Shurijo Burned Again
October 31, 2019
Updated: 4-9-2024

It is truly a sad day for Okinawa and for those of us who love her. The castle long served as the heart of the Ryukyu Kingdom from 1429 to 1879. I visited Shurijo in 2014 and again with one of my sons in 2015. There were other parts of the grounds that I had missed on those occasions and so planned to go back. Well, my 2017 trip came and went without having revisited the castle. During my 2019 trip I almost went back but was side-tracked on the day that I was going to go and now, in hind-sight, I'm kicking myself because I never did quite fit it in during my 7 weeks in April and May.

Seven buildings were destroyed: Seiden, Hokuden, Nanden, Shoin, Kugani-Udun, Nike-Udun and Hoshinmon.

I'm not so much worried about the loss of the buildings. They were not original anyway and will be rebuilt. What troubles me greatly though is not knowing the extent of loss of the CONTENTS of the buildings. I'm hoping to learn that everything that was contained within the structures were replicas of pieces and copies of documents, etc. and that the authentic pieces and documents were secured somewhere off-site. But something tells me that that will not turn out to be the case. Valuable relics of old Ryukyu are gone. Time will tell.

So, devastating as it is, rest assured that this isn't the first time that Shuri Castle has been stricken by fire. Not even the third or the fourth time.

  • 1453 - Shurijo was intentionally torched during the Revolt of Shiro and Furi
  • 1660 - accidental fire. Restored by 1670. By that time newer techniques for creating roofing tiles were available throughout much of Ryukyu. Tile roofing became known to Okinawa during the reign of King Sho Nei, when Korean potters arrived in the Ryukyu Islands by way of Satsuma. It was during this period that tile came to replace earlier roofing materials of thatch or wood. Tiles were first used to top off fire towers that were built at Naha and at Shuri after temples and shrines at Naminoue had burned.
  • 1709 - accidental fire. Restoration 1712-1715.
  • 1945 - much of the castle was destroyed and/or burned during the Battle for Okinawa. It was fully restored by 1992.
  • October 31, 2019 - with investigation still going no one has yet said that arson is suspected.
  • What follows is one of the earliest reports of the conflagration. After this initial report I'll add updates as they become available.

    Okinawa castle at World Heritage site destroyed in predawn fire
    KYODO NEWS KYODO NEWS - Oct 31, 2019 - 23:59

    NAHA, Japan - The main buildings of a castle at a World Heritage site in Okinawa, regarded as a symbol of the southern Japanese prefecture, burned to the ground in a predawn fire Thursday, with the blaze finally suppressed hours later.

    The fire started just before 2:40 a.m. at Shuri Castle, one of Okinawa's major tourist spots, in the prefectural capital Naha, and was extinguished at around 1:30 p.m. after destroying seven wooden buildings occupying a total of 4,800 square meters.

    There were no immediate reports of injuries, but more than 30 nearby residents were temporarily evacuated, local authorities said.

    The original castle at the site dated back to the Ryukyu Kingdom, which spanned 450 years until Okinawa was annexed by Japan in 1879.

    The castle was left in ruins after fierce World War II ground battles with U.S. forces in 1945. It opened as a national park in 1992 with the Seiden main hall and some other buildings restored. Restoration work had continued until recently.

    The local fire department suspects the blaze began in the Seiden hall but is still investigating the cause. More than 10 fire engines were dispatched to contain the blaze.

    Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a press conference "Shuri Castle is an extremely important symbol for Okinawa," adding the government "will do its best to reconstruct" the castle.

    Security guards near the castle were alerted after a fire alarm sounded and they saw smoke billowing from the main hall, police said.

    In addition to the main hall, the Hokuden north hall and Nanden south hall were completely destroyed. The three halls were not equipped with sprinklers as their installation was not mandatory, according to the local fire department.

    A festival recreating scenes from the kingdom's rituals had been held at the site since Sunday and staff were preparing for related events until late Wednesday night. None of them were believed to be present when the fire broke out, according to the police.

    All the gates directly connected to the Seiden hall were locked when the blaze started, they added. The festival, which was supposed to run through next Sunday, was canceled following the fire.

