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Shuri Castle, Okinawa, Japan engulfed by fire.           Source: Twitter

Blaze Devastates 500-Year-Old Shuri Castle Site in Japan

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A fire has engulfed an historic castle in Japan. The blaze badly damaged Shuri Castle on the southern island of Okinawa and destroyed much of the complex. This fortress is a UNESCO world heritage site and it has immense cultural and historic importance for the people of Okinawa.

 Shuri Castle is located in Okinawa’s capital Naha. The Guardian reports that the fire started at ‘at around 2:40 am and quickly spread to other buildings in the complex’. It is believed that the fire started in the main structure.  According to CNN began ‘near the main hall of the UNESCO World Heritage Site, and that it spread rapidly to other buildings and features.

Catastrophic fire

Firefighters spent several hours fighting the blaze and they eventually did manage to bring the conflagration under control, but not before the site suffered severe damage. At one stage, a dozen fire trucks were fighting the blaze. The Sydney Morning Herald quoting an Okinawa police spokesperson, Ryo Kochi, as saying that ‘nearby residents were evacuated to safer areas’ because of the intensity of the fire. Thankfully there are no reports of injuries. The cause of the fire is as yet unknown but there was a tourist event taking place in the complex in recent days.

The fire was so devastating because much of the castle is made of wood. The Okinawa police spokesman, also stated that ‘The main Seiden temple and a Hokuden structure, or north temple, have burnt down’ according to the Sydney Morning Herald . Another building was also very badly damaged. The Guardian reports that ‘Television footage showed the multi-structure castle reduced to a skeleton’.

The historic castle

The castle is situated on a hill that overlooks the capital of Okinawa. According to the Sydney Morning Herald , the fortress is ‘enclosed by curved stone walls, the castle and its surrounding structures were painted a vivid red’. Its roofs are tiled with white tiles. The medieval stronghold also has a large courtyard that is famous for its brightly colored paving stones. The castle complex was built in a style that was heavily influenced by Chinese architecture .

Shuri Castle in Naha, Okinawa, Japan, 2011 (CC BY 2.5)

Shuri Castle in Naha, Okinawa, Japan, 2011 ( CC BY 2.5 )

This fortress was once the political, administrative and cultural center of the Ryukyu Kingdom (1429-1879), and is believed to have been in use by end of the 14 th or early 15 th century. The kingdom was a largely independent monarchy that controlled the Ryukyu Islands , which includes the island of Okinawa, it was very wealthy because of maritime trade. By the 17 th century, it came under the direct influence of the Japanese Shogunate , but the kingdom was abolished by the government of Emperor Meji in the late 19 th century.

Battle of Okinawa in WWII

This is not the first time that the castle and its associated buildings have been destroyed. It was levelled during the Battle of Okinawa in 1945 when Japanese and American troops battled for control of the strategic island. The Americans heavily shelled the old fortress and destroyed it. This was because ‘Shuri Castle acted as the local headquarters for the Imperial Japanese Army’ according to CNN. During the Battle of Okinawa, thousands of Americans were killed and up to a quarter of the local civilian population perished.

The castle lay in ruins, for many years in the post-war period, when the island was still occupied by the American forces. A major restoration project was begun to rebuild the original complex. This was based on old plans, photographs and the memories of local people so that the reconstructed castle could be as authentic as possible.  The project was completed in 1992. The restoration of the castle was so impressive that Shuri Castle received the status of a World Heritage site in 2000.

This historic site is very important to the people of Okinawa. It is now a very important destination for tourists. More importantly, perhaps, is that the reconstructed medieval stronghold is a symbol of the island’s recovery from the horrors of 1945. Because of its historic and cultural importance, it is highly likely that the castle will once again be restored to its former glory.

Top image: Shuri Castle, Okinawa, Japan engulfed by fire.           Source: Twitter

By Ed Whelan

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