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Editorial: Essence of Ryukyu culture lost in fire that ravaged Shuri Castle

  • November 2, 2019
  • , The Japan News , 7:22 p.m.
  • English Press

The castle, deeply cherished by the people of Okinawa Prefecture, has burned down after being engulfed in flames. It is a heartbreaking incident.


Shuri Castle in Naha has been ravaged by fire. The blaze destroyed seven structures with a total floor area of about 4,800 square meters, including the Seiden main hall, which was the central building of the castle. The fire is believed to have started in the main hall. Police and firefighting authorities are called on to work toward determining the cause of the blaze.


The castle was the royal palace of the Ryukyu Kingdom, which lasted from the 15th century to 19th century, serving as a center of both politics and culture. The main hall, a structure combining a Japanese-style decorative roof with a building patterned after a Chinese-style royal palace, was highly valued as the quintessence of Ryukyu culture. It was designated as a national treasure before World War II.


In the 1945 Battle of Okinawa, the castle was destroyed in U.S. military attacks because the headquarters of the former Imperial Japanese Army was situated underground there. As a result, the area was reduced to ashes. The castle’s history can be said to mirror that of the hardships suffered by Okinawa itself.


After the end of the war, reconstruction of Shuri Castle became the wish of residents in Okinawa. In the process of restoration work, there were people who brought along tiles that had once been part of the castle, offering them for use in the restoration. The restored Hokuden north hall was the venue for a dinner during the G8 Kyushu-Okinawa Summit in 2000.

With the castle that was the symbol of Okinawa’s reconstruction now burned down, the sense of loss felt by the prefecture’s residents is too much to imagine.


The castle’s foundation and walls, but not the restored halls, have been designated by UNESCO as a World Cultural Heritage site. Annually, as many as 2.8 million people visited the castle in recent years, forming the core of Okinawa tourism.


There is concern about whether the burning of the castle will deal a blow to the promotion of Okinawa.


Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga has said that the government will “make all-out efforts to reconstruct” the castle. The central government will be called on to provide assistance for the prefectural government.


The blaze this time has brought up anew problematic points in regard to fire prevention measures at cultural properties.


Fire engines could not approach the main hall as it went up in flames because the castle is surrounded by ramparts. Sprinklers were not installed in the main hall. Their installation was not mandatory under the Fire Service Law, but the damage could have been reduced if sprinklers had been in place.


Fire prevention at historic structures has become recognized as a global task in the aftermath of the fire in April that ravaged the spire of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.


The Cultural Affairs Agency conducted an emergency survey this summer of fire prevention measures taken at structures in Japan that have been designated as national treasures or important cultural assets. The survey showed that improvement was found to be necessary at 871 structures, or 20 percent of the total, because more than 30 years had passed since the installation of anti-fire equipment.


Many of Japan’s historic structures, including restored ones, are of wooden construction, and are thus vulnerable to fire. It is necessary to take countermeasures urgently.

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