    The Cultural Affairs Agency sent inspectors to the site to investigate the cause and examine the fire prevention system. The agency said it will report to the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, the certifying body for World Heritage sites, after confirming how the fire started.

    The park at the site was closed following the fire and it was uncertain when it would reopen. The site, visited by about 2.8 million people in the fiscal year through March, is on next year's Tokyo Olympic torch relay route.

    Naha Mayor Mikiko Shiroma told a press conference that she was "extremely sorry" and "shocked" to hear the news. "We have lost our symbol," she said.

    "This is a loss for all humanity," tweeted UNESCO Director General Audrey Azoulay, expressing "deep emotion and sincere solidarity with the Japanese people."

    The disaster saddened locals as the smell of burning and white smoke filled the air in residential areas near the site.

    "The castle burst into flames, then the framework of the Seiden hall collapsed, with the fire spreading to an adjacent building," said Ritsuko Shiratori, 70, a local resident who witnessed the fire from the highest floor of a condominium building.

    "I feel so sad that the castle was gone this way after being restored," she added.

    "I feel like someone I was close to has passed away," said Tokiko Taira, 69, with tears in her eyes. "This is shocking. We have no choice but to work hard and restore it again," a 66-year-old man said.

    Built upon a hill and surrounded by walls, the castle served as the royal palace of the Ryukyu Kingdom and its administrative office. Important rituals were held in a square in front of the Seiden hall, according to experts.

    Kurayoshi Takara, professor emeritus of history at the University of the Ryukyus, said the oldest remains unearthed at the site date back to the 14th century and that the castle welcomed envoys from Chinese emperors as well as Commodore Matthew Perry and the U.S. warships he commanded in 1853.

    Perry later visited a port in what is now Yokosuka, near Tokyo, demanding Japan end over 200 years of isolation and open itself to foreign trade.

    The castle whose architecture incorporated Japanese and Chinese culture was "the identity of Okinawa that was repaired after the war based on a strong local desire," Takara said. "The damage is immeasurable."

    The castle ruins, excluding the restored buildings, were registered as Japan's 11th UNESCO World Heritage site in 2000, along with ancient monuments in the island prefecture.

    During the July 2000 summit of the Group of Eight major powers in Okinawa, leaders had dinner in the north hall.

    Palace in a Sacred Town
    Japanese Government Internet TV
    (The narration is a bit creepy but it's a good educational piece. That said, I loathe the sound of my own voice and so do as little speaking as I can in my own videos.)
    My visits to Shurijo in 2014 and 2015

    My visit in 2023 as Shuri was undergoing restoration

    EXCELLENT HISTORY of SHURIJO from SamuraiWIki Archives

    Fire Ravages Japanese Heritage Site Shuri Castle The castle, first built more than 500 years ago, was seen as a symbol of the dynamic Ryukyu Kingdom
    By Brigit Katz,, October 31, 2019

    The Sho kings ruled over what is now the Japanese island of Okinawa for four centuries overseeing the powerful Ryukyu Kingdom from a grand palace known as Shuri Castle. Following the kingdom’s demise, the castle became a popular tourist attraction: Recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the “great monument [symbolized] the pride of the Ryukyu people.” But on Thursday, a devastating fire broke out at the castle, tearing through several buildings, including the imposing main hall.

    As Daniel Victor reports for the New York Times, the blaze was reported at 2:40 a.m. and extinguished by 11 a.m. Footage from the scene shows flames engulfing the site, reducing its structures to crumbling shells.

    “I am utterly in shock,” Mikiko Shiroma, mayor of Okinawa capital Naha, said to reporters. “We have lost our symbol.”

    Ryo Kochi, a spokesperson for the Okinawa prefectural police, tells Agence France-Presse that the fire started at the main temple but quickly spread “to all the main structures.” Preparatory work for a festival taking place at the castle was ongoing until 1 a.m., according to the Guardian’s Justin McCurry, but it remains unclear whether the project played a role in sparking the fire.

    Per the Japan Times, authorities evacuated roughly 30 nearby residents but reported no injuries. Officials have yet to determine the cause of the disaster.

