rebuilt in the image of its 18th-century appearance, the reconstruction was symbolic of Okinawa’s recovery, and served as a memorial to the lives tragically lost in war. In 1992, it re-opened as a national park, “Shuri Castle Park.”
In year 2000, the castle gained further historical importance. The Shuri Castle Ruins were designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a traditional historic site that “provides testimony to the rare survival of an ancient form of religion into the modern age.”
Modernizing the History of Shuri Castle through Tourism
Now a national landmark, Shuri soon became a popular destination for travelers and nationals alike. The Architects re-designed the halls of the castle in a museum-style fashion, displaying informational exhibits and artifacts.
Visitors could now enter through the main Shurimon Gate, continue through to the Kankaimon Gate, and reach the main hall entrance. You could explore the castle grounds in a circular route through the connected buildings.
The castle also became a popular site for school and family trips. Tour guides were staffed around the premises, offering guided exploration and relating stories of the castle to curious visitors. Soon, other attractions emerged, including souvenir shops and a tea ceremony house for visitors.
However, after the tragic fire in October 2019, tourism would also take a major hit.
(JP) Link: Okinawa Tourism Industry Association Holds Emergency Meeting After Shuri Castle Fire
The Shuri Castle Fire of 2019
Devastation struck at around 2:30AM on October 31, 2019. The main inner building of Shuri Castle caught fire. The fire quickly spread to the other buildings.
The disaster occurred three days into the annual Shuri Castle Festival, a large-scale event celebrating the history and traditions of the Ryukyu Kingdom Era. Many people had flooded the area over the span of the preceding three days. Workers had been performing night-time site maintenance until just an hour before the fire alarm rang out.
This led many to speculate on the fire’s cause. There were various theories, such as arson, a carelessly discarded cigarette, or an accident resulting from the maintenance. However, further investigation revealed the cause as an electrical system glitch in the main shrine. The massive fire lasted about 11 hours, and laid waste to nearly the entire site of the castle.
The Cause of Shuri Castle Fire: Information on Incident, Damage Situation, and Suspicions
The Unprotected Castle: How the Fire Developed So Quickly
Firefighters attribute the quick spread to strong winds and the fragile wooden structure of most of the buildings. Thankfully, there were no reports of injuries or deaths. However, property damage costs amounted to approximately 7.3 billion yen. The site lost about 400 valuable artifacts. And the blazes reduced the castle buildings themselves to mere skeletons of what they once were.
Some questioned the building’s safety. As a national treasure and cultural heritage site, one would expect it to have certain protection measures put into place.
Based on the Fire Service Act and the Cultural Properties Protection Act, the Agency for Cultural Affairs states that designated national treasures and important cultural properties require certain fire protection measures. However, of the many structures comprising the castle, only a specific few were cultural heritage sites. The undesignated areas did not fall under the same safety requirements. Unfortunately, this small scope also excluded the main shrine, where the fire broke out.
The Fire Service Act also states sprinklers as another safety requirement of places where large groups of people gather. Facilities such as malls, hospitals, and buildings over 10 stories fall into this category. However, Shuri was only three stories tall, so no one ever installed sprinklers.
This means that Shuri Castle was largely unprotected. Without sprinklers installed throughout most of the buildings on-site, they very quickly burned to the ground.
Shuri After the Fire: “We Will Definitely Restore the Castle”
Reconstruction Efforts: Preserving the History of Shuri Castle
It is clear what a loss this has been for the people of Okinawa. However, the economy, as well as educational institutions of Japan, also took a hit.
Naha is currently facing a severe decline in tourism to the once-booming attraction. Many schools are also at a loss with what to do about scheduled school trips. Naha has long been a popular annual destination for students to learn the history of Shuri Castle and the Okinawan people.
Citizens and visitors alike have come forth with propositions to bring back this important piece of history. The Japanese government has given great consideration to restoration efforts. Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga Yoshihide has said that Shuri is an “extremely important symbol of Okinawa,” and that the government will make “every effort to rebuild it.”
Naha City officials have established a crowdfunding campaign to support reconstruction. They have already received over $3.2 million dollars as of November 6, 2019. Other prefectures have also jumped to action. About 10 different prefectures have installed donation boxes in various locations, including branch offices.
The government has also taken time to reexamine the structure and safety of other important historical sites. They hope to improve disaster protection measures in order to prevent disasters such as this from occurring again in the future.
(Update: As of Nov 5, some outdoor areas of the park surrounding the castle have been reopened to the public. Inner areas of the castle itself are still restricted and closed off to the public as clean up and construction areas are underway.)