Shuri Castle severely damaged by fire

November 1, 2019 • 10:30 am

by Greg Mayer

Regular readers of WEIT may recall that I have posted a few times about Okinawa, including pictures from a visit I made there in 2017.  One of the places I visited was Shuri Castle, a UNESCO World Heritage site which was the seat of the Ryukyu Kingdom for 450 years, from 1429-1879. Tragically, much of the Castle burned down yesterday, in a fire whose origin is not yet known. Here’s video from the South China Morning Post.

The Castle had stone walls and foundations, but its buildings were largely made of wood, thus making it vulnerable to fire. Here’s what it looked like after the fire.

Shuri Castle, Okinawa, after the fire, 1 October 2019. NY Times.

I first heard of the fire from my daughter (who lived on Okinawa for two years), and I was actually somewhat relieved by seeing this photo. Although the destruction is great, it is not total. The main hall, the Seiden, is completely gone– it was a large building, and certainly the most important, at the east side (to the right in this photo) of the ‘striped’ courtyard– and the halls on its north and south flanks look badly damaged as well. But the westernmost halls, the outbuildings, and the gardens seem largely unaffected. I had feared that nothing had survived.

A view of Shuri Castle courtyard in better days, 28 May 2017.

The following picture is of a detailed model in the Castle, showing Chou-Hai-O-Ki-Shiki, a court ceremony held on New Year’s Day. The court officials are facing the Seiden, which is now completely destroyed. This model was in the Seiden, and thus is now gone.

1:25 scale model of Shuri Castle, showing Chou-Hai-O-Ki-Shiki, a court ceremony held on New Year’s Day.

The one saving grace, besides the fact that several buildings and the garden survived, is that the Castle had been destroyed by fire several times in the previous centuries, and again in 1945 during the Battle of Okinawa during World War II. Thus, almost all of the Castle has been restored multiple times, and, although the craftsmanship of the restoration was exquisite, much of what was lost was already a modern restoration; it can be restored again.

I am uncertain how many original artifacts may have been lost. When I visited, the following bit of pre-World War II wall was preserved and visible inside the Sedien.

Shuri Castle original stone.

It was accompanied by this explanation.

This is the throne room in the Seiden, where the King of Ryukyu would hold court.

Shuri Castle throne room.

Here are details of the decoration; note the squirrels.

The artwork above, while exactingly accurate and exquisitely beautiful, is a late 20th century restoration. The crown of the King of Ryukyu was also a replica.

Ryukyuan crown (replica).

This is one of the buildings abutting the courtyard– I believe this one survived.

A Shuri Castle guide in traditional Okinawan dress.

In addition to the main buildings and the outbuildings, the Castle had beautiful gardens, and these seem to have survived.

Gardens of Shuri Castle.

The gardens are home to habu— venomous snakes of several species found in the Ryukyus– and visitors are warned.

Habu warning sign in the gardens at Shuri Castle.

And Jerry would want to know that ducks were fairly common in the gardens– this is a Muscovy duck, a domestic species native to the Americas.

Cairina moschata near a pond at Shuri Castle, Okinawa, Japan, 28 May 2017.

The Kingdom of Ryukyu comprised Okinawa and much of the rest of the Nansei Shoto, a chain of islands extending from Kyushu towards Taiwan. For much of its history Ryukyu was an independent kingdom, owing varying degrees of allegiance or fealty to China or Japan, depending on the strength and influence of those two greater powers. The Ryukyu King received a mandate to rule from the Chinese emperor, but the Ryukyuan language is Japonic, or a dialect of Japanese, depending on who you ask. (Readers may recall the old quip that “a language is a dialect with an army”; Ryukyu never had much of an army compared to China or Japan.) The state of tension between Chinese and Japanese influence was ended in 1879, when Japan effectively annexed the islands, and the last king was exiled to Tokyo, where he became a member of the Japanese nobility, but no longer a ruler in any sense.  Shuri Castle has great cultural significance for Okinawans and Ryukyuans, and indeed, should for all Japanese; I hope both the national and prefectural governments will commit to a new restoration.

(For more on the history of the Ryukyus, see George Kerr’s Okinawa: the History of an Island People. First published in 1958, the newer Tuttle edition has an afterword by Mitsugu Sakihara which updates and extends Kerr’s work.)

9 thoughts on “Shuri Castle severely damaged by fire

  1. Sad, but I gather that the Japanese often rebuild their wooden historic buildings, pole by pole, straw by straw. If true, they at least have experience doing that.

  2. This is the third disastrous fire in the last couple of years at a site of world cultural importance (I’m thinking also of the Brazilian national museum and Notre Dame in Paris). It is surprising to me that these buildings are not equipped with sprinklers (or something) to prevent such a disaster from occurring. In case of an emergency wouldn’t it be better to recover from some water damage than from a massive fire?

  3. “Uneasy is the head that wears a crown,” especially a crown with a spike in it, positioned to give the impression that it would pierce the wearer’s head. The King of Ryukyu must have been fond of magic tricks.

  4. While I lived and worked in Okinawa for 5 years 1995-2000 I never visited Shuri. My wife did during this time. I will send a message to some friends over there and see what they say about this. Very sad. There are tons of Historical things to see in Okinawa and many things around the Battle of Okinawa from 1945. Remember Okinawa was under American government and did not go through reversion to Japan until 1972.

  5. Isn’t it odd that it is a relief to hear that much was lost in WW2 or earlier, and could be rebuild again. Upon hearing of what was lost, it should not matter when it was lost, and yet, I also intuitively think it’s the good news. Not sure what’s going on there, perhaps it shows that it could be rebuild. But there could be some kind of cognitive quirk at work.

    Thanks Matt for stepping up your contributions in Jerry’s semi-absence.

  6. My father was stationed on Okinawa from ’64-’68 and we had the pleasure to relocate to Kadena AB. My maternal grandmother was part of our family and got to come with us. The Okinawans were familiar with Americans but not old women with white hair. As age is respected in their culture, it was common for us to be whisked to the back of a store into the family area for tea any time we traveled with her.
    It was an amazing experience and I recall our years there with great pleasure.
    I am sure we visited the Shuri Castle but, as I was only in my early teens, I have no specific memories of the site. It’s sad that it burned.

  7. Such a pity, but as you say, the building(s) that burned were already restorations. I wonder if the castle will be rebuilt using concrete like Osaka castle.

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