    The Ryukyu Kingdom emerged in the 15th century following the unification of three warring kingdoms. Its rulers’ influence extended across the Ryukyu Islands, to which Okinawa belongs, until 1879, when the islands were annexed by Japan. Shuri Castle was first constructed more than 500 years ago, blending Chinese and Japanese architectural styles—a sign of the kingdom’s active involvement in trade with China.

    Over the course of its long history, the castle has been destroyed multiple times, most recently during the Battle of Okinawa in 1945. The site underwent major restoration work in the 1990s, as did other historic Ryukyu locations that sustained considerable damage during World War II. Reconstruction efforts were so meticulous that UNESCO granted World Heritage status to several sites on Okinawa, including Shuri Castle, in 2000.

    “The ruins of the castles, on imposing elevated sites, are evidence for the social structure over much of that period,” the agency says, “while the sacred sites provide mute testimony to the rare survival of an ancient form of religion into the modern age.”

    Sprinklers had not been installed inside the reconstructed castle, although some were placed under the roof of the main building to prevent outside fires from entering the structure, the Times’ Victor reports. Inspections of the site took place twice a year, with fire drills occurring at least once per year. (January 26 is officially “Fire Prevention Day for Cultural Properties” in Japan, and drills are carried out at cultural sites throughout the country.)

    In the wake of the Notre-Dame fire this past spring, Japanese officials said they would conduct emergency inspections of heritage locations and implement additional security measures, including the placement of fire extinguishers.

    “I have no words,” Masahiko Shibayama, a former education minister, wrote on Twitter after the Shuri fire, per a translation by Victor. “After the Notre-Dame cathedral fire, we’ve just started reviewing fire countermeasures at cultural assets.”

    Government officials have promised to do everything they can to rebuild the castle, but some of its relics may be lost forever. According to Victor, Kurayoshi Takara, a professor at the University of the Ryukyus, told national broadcaster NHK that the fire destroyed many artifacts.

    Takara added, “I cannot accept the reality.”

    Japan gov't vows to rebuild Okinawa's Shuri Castle in wake of devastating fire
    October 31, 2019 (Mainichi Japan)

    TOKYO -- The Japanese government will do its best to rebuild the World Heritage-listed Shuri Castle in Naha, Okinawa Prefecture, after the historical landmark including its main hall burned down early on Oct. 31, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said.

    "It is part of the Okinawa Commemorative National Government Park. The government will do its best to rebuild the castle," Suga told a news conference on the morning of Oct. 31. He added that the cause of the fire is being investigated.

    The castle complex, restored after World War II, "is situated on the site of the original Shuri Castle, which was listed in 2000 as a World Heritage site. We recognize it's an extremely important symbol of Okinawa," Suga said. "I express my sympathy to residents of Okinawa Prefecture from the bottom my heart. The incident is heartbreaking."

    Shuri Castle in Naha, capital of Japan's southernmost prefecture, was built as the palace of the Ryukyu Kingdom. It was destroyed in the Battle of Okinawa in 1945, in the closing months of World War II. It was restored and opened to the public as part of the Okinawa Commemorative National Government Park in 1992 to mark the 20th anniversary of Okinawa's reversion to Japan from the postwar U.S. occupation.
    (Japanese original by Shinichi Akiyama, Political News Department)

    'An incalculable loss': Residents, restorers react to Okinawa's Shuri Castle fire
    October 31, 2019 (Mainichi Japan)

    NAHA -- Locals who cherished Shuri Castle as a symbol of Okinawa Prefecture, and those who helped rebuild the designated World Heritage site, were left stunned when the main building and other parts of the historic complex were destroyed by fire in the early hours of Oct. 31.

    Shuri Castle was previously reduced to ashes during the 1945 Battle of Okinawa in World War II, and was subsequently reconstructed over decades. 72-year-old Kurayoshi Takara, a professor emeritus at the University of the Ryukyus, became involved in reviving the iconic structure, which began in 1989. He learned about the fire at around 4:30 a.m. when another member of the rebuilding project called him. He stared in stunned disbelief at the bright red flames, visible from his home in Naha, as they reached higher into the sky.

    With many of the documents regarding the buildings lost in the war, restoration project officials carried out research and investigations to recreate the main Seiden hall part of the castle in a way that ensured it was faithful inside and out to its original construction during the Ryukyu Kingdom era (1429 - 1879).

