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‘It’s burned to a skeleton’: Inferno consumes Japan’s 600-year-old World Heritage site Shuri Castle reducing the building revered ‘like a God’ by locals to a charred shell

  • The devastating fire has gutted Shuri Castle in Naha, the capital city of the Okinawa Prefecture in Japan 
  • Firefighters were called to a smoke sighting at 2.40 am local time but have been unable to put out the inferno
  • Castle has been burnt down repeatedly and then rebuilt, most notably in 1945 during the Battle of Okinawa
  • The Japanese army dug tunnels and entrenched themselves under the castle while allies shelled it for 3 days

30 October 2019

 

A 600-year-old Japanese castle has been gutted by a fire that tore through the World Heritage-protected site, reducing much of it to charred embers.

The blaze erupted at the 14th-Century Shuri Castle, the seat of the ancient Ryukyu Kingdom, shortly after midnight local time (3pm GMT) and quickly spread through many of the wooden buildings on the site.

Tomoko Miyazato, 84, who watched Shuri Castle as it burned said: ‘For us, Shuri Castle is like a god.’

A clip shows glowing hot ember beams as all that remain of the castle’s main hall.

Additional aerial footage shows the entirety of the complex totally ravaged. ‘It’s just a skeleton,’ said onlooker Yabiku Taumi. ‘It’s a shock.’

Firefighters, accompanied by a dozen firetrucks, were still battling the fire as dawn broke on Thursday. It was unclear if anyone had been injured.

They were called to the emergency at 2.47am local time and nearby residents were evacuated to safer areas soon after, Okinawa police spokesman Ryo Kochi said.

Flames can be seen licking towards the sky earlier in the morning in Japan. The news of fire began with sightings of smoke at around 2.40am when the fire brigade turned up to the castle

Flames can be seen licking towards the sky earlier in the morning in Japan. The news of fire began with sightings of smoke at around 2.40am when the fire brigade turned up to the castle

A building of the Shuri Castle is seen on fire in Naha. A castle in Okinawa listed as a World Heritage site is ablaze after castle guards noticed a security system had sparked the flames

A building of the Shuri Castle is seen on fire in Naha. A castle in Okinawa listed as a World Heritage site is ablaze after castle guards noticed a security system had sparked the flames

Though just a city district of Naha today, Shuri was the political and administrative hub of the Ryukyu Kingdom for almost 400 years

Though just a city district of Naha today, Shuri was the political and administrative hub of the Ryukyu Kingdom for almost 400 years

Footage shows at least one of the buildings on the complex completely gutted by the fire and glowing hot ember beams the only things left of the 600-year-old site

Footage shows at least one of the buildings on the complex completely gutted by the fire and glowing hot ember beams the only things left of the 600-year-old site

The Japanese army had set up base camp under the hilltop fortress during World War 2 and the allies shelled it for three days before the castle finally went up in flames, destroying it almost completely

The Japanese army had set up base camp under the hilltop fortress during World War 2 and the allies shelled it for three days before the castle finally went up in flames, destroying it almost completely

The cause of the fire has not been determined yet but a security company alarm went off at around 2:30 in the morning,’ said Kochi.

‘It started at the main temple and looks to be spreading fast to all the main structures… Firefighters are still battling the fire,’ he added.

Shuri Castle is divided into five separate buildings with the Seiden, the main and largest structure, at the centre. According to local broadcaster NHK, the blaze began there and has now spread to other buildings on the complex.

Police said that the fire has almost completely gutted the main Seiden building and the north hall, known as the Hokuden.

According to Okinawa police, it was the castle guards who first noticed the fire.

‘I am extremely shocked by the initial reports of the fire at Shuri Castle,’ Naha Mayor Mikiko Shiroma said at an emergency meeting in the regional capital broadcast on national broadcaster NHK.

The Okinawa prefecture is  a series of separate islands that makes up southern Japan. Before the island was annexed by the Imperial Japanese Army in 1879, Shuri Castle was the centre of political and administrative life for the Ryukyu Kingdom which ruled the islands

The Okinawa prefecture is  a series of separate islands that makes up southern Japan. Before the island was annexed by the Imperial Japanese Army in 1879, Shuri Castle was the centre of political and administrative life for the Ryukyu Kingdom which ruled the islands

Firefighters inspect the heavily damaged Shuri Castle in Naha, Okinawa prefecture on October 31. In the early hours of Thursday a fire started at Shuri Castle

Firefighters inspect the heavily damaged Shuri Castle in Naha, Okinawa prefecture on October 31. In the early hours of Thursday a fire started at Shuri Castle

The main temple (centre) and north temple (behind) were left almost destroyed by the fire which broke out early on Thursday morning

The main temple (centre) and north temple (behind) were left almost destroyed by the fire which broke out early on Thursday morning

Firefighters inspect the heavily damaged Shuri Castle in Naha on October 31.  The castle is listed as a World Heritage site

Firefighters inspect the heavily damaged Shuri Castle in Naha on October 31.  The castle is listed as a World Heritage site

