In May 1945, Shuri castle (or Sui gusuku in the native Okinawan language), a palatial complex which had stood for centuries as the centre of royal culture and authority in the independent Okinawan kingdom of Luchu (Japanese: Ryukyu), was levelled as Allied forces secured control over the island, and over the military headquarters built by the Empire of Japan in the caves beneath the castle. Shuri’s gleaming structures, red-lacquered and gilded inside and out, topped with red terracotta roof tiles and decorated with ornate dragons and other motifs, were then absent from Okinawa for nearly 50 years, until the palace was restored in 1992. Twenty-seven years to the day after that restoration work was completed on 31 October 1992, there is once again a hole in the skyline of Naha – the Okinawan capital where the central halls of the palace once stood.
The royal palace at Shuri was first built sometime in the 15th century. Expanded and renovated by the Ryukyuan king Sho Shin (also known as Shang Zhen, r. 1477–1526), the palace deftly incorporated stylistic elements from the imperial architecture of China’s Ming dynasty – seen as the epitome of high Confucian civilisation – into structures uniquely Ryukyuan. At the top of a hill overlooking the royal capital and the kingdom’s bustling port of Naha, at the centre of a complex surrounded by multiple layers of ornate gate structures and tall, thick stone walls, stood the main hall of the palace, the Seiden.
Containing two throne rooms from which the king could gaze out over his court and kingdom, the Seiden and the Unaa plaza before it were the ceremonial beating heart of the Ryukyu Kingdom. In addition to the everyday matters of governing the kingdom, it was here that for centuries the king and his court regularly performed sacred ceremonies, kowtowing and praying to heaven for the prosperity and wellbeing of his people, and that envoys of the Ming and Qing emperors formally invested each successive king, granting him lavish gifts from their emperor and recognising him as a sovereign ruler within the Confucian world of All Under Heaven.
These ceremonies, the sights and sounds of the Ryukyuan royal court, disappeared from the world in 1879 as the Empire of Japan declared the kingdom abolished and the islands annexed. The Imperial Japanese Army established a garrison on the grounds and the palace was allowed to fall into ruins. Plans to demolish it entirely were halted in the 1920s at the cost of redesignating the Seiden as a shrine of State Shinto, appropriating the former palace into the very same ultranationalist, imperialist ideology that had destroyed the kingdom. Ryukyuan identity, language, and cultural traditions suffered under oppressive assimilationist policies, and without the royal court to sustain them, many arts traditions were all but lost entirely.
In 1945, the Empire of Japan made Okinawa the site of its last stand, sacrificing the island and its people in the hopes of protecting the ‘home islands’ of Japan from ground invasion. The island was devastated in the fighting which resulted, the largest amphibious landing and bloodiest battle in the Pacific War. Between one quarter and one third of the Okinawan people were killed, and countless artefacts, artworks and other records of Okinawan history and culture were lost.
The islands of Okinawa were then placed under US military occupation for nearly 30 years, and for nearly another 20 years even after its ‘reintegration’ with Japan, some groups in Okinawa asserted that ‘Okinawa’s postwar will not end unless Shuri castle is rebuilt’ even as political, financial, and logistical difficulties delayed the realisation of that dream. Blaming the Japanese government for its discriminatory and destructive treatment of Okinawa prior to and during the war, they argued that restoring the castle would be a great symbol of the postwar Japanese government’s readiness to act upon the responsibility that comes with sovereignty – showing that it cares about Okinawa and the Okinawan people just as it cares about the people of the mainland.
The central structures of the palace were finally rebuilt in 1992, using traditional materials and methods wherever possible, including lumber from the forests of the Kunigami area of northern Okinawa Island, terracotta roof tiles from the centuries-old pottery district of Tsuboya, and painting and lacquerwork done by artisans who had trained under those carrying prewar traditional knowledge. When it opened to the public as Shuri Castle Park, many saw it as a symbolic culmination of the revival of Okinawan identity and culture, and recovery of livelihoods and wellbeing, that had by then been underway for some years.
The restored Seiden, the largest wooden building in the prefecture, was filled with recreations of paintings, wooden plaques bearing imperial calligraphy, lacquered and gilded royal thrones, and other objects, restoring not only its outward appearance but its interiors as well. The restored North Hall or Nishi-nu-udun (Japanese: Hokuden) and South Hall or Fee-nu-udun (Japanese: Nanden), which flanked the Seiden and historically served as administrative structures and banquet halls for entertaining foreign envoys, were now turned into galleries displaying selections from the few, rare and precious treasures of Ryukyuan cultural heritage which survived. Thanks to extensive research by scholars from the Okinawa Prefectural University of the Arts and elsewhere, court ceremonies not performed in more than 100 years, including musical traditions that had been severed and died out, were restored and reenacted – the palace grounds came to life once again with music and dance. Dressed in the court robes of their courtly ancestors, Okinawans celebrated, displayed, and enacted the rich traditions of high Ryukyuan Kingdom culture.
The restored Shuri castle was not a museum, nor was it a mere replica, let alone a theme park. More than a site of entertainment or education, a representation of something that belonged to another time or place, it felt like a restoration of what had been, a real piece of Ryukyu. In 2000, the site, along with nine others on the island, was named a World Heritage Site, in recognition of ‘the political, economic, and cultural uniqueness of the kingdom’s five hundred years’ regime’, and Ryukyu’s role as ‘as a centre of economic and cultural interchange between south-east Asia, China, Korea, and Japan’, which was ‘vividly demonstrated by the surviving monuments’. Regarding the restored buildings, the official UNESCO listing states that ‘the exact replica of the lost structure is now a great monument symbolizing the pride of the Ryukyu people’.
All of this came crashing down on 31 October 2019, as Japan woke up to news of the castle ablaze. In the end, seven of the most central buildings in the complex were severely damaged or destroyed entirely, and more than 400 irreplaceable documents of Ryukyuan history and culture, including paintings, works of calligraphy, lacquerwares, and textiles, were lost in the fire. Local and national governments, as well as UNESCO, have declared they will put great effort into seeing the castle restored once again, but many in Okinawa are concerned that the materials and artisanal expertise might not be obtainable. Some are saying they have heard that it may be another 20 years before Shuri is restored to how it was before the blaze, if that restoration is ever realised at all. Many elders are saying they hope to live long enough to see it, and worry they will not. As Gerald Figal wrote of Okinawan feelings prior to the castle’s restoration in 1992, ‘The absence of Shuri Castle will always be a gaping reminder of wartime loss; as long as it is missing, Okinawa will not be fully recovered and complete.’ For Okinawa to now go another 20 years, or even five or ten, without this symbol of Ryukyuan cultural pride and historical greatness, and of Okinawan resilience and recovery, is almost unimaginable.
Travis Seifman is a project researcher at the University of Tokyo Historiographical Institute.