    Much pride was taken from the building having been completely recreated in wood; bringing it very close to the way it would have looked and felt in the past. Although the loss of documents for the interior of the north hall meant it couldn't be faithfully restored, it was used as a museum of Okinawa's history that introduced visitors to the prefecture's historical symbol which is unique in Japan.

    A newly renovated part of the park that included gates and buildings such as those used for female servants and for succession rites was just opened in February. On the subject of the cause of the sudden fire, Takara spoke reservedly, "I don't fully understand the circumstances yet."

    The then Group of Eight (G8) had a dinner meeting at the castle during a summit in 2000. Keiichi Inamine, 86, the governor of Okinawa Prefecture at the time, said, "The castle was the main feature at the summit as it showed the leaders of the world how Okinawa, which had been reduced to ashes after the war here, had rebuilt. I'm stunned thinking that that castle, which so many people poured their hearts and souls into bringing back, has been lost in a moment."

    Inamine also said he received a call in the early hours of the morning from the wife of the late former Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, who originally decided on Okinawa as the venue for the 2000 summit.

    Masayuki Dana, 68, the head curator of Okinawa Prefectural Museum and Art Museum, was unable to hide his surprise, "It's a shock. I think everyone's been stunned. Shuri Castle was a construction unique to the Ryukyu Kingdom based on knowledge acquired from Japan and China. In the midst of a paucity of documents, many people brought their knowledge together and through trial and error they rebuilt it. Based on that alone this is an incalculable loss."

    In addition to the fire damage to the castle buildings, there are also concerns for the artistic relics and other items of cultural value that were stored on the site. Despite those worries, Dana said, "The cultural value of the main hall, the north one and the others was supposed to be evaluated in the days ahead. We're still in a state of confusion at the moment, but I want to start thinking about how we rebuild it."

    In the early hours of Oct. 31, residents flocked to see one of the cherished symbols of their community and culture disappearing. Osamu Nakamura, 52, who was born and raised in the Shuri area and works as a self-employed businessman, rode his motorbike up to a point where he could clearly see the castle.

    "It's like a nightmare," he said. Ceremonies and other events re-enacting the culture of the Ryukyu Kingdom were scheduled to be held at the castle this weekend. Speaking about them, Nakamura said, "For people living in Shuri it's one of the things we look forward to every year. I went to see it every year. It was a piece of world heritage that was the pride of this area. I wonder if it will be rebuilt in my lifetime."

    A woman, 45, who lives nearby and works at a company was [awakened] after 3 a.m. by the sound of members of the fire department telling people to evacuate via megaphones. "When I saw it from the roof of my home, the fire was spinning up into the air like a tornado. You could hear the sounds of the building cracking in the fire, too."

    With tears forming in her eyes, she added, "I can't stop shaking. For the people of Okinawa, who have endured the war and so much else, Shuri Castle was our symbol. We all lived while watching the castle being rebuilt."

    Takehiko Fujito, 53, a resident of the suburban city of Hino in Tokyo who often visits Okinawa was also at the scene. He said, "I have a great admiration for Ryukyu culture, and I even visited the castle in October last year. There, you could feel the point both Japanese and Chinese cultures. It is a deeply fascinating structure. It's so sad to think of what's happened after the pains taken to bring it back."

    Some residents are also worried about what effect the castle's loss could have on the prefecture's tourism. A 69-year-old unemployed man who was staring at the spectacle unfolding that night said, "It was the pride of the prefecture, rebuilt over a long period. It's probably going to have an effect on tourism and the economy here. With the local and national governments at odds over American bases here, I wonder if it really will get rebuilt."
    (Japanese original by Ken Nakazato, Makoto Kakizaki and Kenta Somatani, Kyushu News Department, and Takayasu Endo, Naha Bureau)

    Okinawa governor calls on world to help raise Shuri Castle from ashes
    By ISABEL REYNOLDS AND EMI NOBUHIRO | Bloomberg | Published: November 1, 2019
    Investigators inspect ruined Okinawan castle for fire cause
    CTV News - Nov 1, 2019
    Police believe arson unlikely in Okinawa castle fire
    KYODO NEWS - Nov 2, 2019 - 01:20

    NAHA, JAPAN - Police believe a fire that destroyed Shuri Castle, a symbol of Okinawa located at a World Heritage site, was not likely to have been caused by arson, investigators said Friday.