Aerial view shows the burnt-down main temple, centre right, and north temple, background, of Shuri Castle on October 31

Aerial view shows the burnt-down main temple, centre right, and north temple, background, of Shuri Castle on October 31

Firefighting forces work at the heavily damaged Shuri Castle in Naha, Okinawa on Thursday morning following a devastating fire

Firefighting forces work at the heavily damaged Shuri Castle in Naha, Okinawa on Thursday morning following a devastating fire

Water is sprayed onto the heavily damaged roof of the Shuri Castle in Naha on Thursday. The cause of the fire is still unknown and there is no report of injury

Water is sprayed onto the heavily damaged roof of the Shuri Castle in Naha on Thursday. The cause of the fire is still unknown and there is no report of injury

Firefighters spray water on the heavily damaged Shuri Castle in Naha on Thursday morning following the fire

Firefighters spray water on the heavily damaged Shuri Castle in Naha on Thursday morning following the fire

Aerial picture shows the main shrine of Shuri Castle burned down after a fire ripped through the historic site in Naha, southern Japan on October 31

Aerial picture shows the main shrine of Shuri Castle burned down after a fire ripped through the historic site in Naha, southern Japan on October 31

An aerial view of the Shuri Castle (Shurijo) before it burned down today in Naha, the capital city of Okinawa

An aerial view of the Shuri Castle (Shurijo) before it burned down today in Naha, the capital city of Okinawa

Firefighters try to extinguish a fire at north hall of burning Shuri Castle in Naha,Okinawa, southern Japan

Firefighters try to extinguish a fire at north hall of burning Shuri Castle in Naha,Okinawa, southern Japan

According to Okinawa police, it was the castle guards who first noticed the fire. They said it was caused by a thermal reaction with the security system sensor

According to Okinawa police, it was the castle guards who first noticed the fire. They said it was caused by a thermal reaction with the security system sensor

Restoration work is under way at Shuri Castle in Naha, Okinawa Prefecture, southern Japan, as seen on June 20, 2018

Restoration work is under way at Shuri Castle in Naha, Okinawa Prefecture, southern Japan, as seen on June 20, 2018

‘It is a World Heritage site that represents Okinawa. More than anything, I am very worried about the fact that many Naha citizens live in neighbouring areas, and I have received reports that the fire might be threatening or affecting residents of the areas,’ she added.

‘Naha city will make our greatest possible efforts to do everything in our power’ to deal with the fire and its aftermath, the mayor said.

Kochi said a tourist event was being held at the castle from the 27th, and some work linked to the event continued until 1am but it is not clear whether that was linked to the fire.

The upper part of the main hall collapsed just before 5am.

Aerial images show two fire hoses focused on one of the buildings at the Shuri Castle. The structure appears mostly intact apart from the roof

Aerial images show two fire hoses focused on one of the buildings at the Shuri Castle. The structure appears mostly intact apart from the roof

Firefighters continue to spray water onto the World Heritage site on Thursday morning in the Okinawa prefecture

Firefighters continue to spray water onto the World Heritage site on Thursday morning in the Okinawa prefecture

Aerial view of the damaged done to Shuri Castle after a fire ripped through the historic site in Naha on October 31

Aerial view of the damaged done to Shuri Castle after a fire ripped through the historic site in Naha on October 31

Aerial view of the destruction caused by a fire that ripped through Shuri Castle in Naha on October 31

Aerial view of the destruction caused by a fire that ripped through Shuri Castle in Naha on October 31

Tomoko Miyazato, 84, who watched Shuri Castle as it burned said: 'For us, Shuri Castle is like a god.' Due to the fire, firefighters have also called on nearby residents to take care

Tomoko Miyazato, 84, who watched Shuri Castle as it burned said: ‘For us, Shuri Castle is like a god.’ Due to the fire, firefighters have also called on nearby residents to take care

Local residents can be seen looking towards the burned out remains of the Shuri Castle in Naha, Okinawa, Japan

Local residents can be seen looking towards the burned out remains of the Shuri Castle in Naha, Okinawa, Japan

The fire services have also called on nearby residents to take care.

A city district of Naha today, Shuri was the political and administrative hub of the Ryukyu Kingdom for almost 400 years. The current structure is a reconstruction based on original plans and photos of the old castle.

The castle has been destroyed and rebuilt often since it was first built in the 1300s, usually by war, but most notably during the Battle of Okinawa in 1945.

