A fire broke out at Shuri Castle in the Okinawa Prefecture capital of Naha in the early hours of Oct. 31 and burned down its “Seiden” hall and other key structures. Images of the castle being enveloped in flames were heartbreaking. Okinawa residents’ sense of loss and shock are beyond imagination.
Shuri Castle, which represents Okinawa’s history and culture, was built as the palace of the Ryukyu Kingdom and functioned as the residence of Ryukyu kings and the government headquarters as well as a site for rituals. The magnificent castle was also the showpiece of unique Ryukyu culture that developed with influence from Japan and China.
However, the structure was completely destroyed when the U.S. forces attacked the castle during World War II because a Japanese forces’ command post was built in its basement.
The buildings that were burned down in the fire were rebuilt at the site of the original castle, which was listed in 2000 as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The fire destroyed seven buildings of the restored castle, including the main Seiden hall, where the king handled the affairs of state, and the northern hall that housed administrative organizations and was the site of a banquet of the Group of Eight summit meeting in 2000. Concerns remain as to whether artworks stored at the castle have been damaged.
For Okinawans, Shuri Castle has more significance than just cultural values. In the Battle of Okinawa toward the end of World War II, the southernmost prefecture was devastated, and approximately one in four residents lost their lives. Cultural properties were also dispersed. Shuri Castle, which had been gradually restored, was a symbol of the reconstruction of the prefecture and was like a home to Okinawa residents.
The reconstruction work, which began 30 years ago, was only completed at the beginning of this year. The project was no easy task due to scarce information on the structure of the castle as relevant documents were destroyed in the war. The resilient castle became the prefecture’s main tourist spot, visited by nearly 3 million people annually.
This past April, a fire broke out at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, which is also listed as a World Heritage site. The incident alarmed Japan of a sense potential danger over the loss of World Heritage sites in fires, and the Agency for Cultural Affairs has just begun an emergency inspection on fire prevention equipment at national treasures and other cultural properties and decided to beef up countermeasures.
The Shuri Castle fire, which started in the wee hours, quickly spread as firefighters struggled to bring it under control. It is essential to scrutinize whether there were problems with the fire prevention system at the facility while identifying the cause of the blaze.
In recent years, a growing number of facilities designated as cultural assets have been used as venues for various events. Shuri Castle too, was the site of a cultural event that began a few days before the fire.
Soetsu Yanagi (1889-1961), an art critic and philosopher who loved Okinawa, wrote that it “must be the power of culture that can truly restore Okinawa” that was devastated by WWII.
Okinawa has shouldered the heavy burden of hosting numerous U.S. military bases. The national government should make efforts to restore the castle, which offers mental and spiritual sustenance to the people of Okinawa.