    In analyzing the evidence, including security camera footage at the gutted castle, police have found no traces of intrusion into the castle ahead of the fire breaking out, they said.

    Okinawa Churashima Foundation, which manages the castle, told a press conference on Friday that there was nothing unusual an hour before the fire alarm sounded.

    A security guard conducted a routine patrol inside the Seiden main building of the castle about an hour before the fire and found nothing amiss at that time, the foundation said.

    The blaze that started at around 2:30 a.m. Thursday engulfed seven wooden buildings, occupying a total of more than 4,000 square meters on a hill overlooking the prefectural capital Naha, before it was extinguished around 1:30 p.m. There were no reports of injuries.

    As around 100 local officials entered the site in the morning, smoke was still rising from the burned-down Seiden main hall, where the authorities suspect the fire started.

    Thursday's fire engulfed the restored buildings of the Seiden hall, the Hokuden north hall and Nanden south hall, at a time when a festival recreating scenes from ancient rituals was about to enter its fifth day at the castle, having started on Sunday.

    The city's fire department said the castle's heat detectors notified them of the fire at 2:34 a.m. Thursday.

    Aside from the heat detectors and seven security cameras, no other electrical machinery was active that night, a foundation official said.

    Around 70 staff members related to the festival had been on the premises, with workers installing lights and other equipment nearby, but they were all gone by just after 1 a.m., prior to one of the security guards making his rounds.

    Some of the event's props were left in the main hall, according to the local officials.

    While the buildings were equipped with fire alarms and extinguishers, they did not have sprinklers, which are only mandatory at facilities that accommodate overnight guests.

    Of about 1,500 artifacts kept in the castle buildings, over 400 may have been lost, according to the foundation.

    They say they found a burned electrical panel on the floor.
    NHK World news - Nov 2, 2019
    400 artifacts, ancient docs at Okinawa's Shuri Castle destroyed in fire
    November 2, 2019 (Mainichi Japan)

    NAHA -- About 400 artifacts and ancient documents stored at Shuri Castle were destroyed in the fire that swept through key buildings at the World Heritage complex early on Oct. 31, the foundation that manages the castle told reporters Nov. 1.

    According to the Okinawa Churashima Foundation, some 1,500 artifacts and documents, including paintings, lacquerware, ancient writings and dyed fabrics, were kept at the castle. About 400 of them, including documents relating to the Sho family that ruled the Ryukyu Kingdom were kept at the Seiden main hall that burned down.

    The remaining items are kept in two fireproof archives. However, the archives area remains hot and its fireproof doors were warped in the blaze and still cannot be opened, meaning the archive items' condition is unknown. [my own observation: another Schrodinger's cat situation - until access is gained the archives are both intact and destroyed].

    Although none of the 1,500 total items has been designated as national treasure or important cultural property, they include those that were not lost during the Battle of Okinawa toward the end of World War II and collected after the war.

    Okinawa Churashima Foundation Chairman Yoshihiro Hanashiro expressed hope that the remaining 1,100 artifacts and ancient documents remain intact.

    "These items include some 200-300 years old. I hope they are preserved," he told the news conference.

    At least 420 artworks at Japan's Shuri Castle likely destroyed by fire
    The Japan News Published 4:54 pm CDT, Saturday, November 2, 2019

    NAHA, Japan - It is highly likely at least 420 of about 1,500 artworks stored at Shuri Castle in Naha were destroyed Thursday by the fire that engulfed the castle.

    The 420 or so artworks, which were not stored in a fire-resistant repository, include artifacts from the Ryukyu Kingdom that had been displayed and stored in the Seiden main hall and other places in the castle, the Okinawa Churashima Foundation said during a press conference in Naha on Friday.

    The general incorporated foundation carries out the management and administration of Shuri Castle.

    Of about 1,000 remaining items that were stored in a fire-resistant repository, there are three precious items such as a painting that is a prefecturally designated cultural property and a valuable craftwork. However, as of Friday it had not been confirmed whether they were damaged by the fire or not, sources said.

