What We Lost When A Fire Destroyed 500-year-old Shuri Castle

The UNESCO World Heritage Site, Shuri Castle in Naha, Okinawa, Japan burned to the ground on Thursday morning. Thankfully, no injuries have been reported, but the loss of the historic castle has been devastating for locals.

Originally built over 500 years ago, the castle, was once the seat of the Ryukyu Dynasty that spanned about 450 years from 1429 until 1879 when Japan annexed the islands. The castle that burned yesterday was not the first. The palace has burnt down three times before and was nearly completely destroyed in World War II, during the Battle of Okinawa.

Image via Wikimedia Commons / 663highland (CC BY-SA 3.0)

That, of course, does not dampen the effect of the destruction. The Ryukyu Dynasty, which was once a tribute state of China’s Ming Dynasty, was the force that united the islands of Okinawa. It was also a powerhouse in maritime trade, connecting the countries within East and Southeast Asia.

Sitting between China and Japan, the Ryukyu had a culture that was all it’s own, with the palace taking architectural influences from both countries – a unique hybrid of the two. And the ancient castle was the symbol of Okinawa’s cultural heritage, as well as Okinawa’s strength, having rebuilt after WWII.

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Jun Hirata/Kyodo News via AP

In fact, Okinawa’s culture had been suppressed by the Japanese after the islands’ annexation. After World War II, however, the unified strength of Okinawa led to a rebirth of its culture. There was a renewed interest in the Okinawan language, arts and rituals such as the Yotsudake dance, dragon boat racing and the spring festival on Henza in which men dress like robots, women, and Polynesians to bring plentiful fishing.

The castle, with its curved stone walls, vivid red pain and sloped tiled roofs are such a huge part of the Okinawan identity that it was scheduled to be a stop on the 2020 Tokyo Olympic torch relay route.

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Okinawa plans to rebuild Shuri Castle once more because of the role the hilltop palace plays in the imaginations, strength and lives of Okinawans. However, another piece of their culture is gone, reminding us of the importance of cultural preservation as a whole and that we must learn all we can and tread lightly wherever we go.

What cultures will you discover?

Elisabeth Forsman

Our predictably unpredictable adventure nomad, Elisabeth is the yogi who wants it fast, the ultra-runner who prefers taking a hike, and the swimmer with a fear of lap pools. A consummate lover of all things outdoors, she’s on a perpetual quest to get those around her outside and moving.

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