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Shurijo: A Symbol of Distinct Culture and Identity

OKINAWA, Japan- On October 31, 2019 at 2:40 am, flames engulfed the palace of the once-powerful Ryukyu Kingdom, reducing its structures into crumbling rubble. Juxtaposed against the darkness of the night, the bright flames were a surreal sight seen from all across Naha, Okinawa’s capital city. The fire quickly spread across the Seiden, the main hall, and soon, both the Hokuden and Nanden, adjacent buildings to the north and south, were shrouded in flames. By the time the fire had been put out at around 11am the next day, the three structures including the Bandokoro were destroyed. Residents across Japan woke up to treacherous news the following morning: the symbol of Okinawa had burned down. Thousands mourned the loss of the castle, including the mayor of Naha, Shiroma Mikiko, who told reporters, “We have lost our symbol.” More on Twitter expressed their shock, sharing videos of the billowing smoke and flames, commenting, “I cannot believe this,” and “I could not stop my tears.”

The loss of Shuri Castle rings close to the hearts of Okinawan people because its complex history starting from the powerful Ryukyu kingdom, its annexation by the Meiji government, and the last site of the Japanese empire’s struggle against the US navy, known as the Battle of Okinawa. The first king of the Ryukyu Kingdom, Sho Hashi, or Shang Bazhi in Chinese, established Shuri Castle as his residence. For 450 years of the Ryukyu Kingdom, Shuri Castle was the royal court and administrative center. It hosted foreign vassals from China and Japan, and its distinctive red color and dragon motifs echo Chinese architecture and artwork. Relations with China started as early as 1374, and diplomatic missions between Ryukyu and China established a hubbub of trade between the two kingdoms. Many of the stone carvings that mark different entrances to the palace are relics from both Ming, Yuan, and Qing dynasties. 

In 1879, a decade after the Meiji Restoration, Ryukyu Kingdom was forcibly annexed by the Japanese empire. The monarchy was abolished and Ryukyu became known as Okinawa Prefecture. There is continuing political discord suggesting whether the forced annexation is a form of colonialism, and that Okinawa had operated more as a colony rather than an integral part of Japan. Traditional Ryukyu religious practices, language, culture were replaced by Japanese public education. Shuri Castle was taken over by the imperial army, and used as a military base. 

The Battle of Okinawa was one of the last battles of WWII, as Japan’s last stand against the US forces. It was the only land battle within Japan, and around ⅓ of the Okinawan civilian population perished during the war. The Japanese 32nd Army stationed its headquarters on the foothill of Shuri Castle; it became a target and was subsequently destroyed by the intense gunfire and bombardment. Its destruction marked Japan’s loss of Okinawa: nothing was left except for the American flag on the hill in May 1945. 

After its destruction in 1945, in the following years, Shuri Castle was slowly reconstructed based on photographs from the Meiji period. In 2000, it was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Restoration continued until 2014 of the surrounding structures and gardens in Shuri Castle Park. It serves as a tourist hub for those who wish to see the vestiges of the Ryukyu Kingdom and the distinct heritage of the Ryukyuan people.

A week after the fire, Naha Police Department disclosed that the fire was most likely caused by a problem in the electrical equipment located in the main hall. It is suspected that a short circuit in the electrical board had caused the fire, due to melt marks on many of the power lines across Shuri Castle. Ishii Takaaki, a journalist, criticized the Okinawan government for failing to protect the castle. 

Shuri Castle exists as a pride of Okinawan and a symbol of the rich history of Ryukyu. It highlights the distinct Ryukyuan identity and the existence of 1.3 million ethnic Ryukyuans who make of the Japanese ethnic minority. The demise of the castle may call on Japanese people to recognize diverse cultures and Japan’s complex history. The loss of a significant symbol in Okinawa has ignited a sense of unification as donations have poured across Japan and the world. The initial goal of 100 million yen was exceeded by over 400 percent, at 434,534,000 yen as of November 9th. The city will continue to accept donations to fund the future reconstruction of Shuri Castle. 


If you are interested in donating, here is the link to donate to Naha City (in Japanese).