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Shuri Castle fire highlights unique Okinawan history and identity

Uniting Japanese, Chinese and Ryukyuan elements, heritage site should rise again

| Japan
Shuri Castle, pictured in October 2012: Chinese influences are intuitively clear.   © Kyodo

The image of the orange fire consuming Shuri Castle on the southern Japanese island of Okinawa against the dark midnight sky last week appeared surreal. As the consumption of the architecture continued, many of us in Hawaii -- which has a strong historical connection to Okinawa through immigration -- prayed for the threatened UNESCO World Heritage site, a symbol of Okinawa and the ancient Ryukyu kingdom.

After 11 hours, the fire was finally extinguished, and a professor at the University of the Ryukyus called me: "Dear friend, Shuri Castle has been lost in roaring flames," he said. "My wife and I went to the site, mourning the destruction of a magnificent symbol of the Ryukyus. We offered our deepest prayers."

What was destroyed was more than a physical castle. Shuri symbolized a unique blend of Japanese, Chinese and Ryukyuan elements, with a long history of interaction among the three. Its destruction, and potential rebuilding, will prompt Okinawans to start thinking afresh about their cultural heritage and what that means to them today.

The remotest origin of Shuri Castle is unknown, though historical records suggest its presence in the late 14th century. In 1429, three principalities were united into the Ryukyu Kingdom by Sho Hashi, after which Shuri Castle became the kingdom's palace through two dynasties spanning 450 years.

Accidental fire burned down a large portion of the structure twice, first in 1660 and then in 1709, with smaller fires causing partial destruction several times. Each time it was rebuilt.

Shuri Castle after a fire engulfed the historic symbol on Oct. 31: what was destroyed was more than a physical castle.    © Kyodo

During World War II, the Japanese 32nd Army decided to station its headquarters in Shuri, fortifying the hill on which the castle stood, and dug a kilometer-long network of military tunnels right beneath it.

The decision made Shuri Castle a conspicuous target of destruction for the U.S. military. Intense bombardment and gunfire took countless lives, including those of civilians, and reduced the castle to nothing but rubble and ashes, leaving the American flag on the ruined hill by the end of May 1945. Okinawa became an American possession until 1972.

Why, then, was Shuri Castle granted the status of a World Heritage site, when restoration efforts began only in 1989 in preparation for the 20th anniversary of Okinawa's reversion to Japan?

The simple answer lies in Okinawan spirituality. A few years ago, when I was living in a small village in Okinawa, 25 minutes from Shuri Castle and 20 minutes to Seifa Utaki, another World Heritage site at the southeast end of the main island, historical and spiritual awareness was part of everyday life.

Local communities maintain numerous utaki spots, many of them unnoticeable to outsiders, which are all sacred places with long histories of worship. The community continues to feel the lively presence of both mythological and bloodline ancestors along with the spiritual power that created the islands and their culture.

At the apex of this native religion was the unique theocratic system of the Ryukyu kingdom, its political and cultural operations drawing their ultimate power from the gods of the south.

The distinct mixture of Japanese, Chinese and Ryukyuan elements should not be overlooked. Chinese influences on Shuri Castle are intuitively clear -- the outward resemblance with bright colors, dragon motifs and so on.

The North Hall, burned down by the fire, served as the main administrative facility for the Shuri government, but was also used to host the Chinese investiture envoys who participated in the kingdom's enthronement ceremonies to confer legitimacy on the rulers. The South Hall, also swept away by fire, was used to receive Japanese Satsuma officials after the Shimazu clan invaded the kingdom in 1609.

The destroyed North and South Halls were, therefore, symbolic of the kingdom's concurrent relationships with China and Japan. The Main Hall, which collapsed before television cameras, was used by the king and his family for administrative and religious purposes.

The Main Hall pictured during the Shuri Castle Festival in October 2016. (Photo by Masato Ishida)  

The reason this complex history matters is that it urges us to reflect upon the spiritual meaning of the castle beyond the demise of its physical symbol. It is encouraging to see conversations emerging across a wide range of generations.

Many Okinawans are asking themselves once again what the rich cultural heritage means to them and how sacred places continue to inform them of their unique identity. A fire can destroy a cultural heritage but it can also unite people.

What does this mean for Japan, and what is the next step? On the surface, Shuri Castle is a joint property of Japan and Okinawa Prefecture. Yoshihide Suga, Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary, told reporters that the Japanese government would do its utmost to help restore the castle, which it should.

They are not only authorized to provide financial and technical assistance to maintain the World Heritage site but have the privileged responsibility to do so.

At a deeper level, the demise may call on a new generation of Japanese people who feel better informed about their diverse backgrounds, a more pluralistic identity and unexplored possibilities.

A professor at the University of Tokyo recently wrote to me: "Shuri Castle was an inspirational icon that encouraged Japan to imagine how it could be otherwise -- alternative ways it could serve the region and world."

Masato Ishida is Director of the Center for Okinawan Studies, University of Hawaii at Manoa.

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