Shuri Castle, World Heritage site on Okinawa, ravaged by fire

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


By AYA ICHIHASHI | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 30, 2019

CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — A fire on Thursday destroyed significant portions of Shuri Castle, a UNESCO World Heritage site in Naha, the Okinawa prefectural capital.

The castle, rebuilt in 1992 following its destruction in World War II, was reported on fire at 2:21 a.m. and burned for 11 hours before firefighters called it extinguished, according to the city of Naha Fire Department.

The blaze started in the Seiden, or main building, then spread to the Hokuden, or northern wing, and Nanden, the southern wing, a city of Naha Fire Department spokesman told Stars and Stripes. All three buildings were destroyed, according to NHK, the Japanese public broadcast agency.

At 11 a.m. firefighters were working the blaze at the Hoshinmon, or Hoshin Gate, near the ticketing counter, the department spokesman said.

An unnamed firefighter in his late 40s was treated for dehydration; but his condition is not life-threatening, the spokesman said. It is customary in Japan for some government officials to speak on condition of anonymity.

Eight city fire engines and 31 firefighters responded after a security guard reported the fire, the spokesman said. Three more trucks were dispatched 45 minutes later, followed by more calls until 53 fire trucks and 171 firefighters in all from Naha and surrounding cities and towns were on scene at 9:40 a.m., he said.

The cause of the fire was not immediately known. A joint investigation team is scheduled to arrive at the site 10 a.m. Friday to look for the cause and gauge the extent of damage, according to spokesmen from the Naha Police Station and the fire department.

Seven buildings were destroyed: Seiden, Hokuden, Nanden, Shoin, Kugani-Udun, Nike-Udun and Hoshinmon, the fire department spokesman said.

The ancient castle is a symbol of Okinawa's cultural heritage from the time of Ryukyu Kingdom that spanned about 450 years from 1429 until 1879 when the island was annexed by Japan.

The castle is also a symbol of Okinawa's struggle and effort to recover from WWII.

Shuri Castle burned down in 1945 during the Battle of Okinawa near the war's end, in which about 200,000 lives were lost on the island, many of them civilians.

The castle was largely restored in 1992 as a national park and was designated as the UNESCO World Heritage site in 2000. Okinawa is the southernmost prefecture of Japan.

Okinawa was under the U.S. occupation until 1972, two decades after the rest of Japan regained full independence.

The annual Shuri Castle Festival had started Sunday and events scheduled there this weekend are canceled.

The news spread via electronic and social media and struck the local community hard.

The official Facebook pages for Camp Lester and Camp Foster carried the story, which was shared more than 900 times as the U.S. military community expressed its shock.

The camps’ commander, Marine Col. Vincent Ciuccoli, told Stars and Stripes by email Thursday that he first saw the news when he checked his phone at 4 a.m.

Ciuccoli wrote that he opened the blinds at his home on the high ground of Plaza Housing to see “something horrible” to the south toward Naha.

“We are all sad today because after 5 Ciuccoli Family visits, it was as much a part of us as any national monument on our home country,” Ciuccoli said. “It's a sad day in the Rykyu Islands for the citizens of Okinawa and those of us lucky enough to live here and experience this culture steeped in history - one punctuated by the significance of Shuri Castle. Our hearts go out to all affected.”

An email from the 18th Wing at Kadena Air Base to Stars and Stripes expressed a similar sentiment. “Team Kadena is shocked and saddened by the fire at Shuri Castle, which is the symbol of Okinawa,” the email stated. “Our hearts go out to our Okinawan friends for their loss.”

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

Twitter: @AyaIchihashi


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