Shuri Castle: Fire destroys 500-year-old world heritage site in Japan

Media caption,
These aerial shots show a massive fire consuming Japan's historic Shuri Castle

A fire has destroyed all the main structures of Shuri Castle, a Unesco World Heritage site on Japan's southern island of Okinawa.

Firefighters battled the flames for more than 10 hours, extinguishing them by Thursday afternoon. No injuries have been reported so far.

The wooden castle, built 500 years ago, was almost completely destroyed during World War Two.

The current structure is a reconstruction.

The castle served as a campus for Okinawa's largest public university until the 1970s, and has been a popular tourist attraction since.

Razed to the ground

The fire started just before 02:40 local time on Thursday (17:40 GMT Wednesday). It is still unclear what might have triggered it.

Image source, EPA
Image caption,
The fire broke out in the early hours of Thursday
Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Firefighters worked for hours to extinguish the flames

More than 100 firefighters were called to the scene, but one police officer said fire fighters struggled to contain the fire due to strong winds.

"The many wooden structures and the [recently reapplied] lacquer may have also had an effect," the unidentified officer told the Asahi Shimbun newspaper.

Image source, AFP

The fire was eventually put out at around 13:30, but all seven key buildings of the castle were burnt down.

Image source, EPA
Image caption,
The main buildings of the castle were completely destroyed

Shuri Castle, which was was once the seat of the Ryukyu dynasty, sits on top of a hill overlooking the city of Naha - Okinawa's capital - and is surrounded by curved stone walls.

One resident said the castle was seen as "god-like".

"To us, the Shuri Castle is a god-like existence," 84-year-old Toyoko Miyazato told the Asahi Shimbun. "I am so sad I don't know what to say."

Image source, EPA
Image caption,
The castle, which overlooks the city, was a popular tourist attraction

The city will now "do everything in [its] power" to deal with the fire and its aftermath, its Mayor Mikiko Shiroma told public broadcaster NHK.

Image source, EPA
Image caption,
A massive amount of work will have to be put into rebuilding the castle

According to Okinawa's tourism site, the castle burned down three times during the Ryukyu Dynasty and was again destroyed in World War Two during the Battle of Okinawa.

Until Thursday's incident it was the largest wooden building in Okinawa.

The castle had been scheduled as a stop on the 2020 Tokyo Olympic torch relay route.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
The castle in all its glory before it was destroyed

Horror twice in a lifetime

By Sakiko Shiraishi, BBC News Japan

The Ryukyu dynasty was a kingdom that thrived on maritime trade, connecting countries in the region. Shuri Castle, though it had architectural influences from China and Japan, was at the centre of this unique Ryukyu culture.

But in 1879, the king was banished from the castle and the dynasty was annexed to become Okinawa prefecture.

The castle was completely destroyed in WW2 by American forces in 1945. Many documents and artefacts, which could have helped in the reconstruction, were also lost.

The current castle was rebuilt and opened to the public in 1992.

It was registered as a World Heritage site in 2000 and was the site for the Okinawa Summit in the same year, appearing in commemorative 2000-yen notes.

From Ryukyu to Japan, war to peace - Shuri Castle has been there through everything, and was a symbol of identity for the Okinawa people.

Those who saw the end of WW2 in Okinawa have seen the Castle burn twice in their lifetime. Their sorrow is beyond imagination.