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An aerial picture of the destroyed Shuri Castle after a fire ripped through the historic site in Naha, southern Okinawa prefecture, Japan. Photo: AFP

Fire destroys 600-year-old Shuri Castle complex in Japan, as locals mourn ‘symbol of Okinawa’

  • Over 100 firefighters battled a blaze that broke out overnight at the historic site’s main temple and spread quickly to other structures
  • Site is key part of complex dating back to Ryukyu Kingdom, and is believed to have been in use from around the 1400s
A major fire devastated a historic Japanese castle on the southern island of Okinawa on Thursday morning, destroying large parts of the World Heritage Site’s complex, local authorities said.

The Shuri Castle is a key part of a complex dating back to the Ryukyu Kingdom, and is believed to have been in use from around the 1400s. Most of the current structures are reconstructions based on original plans and photos of the old castle.

The fire was brought under control by early afternoon, a local fire department spokesman said. Some 100 firefighters and 30 fire engines were involved. The blaze had consumed more than 4,800 square metres (51,667 square feet) of the castle complex.

“All the [three] main buildings have burnt down, with nothing left behind,” said Daisuke Furugen, an official with the local Naha fire department.

The blaze started before 3am on Thursday morning, with the cause unknown as yet. It started in the elaborate main building of the complex, a grand red structure with traditional tiling on the roof, and spread quickly to nearby buildings, officials said.

On the scene, a fire department official said the blaze had proved extremely difficult to control. “The radiant heat was very strong. Firefighters had serious difficulty approaching it,” he said in comments shown on national broadcaster NHK.

Television footage showed large orange flames engulfing the castle before sunrise, with daylight revealing the extensive damage done to the site. In some cases little more than charred and smoking wood was left behind.

“I am extremely saddened by this. I am utterly in shock,” Naha Mayor Mikiko Shiroma said. “We have lost our symbol.”

Earlier, during an emergency meeting on the fire, she pledged the city would “do everything in our power” to deal with the fire and its aftermath.

The main building of the Shuri Castle is seen on fire in Okinawa prefecture, Japan. Photo: EPA-EFE

“It’s sad. It’s hard to put the feeling into words,” a local resident told national broadcaster NHK. “I feel hollowed out … It’s been a symbol of Okinawa.”

Officials said a festival that began on the 27th was being held at the site and preparatory work for some of the event had been ongoing up until 1am, hours before the blaze erupted.

However, it was not immediately clear whether there was a link to the fire.

The smouldering remains of Shuri Castle after a fire ripped through the historic site. Photo: AFP

The complex was largely destroyed during World War II, when the headquarters of the Japanese army was dug underneath the monument.

But it was extensively restored, with the work on the main hall based on scale drawings and photographs taken before the destruction, as well as extensive archaeological excavation.

The complex reopened as a national park in 1992.

The destroyed Shuri Castle and surrounding World Heritage Site complex. Photo: AFP

Thanks to the faithful nature of the reconstruction, the site along with the remaining ruins was registered along with other Ryukyu sites in the region as a World Heritage Site in 2000.

“Five hundred years of Ryukyuan history (12th-17th century) are represented by this group of sites and monuments,” the entry on the Unesco website explains.

“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.”

A 2016 photo of the main building of Shuri Castle, which was destroyed in the fire. Photo: Kyodo

The reconstructed main hall of the Shuri castle in particular is praised as “a great monument symbolising the pride of the Ryukyu people”.

The facility’s Shurei-mon Gate, with its striking red-tiled roof, was featured on a special banknote issued in 2000 when the G8 summit was hosted in Okinawa.

The Olympic torch relay for next year’s Tokyo Summer Games was due to pass by the site as it travels around the country in 2020.

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Japan is dotted with historic castle complexes, most of which are careful reconstructions of original buildings.

Several have suffered damage from natural disasters in recent decades, including Kumamoto Castle in southern Japan, which was badly affected by a series of devastating earthquakes.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Fire destroys historic castle, noted ‘symbol of Okinawa’