History of the Castle
Shuri Castle has had a rough history. Between 1429 and 1879, Shuri Castle was the palace of the Ryukyu Kingdom, the prominent power of the era before becoming neglected for over 60 years. Then in 1945, during the Battle of Okinawa, it was almost completely destroyed by the United States’ bombing of the island from the naval fleet. This was in no small part due to the Japanese 32nd Army making the castle a command post and an obvious target for the American military. After the war, the castle was re-purposed as by the University of the Ryukyus as a campus from 1950 until 1975. Beginning in 1992 the castle was renovated and the central citadel and walls were largely reconstructed on the original site based on historical records, photographs, and memory of those still living from its prior grandeur. In 2000, Shuri Castle was designated as a World Heritage Site, as a part of the Gusuku Sites and Related Properties of the Kingdom of Ryukyu.
Shuri Castle has been no stranger to fire. It has been recorded that the castle suffered significant fires in 1660 and 1709 in addition to a few smaller fires over the years. Each time the castle was rebuilt to its original form. The latest bout with fire began in the early morning hours of October 31st, 2019 when six of the main courtyard structures of the castle were again destroyed, consuming approximately 45,000 square feet of structure. The fire was not declared out until around 1:30pm that day. This was not only a physical loss for the castle renovation team, but also a psychological blow as the most recent renovation project had just been completed in early 2019. Fire has long been a challenge for the castle buildings due to its wooden structures and interiors made of Japanese cypress, cedar, and red pine. Additionally, due to the Japanese’ commitment to keeping the castle in original form, no visible fire sprinklers or suppression systems appear to have been installed in any of the historic castle structures.
The sections of the castle that still stand were built to the exact standards as the castle of old, even down to the interior spaces. Some areas of the castle are closed to the public, not because they are used for a different purpose, but rather because historians have not been able to determine how the rooms were arranged and without this data they do not want to misrepresent the spaces to visitors. This is the level of detail to which those responsible for restoring the castle hold themselves. After the 2019 fire those affiliated with the castle once again vowed to reconstruct it yet again with a projected start date sometime in 2022 with a goal to complete it by 2026.
While a number of the interior castle buildings are obviously still missing we were able to tour the various courtyards inside the massive limestone walls and see artifacts of the castle both protected inside new temporary structures, but also carefully arranged outside on pallets awaiting reconstruction efforts next year. There were also video documentaries of the castle before, during, and after the 2019 fire that gave a pretty good idea of the castle, even if we didn’t get to see it in its full glory. I was glad we were able to tour the remaining sections of the castle even if we didn’t get the same experience as others who were able to tour it in early 2019. It took us a few hours to get through the entire site, but I wouldn’t recommend anyone allot more than a half day to this location until the reconstruction is complete in a few years from now.