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'An incalculable loss': Residents, restorers react to Okinawa's Shuri Castle fire

Local residents watch Shuri Castle in the Okinawa Prefecture capital of Naha burning on the morning of Oct. 31, 2019. (Mainichi/Takayasu Endo)

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 main hall of Shuri Castle in the Okinawa Prefecture capital of Naha, center, is seen burning early on the morning of Oct. 31, 2019. (Photo courtesy of Ryukyu Shimpo)

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."

This Jan. 27, 2018 file photo shows Shuri Castle in the Okinawa Prefecture capital of Naha. (Mainichi/Takeshi Noda)

A woman, 45, who lives nearby and works at a company was woken 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)

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