Historic Japanese Castle Destroyed in Fire
Last Thursday (Oct. 31), a fire broke out around 2:40 a.m. at the Shuri Castle in Naha, Japan, resulting in the loss of several buildings on the World Heritage site.
While there have been no reports of injuries, dozens of nearby residents were temporarily evacuated as firefighters worked to put out the blaze.
About the Shuri Castle
First built more than 500 years ago, the Shuri Castle originally served as the palace of the Ryukyu Kingdom, which ruled the Ryukyu Islands from 1429 to 1879, until it was annexed by the Tokyo government.
Over the course of its history, the wooden castle has been destroyed several times, most recently in 1945 during the 82-day Battle of Okinawa in World War II. However, in 1992, the castle was restored and reopened to the public as a national park. Eight years later, it was designated by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
A devastating fire destroyed most of Shuri Castle, a top tourist destination on the Japanese island of Okinawa and a World Heritage site https://t.co/N3ejBYAfFk— The New York Times (@nytimes) October 31, 2019
During its reconstruction, crews restored the red tiled exterior and filled the castle with multiple museum exhibits that showcased roughly 1,500 unique ancient artifacts. UNESCO described the main hall of the castle as “a great monument symbolizing the pride of the Ryukyu people.”
“Five hundred years of Ryukyuan history [12th-17th century] are represented by this group of sites and monuments,” UNESCO continues on its website.
“The ruins of the castles, on imposing elevated sites, are evidence for the social structure over much of that period, while the sacred sites provide mute testimony to the rare survival of an ancient form of religion into the modern age.”
Prior to its most recent tragedy, the structure was the largest wooden building in Okinawa and featured architectural influences from both China and Japan as the structure used to be a transportation hub connecting the two countries.
Last year, the hilltop castle was reported to have received 2.8 million visitors.
According to reports, the fire was first reported early in the morning on Oct. 31., only a few hours after work for a festival was completed at 1 a.m. It is unclear if the project played a role in the fire.
While nearby residents were temporarily evacuated from their homes, more than 100 firefighters were called to the scene. After several hours and 30 fire engines, the blaze was reportedly extinguished by 11 a.m. BBC reports that a police officer on the scene blamed part of the struggle to contain the fire on strong winds experienced throughout the night.
"The many wooden structures and the [recently reapplied] lacquer may have also had an effect," the unidentified officer told the Asahi Shimbun newspaper.
However, city officials also added that no sprinklers had been installed inside the castle. The only existing sprinklers were located within the roof of the main building to prevent fires entering the structure from the outside.
“I have no words as a former minister in charge of cultural heritage,” Masahiko Shibayama, a former education minister, said on Twitter. “After the Notre Dame cathedral fire, we’ve just started reviewing fire countermeasures at cultural assets.”
Since the fire at the Note Dame cathedral, cultural officials stated that they would be practicing more emergency inspections and precautions to prevent fires at its national treasures, in addition to its yearly inspections and fire drills.
As a result of the fire, the main hall and seven other buildings located within the complex have burned to the ground. Additionally, at least 420 of the 1,500 artworks and artifacts stored within the castle have been completely destroyed.
What Happens Next
While the cause of the fire is still unknown, police personnel and members of the fire department believe that the blaze first broke out in the main hall. Investigators have also added that a burnt electrical panel has been discovered and they are currently investigating its possible relation to the cause of the fire.
The stone walls, foundations and other structural remnants of the castle are currently awaiting assessment of any possible fire damage.
"Shuri Castle is the heart of the people of Okinawa Prefecture. We'll work with relevant ministries to promote early reconstruction of the castle," said Cultural Affairs Commissioner Ryohei Miyata.
Thus far, more than 100 million yen ($924,000) has been raised to restore the Shuri Castle.