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Shuri Castle and the deep sorrow of losing one's history

Building was embodiment of Ryukyu history and a gateway to Asia

Shuri Castle dates back to the late 14th century.    © NOBUAKI SUMIDA/SEBUN PHOTO/ananaimages

The phone rang early Thursday morning. The caller was a relative who sounded like they were in shock, barely able to choke out the words.

"Shuri Castle is burning," they said.

This was how I learned of the blaze that left Shuri Castle in ashes. I was in Naha, where the castle is located, for research. After the call, I quickly turned on the television, I could not believe my eyes. Shuri Castle was engulfed in flames.

It didn't seem real. It was as if someone who I thought would be with me forever suddenly died. I couldn't even think of what to do.

Shuri Castle seemed like it has always been part of Okinawa. It dates back to the late 14th century. After the establishment of the Ryukyu Kingdom, which unified the Ryukyu Islands, a chain that lies off southwestern Japan, new buildings were added and the castle compound was expanded by kings.

Surrounded by winding stone walls, it's neither an imposing citadel nor a fortress. It's a castle to welcome people from faraway places who crossed the sea and for the people of Ryukyu who set out to sea. The 15th century was the kingdom's golden age but after that, it experienced one hardship after another.

Even in difficult times, Shuri Castle functioned as the center of administrative and political affairs. It also served as a base for diplomacy and trade, and as a place to promote the Ryukyu culture.

But after the Meiji Era began in Japan, the kingdom came under assault of what is known as Ryukyu Disposition in the 1870s. Backed by military force, the Meiji government dissolved the kingdom and demanded that it terminate a tributary relationship with Qing Dynasty. Ryukyu rejected the demand, but the government sent troops and police to crack down on protests. The last king was ordered to hand over Shuri Castle and relocate to Tokyo.

The kingdom was turned into Okinawa Prefecture, and its 500 years of history came to an end. The Meiji government confiscated Shuri Castle and later sold it to Shuri District, a local authority at that time, which is now the northeastern part of Naha City. The castle was used as a school, but the former royal palace became desolate over time.

Yoshitaro Kamakura, a renowned artist and Okinawa scholar, spent time at Shuri Castle in the early 1920s. A native of Kagawa Prefecture on the island of Shikoku, he was fascinated by the Ryukyu culture through his interactions with local people. He spent 16 years, on and off the island, chronicling its culture and history through notes and photographs. His work played a crucial role in the designation of Shuri Castle as a national treasure in 1925. Major renovation works followed.

However, a ground battle in the final days of World War II devastated the island, and Shuri Castle was not spared. The University of the Ryukyus was built on the castle ruins after the war. Calls to restore the castle never ceased during the 27-year U.S. military occupation of Okinawa. The castle was not just a symbol of the kingdom's history and culture, but a historical record of how the people of Ryukyu and Okinawa lived.

And history is something Okinawans hold dear. It never fails to amaze me when I hear them vividly tell the lives of their ancestors. They make me realize that we won't be here without those who struggled to survive.

A project to restore Shuri Castle started after the national university relocated. The war caused a massive loss of historical materials. But project team members, the best and brightest from a wide range of fields, didn't waste time mourning the loss. They conducted thorough surveys and research, using clues they found and restored historical structures. The materials and field notes left by Kamakura also helped. It goes without saying that cooperation from the people of Okinawa gave the members moral support.

Twenty-seven years have passed since the restoration, and I was happy to see an increasing number of young people who grew up looking at the "red castle." But on Thursday tragedy struck. Witnessing Shuri Castle, which I visited countless times, succumb to flames was gut-wrenching. All I can do now is to embrace this deep sorrow.

The castle is not only for Okinawans. When you incorporate the history of Ryukyu into that of Japan, you will see that the kingdom was a gateway to Asian countries and built a rich culture. Shuri Castle was proof of that.

Kei Yonahara is a nonfiction writer and an Okinawan born in Tokyo. She has written many books mainly on the history and culture of Okinawa and Asia, including one about Shuri Castle.

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