Okinawa governor calls on world to help raise Shuri Castle from ashes

Firefighters try to extinguish a fire at north hall of burning Shuri Castle in Naha, Okinawa, southern Japan, Thursday, Oct. 31, 2019. A fire spread among structures at Shuri Castle on Japan's southern island of Okinawa, nearly destroying the UNESCO World Heritage site.


By ISABEL REYNOLDS AND EMI NOBUHIRO | Bloomberg | Published: November 1, 2019

Okinawa Governor Denny Tamaki urged the world to step in to help one of Japan's poorest regions rebuild a historic castle that was reduced to ashes in a fire the previous day.

Speaking in an interview in Tokyo on Friday, the 60-year-old said he would seek help from Japan and elsewhere to restore Shuri Castle, a Unesco World Heritage site that was first built about 500 years ago in what is now Japan's southernmost prefecture.

"I was lost for words when I saw the symbol of Okinawa's history and culture had been lost in the fire," said Tamaki, who cut short a trip to neighboring South Korea to return home and survey the damage. "To restore it, we need the world's help in terms of funds and technology."

While Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has already pledged to support the reconstruction, the need to seek a handout from Tokyo is awkward for Tamaki, who won election last year on a pledge to push back against the national government for what many islanders see as an unfair share of the burden of hosting U.S. troops.

Okinawa's vermilion castle -- on a hill in the capital of Naha -- was a replica of the seat of power for the Ryukyu Kingdom, which ruled the island chain from 1429 until 1879, when it was absorbed by Japan. Historic artifacts were also lost in the blaze that broke out in the early hours of Thursday and dominated news media for the day.

In 1945, Shuri Castle, then a headquarters for Japan's Imperial Army, was destroyed in the World War Two Battle of Okinawa with U.S.-led forces.

The castle was restored in 1992 and played host to colorful re-enactments of the kingdom's festivals and processions, among the attractions that bring about 10 million tourists to Okinawa each year. Its buildings took 33 years to complete at a cost of 24 billion yen ($222 million).

It was also a symbol of Tokyo's complex relationship with its farthest-flung prefecture, which was controlled by the U.S. from 1945 to 1972.

The prefecture hosts about 26,000 U.S. military personnel, or roughly half of the total number based in Japan, and local people for years have complained of noise, crime, accidents and pollution associated with the bases.

Japanese firefighters work a blaze at Shuri Castle in Naha, Okinawa, Thursday, Oct. 31, 2019.