    It is also yet to be confirmed whether the stone walls, foundations and other structural remnants of the original Shuri Castle were damaged by fire or not. They have been preserved in the basement of the main hall. The site's registration as a UNESCO World Heritage site is centered on the castle ruins.

    There have been no electrical leakages or problems with the electrical system at the castle in the past, the sources said.

    "Shuri Castle is the heart of the people of Okinawa Prefecture. We'll work with relevant ministries to promote early reconstruction of the castle," Cultural Affairs Commissioner Ryohei Miyata said Friday.

    A total of about 130 officials from the Okinawa prefectural police and the Naha Fire Department conducted an on-the-spot investigation at Shuri Castle on Saturday, continuing on from Friday.

    They will look into cause and origin of the fire, focusing on the main hall where the fire is believed to have started.

    Donations for Shuri Castle collected in US
    NHK World News - Nov 4, 2019
    Marine spouse launches online fundraiser after fire devastates Shuri Castle on Okinawa
    By AYA ICHIHASHI | STARS AND STRIPES - November 4, 2019
    Roof tiles cannot be replaced
    Nippon TV News - Nov 5, 2019
    The loss of Shuri castle is a devastating blow for the people of Okinawa
    APOLLO The International Art Magazine
    Travis Seifman - Nov 5, 2019
    Shuri Castle Park, closed for five days after a fire, partly reopens.
    Nippon TV News - Nov 5, 2019
    Okinawa tourism industry left reeling after fire guts Japan’s Shuri Castle
    South China Morning Post - Nov 5, 2019
    Electrical fault could have caused inferno at Okinawa's Shuri Castle
    The Japan Times News ( - Nov 6, 2019
    November 7, 2019 - OPINION: Shuri Castle fire highlights unique Okinawan history and identity
    Uniting Japanese, Chinese and Ryukyuan elements, heritage site should rise again
    Masato Ishida is Director of the Center for Okinawan Studies, University of Hawaii at Manoa.
    Ryukyu red tile craftsmen appeal to prefectural government to preserve burned red tiles
    Ryukyu Shimpo - Nov 13, 2019
    Taiwan donates to Okinawa, optimistic on timber sourcing for Shuri Castle
    Ryukyu Shimpo - Dec 20, 2019
    Taiwan donates 5.5 million Japanese yen for Shuri Castle rebuilding
    Focus Taiwan News Channel, Dec 23, 2019
    Shuri Castle: Appeal for images to 'rebuild' burned site online
    BBC News - Dec 31, 2019
    Shuri Castle fire investigation ‘inconclusive’, Okinawa Police Department says
    Ryukyu Shimpo - January 29, 2020
    Police: No sign of foul play in Shuri Castle fire
    NHK World - Jan 30, 2020
    "Police reported [their] findings to the Okinawa prefectural government and ended their investigation."
    Okinawa and Japan to coordinate use of Shuri Castle reconstruction donation funds
    Ryukyu Shimpo - Feb 6, 2020 (English translation)
    As of February 5, donations contributed from both within Japan and abroad have amounted to about 1.366 billion yen.
    Hokkaido Ice Festival creates ice sculpture of Shurijo
    Ryukyu Shimpo - Feb 9, 2020 (English translation)
    the ice art is "10 meters high, 20 meters wide, and 9 meters deep". Wow!
    Shuri Castle Reconstruction Work Begins - Feb 10, 2020
    ...Construction work started for the castle's Hokuden hall ...
    My visit to Shuri in 2023
    April 5, 2023 - This visit was truly a sad occasion for me. After having experienced the splendor of Shuri Castle in prior years, it was painful to see that it no longer exists. But, it is on the come-back and by 2026 we'll once again be able to enjoy the magnificence of the grand palace.
    1st column goes up to reconstruct Shurijo
    Asahi Shimbun - September 5, 2023
    ...approximately 500-kilogram cypress column is 7 meters long with a radius of about 30 centimeters. It will be the first of 513 columns and beams to be used for the framework of the Seiden (Main Hall).
    Okinawa visitors witness Shuri-jo restoration work in progress
    Asahi Shimbun - April 8, 2024
    Five years after a devastating fire, the roofs of Shuri-jo Castle’s main hall are taking shape as reconstruction progresses on the iconic landmark here...

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