Japan's Shuri Castle Burns Down

Nov 6, 2019 By Deepa Gopal and Aaditi P, Writer
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Shuri Castle. An internationally recognized symbol on Okinawa, one of the southernmost islands of Japan, has survived seven centuries, countless dynasties, and even a complete reconstruction in 1992.

The Japanese are mourning the loss of this national treasure after a massive fire destroyed all the main structures of the replica of this legendary castle.

The iconic castle, which could be viewed from almost anywhere in the city of Naha (the capital of Okinawa), was ravaged by flames in the early hours of Thursday, October Shuri Castle was also a very popular tourist destination and a UNESCO World Heritage site.

History of Shuri Castle

Between the 8th and 10th centuries, Okinawa was primarily ruled by multiple warlords who fought with each other for control of land and built castles known as Gusuku.

By the 12th century, three main kingdoms emerged on the islands, one of which was Chûzan. It is believed that the second Chûzan king, Shun Bajunki, built the magnificent Gusuku known as Shuri Castle as his palace. Of the three kingdoms, Chûzan was the most prosperous economically and traded with the Ming dynasty in China.

A local lord by the name of Hashi overthrew the last Chûzan king in 1407 and conquered the other two kingdoms, unifying the island. The Ryukyu Kingdom was born. For the next four centuries, the Ryukyu kings ruled over the islands, and the castle was the King's palace. The Ryukyu kings renovated and expanded the castle, adding several outer structures and temples. Shuri castle was influenced by Chinese architecture and was different from other castles in mainland Japan. 

The castle was looted by the Japanese who invaded in 1609 and was destroyed by fire several times throughout its history. By 1870, the rise of Japan’s modern era, known as the Meiji Era, led to the annexation of the Ryukyu kingdom. Shuri Castle was converted to a school and later became desolate as the kingdom was converted to the Okinawa prefecture. 

In 1945, the castle was destroyed yet again as the island was bombed in the Battle of Okinawa during World War II. It was rebuilt in 1992 and housed museum exhibits and ancient artifacts.  

Destruction… and Restoration?

A phone call reported the fire at the castle at 2:40 am local time and by 11 am, it was fully extinguished, but not before taking down all seven of Shuri Castle’s buildings. Although the exact cause of the fire is unknown, it is known that the spread of the fire was accelerated because the structure was primarily wooden and also because there were no sprinklers installed inside the castle, other than on the roof.

There is a possibility of reconstruction, according to Naha mayor Mikiko Shiroma, depending on the decision determined by the local and central government. For now, Japanese officials are reviewing fire prevention methods at other historic sites across the country to prevent a similar tragedy.

Shuri Castle has remained a prominent part of Okinawa’s identity throughout hundreds of years and it is clear that this loss will be mourned for hundreds more.

Sources: BBC, Japantimes, wiki-samurai-archives, rca.open.ed.jp, web-japan.org