In the wee hours of 31 October, a fire suspected to be sparked by an electrical fault set Shuri Castle ablaze in Okinawa, Japan. The castle is one of nine components of the Gusuku Sites and Related Properties of Kingdom of Ryukyu, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. For the next 11 hours, the fire engulfed seven wooden buildings before being extinguished. Six of them were assessed to be beyond repair, and at least one-third of the artefacts stored at the castle are feared to be destroyed.
History of Shuri Castle
Shuri Castle dates to the Ryukyu Kingdom, which began in 1429. For the 450 years of the Ryukyu Kingdom, Shuri Castle served as the kingdom’s palace. This is not the first time that the historic castle was burned down. Aside from accidental fires throughout the castle’s history, the castle was destroyed when it served as the headquarters of the Japanese Imperial Army during WWII.
To commemorate the 20th anniversary of Okinawa’s reversion to Japan, the castle was extensively restored and reopened as a national park in 1992. The work was based not only on past scale drawings and photographs, but also in strict accordance with the findings of archaeological excavation. Owing to the faithful restoration of the monument, Shuri Castle is praised as a “a great monument symbolising the pride of the Ryukyu people”.
The destruction of Shuri Castle sparked an outpouring of grief among Okinawans. The historical significance of the monument made it a symbol of Okinawa, becoming its most prominent tourist attraction – attracting up to 2.8 million tourists in the first 3 months of 2019. The loss puts additional strain on the tourism industry, which has already been struggling with the ongoing row between Japan and South Korea and declining Hong Kong visitors. The Olympic torch was also slated to pass by the site, but it turns out the site was torched before the torch could even pass it.
Although works are underway to restore Shuri Castle, it is a pity that a piece of Ryukyu history has vanished with the destroyed artefacts and unsalvageable original materials.