A fire brigade truck is seen before the Shuri Castle on fire in Naha, Okinawa prefecture, southern Japan, early 31 October 2019

A fire brigade truck is seen before the Shuri Castle on fire in Naha, Okinawa prefecture, southern Japan, early 31 October 2019

A building of the Shuri Castle is seen on fire in Naha, Okinawa prefecture, southern Japan, early 31 October 2019

A building of the Shuri Castle is seen on fire in Naha, Okinawa prefecture, southern Japan, early 31 October 2019

The castle is separated into five different buildings with the Seiden (pictured) being the most lavishly decorated

The castle is separated into five different buildings with the Seiden (pictured) being the most lavishly decorated

Tourists visit Shuri Castle on June 1, 2018 in Naha, Japan. A city district of Naha today, Shuri was the political and administrative hub of the Ryukyu Kingdom for almost 400 years

Tourists visit Shuri Castle on June 1, 2018 in Naha, Japan. A city district of Naha today, Shuri was the political and administrative hub of the Ryukyu Kingdom for almost 400 years

The castle has been repeatedly burned down during its history, usually by war. Samurais from Japanese feudal states took over and burnt it down during the Middle Ages and the allies shelled it for three days during World War 2

The castle has been repeatedly burned down during its history, usually by war. Samurais from Japanese feudal states took over and burnt it down during the Middle Ages and the allies shelled it for three days during World War 2

The Japanese army had set up base camp under the hilltop fortress and the allies shelled it for three days before it went up in flames.

It was almost completely destroyed by the bombing and is now a university campus after the University of Ryukyu was established on the site of the ruins in 1950.

The castle was largely restored in 1992 as a national park and was designated as the UNESCO World Heritage site in 2000.

School students look at the Shuri Castle as firefighters work to battle the blaze in Okinawa, Japan

School students look at the Shuri Castle as firefighters work to battle the blaze in Okinawa, Japan

It was almost completely destroyed by the bombing and is now a university campus after the University of Ryukyu was established on the site of the ruins in 1950

It was almost completely destroyed by the bombing and is now a university campus after the University of Ryukyu was established on the site of the ruins in 1950

The castle is separated into five different buildings with the Seiden, pictured, the most lavishly decorated

The castle is separated into five different buildings with the Seiden, pictured, the most lavishly decorated

The main building of the Shuri Castle is seen on fire in Naha, Okinawa prefecture, southern Japan,

The main building of the Shuri Castle is seen on fire in Naha, Okinawa prefecture, southern Japan,

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

The castle is separated into five different buildings with the Seiden the most lavishly decorated.

It was used for centuries to welcome foreign guests and to host major state ceremonies.

A firefighter works in front of the burning north hall of Shuri Castle in Naha, Okinawa, southern Japan

A firefighter works in front of the burning north hall of Shuri Castle in Naha, Okinawa, southern Japan

In 1992, the castle was reconstructed to the way it was originally during the times of the Ryukyu Kings based on historical records, photograph and memory

In 1992, the castle was reconstructed to the way it was originally during the times of the Ryukyu Kings based on historical records, photograph and memory

The Shuri Castle is seen on fire in Naha, Okinawa prefecture, southern Japan. The cause of the fire is still unknown and there is no report of injury

The Shuri Castle is seen on fire in Naha, Okinawa prefecture, southern Japan. The cause of the fire is still unknown and there is no report of injury

In 1992, the castle was reconstructed to the way it was originally during Ryukyu dynasty, based on historical records, photograph and memory.

Before the fire, visitors were able to tour the Seiden building and find recreations of royal thrones.

The site sees around 1,700,000 tourists visit annually.

From Samurais to secret tunnels: The history of Shuri Castle

Shuri Castle is seen circa 1938 in Naha, Okinawa, Japan. The Imperial Japanese Army entrenched themselves in the castle during WW2

Shuri Castle is seen circa 1938 in Naha, Okinawa, Japan. The Imperial Japanese Army entrenched themselves in the castle during WW2

1300s: Though no exact building date is known, the castle is thought to have been constructed some time during the 1300s

Early 1400s: King Shō Hashi unified the three kingdoms on the Okinawan islands and made Shuri Castle the political and administrative centre of his new lands, the Ryukyu Kingdom. His ancestors ruled over from the 15th to 19th century.

1609: During the reign of King Shō Nei, samurai forces from a Japanese feudal domain, the Satsumas, seized the castle.

The Satsuma Samurai, who belonged to a Japanese feudal domain, can be seen here in the 1800s. The Satsumas deposed Shō Nei and held the Ryukyu kingdom as a feudal state

The Satsuma Samurai, who belonged to a Japanese feudal domain, can be seen here in the 1800s. The Satsumas deposed Shō Nei and held the Ryukyu kingdom as a feudal state

They withdrew soon afterwards, and returned Shō Nei to his throne.

The kingdom became a feudal state under the Satsumas and remained so for around 250 years.

1879: The Japanese annexed Okinawa, deposing the king and using the castle as a barracks for the Imperial Japanese Army. They built tunnels and trenches under the castle too.

US Marines of the 1st Division crouch down as they attack a Japanese position in the ruins of Shuri Castle, Shuri, Okinawa, Japan, 1945

US Marines of the 1st Division crouch down as they attack a Japanese position in the ruins of Shuri Castle, Shuri, Okinawa, Japan, 1945

1908: Shuri City bought the castle from the Japanese government.

1925: The Japanese designated the castle a national treasure.

1939-1945: The Imperial Japanese Army entrenched themselves in the castle during World War II, using the castle’s underground tunnels as their headquarters.

May 25, 1945: During the Battle of Okinawa, American battleship, USS Mississippi, shelled the castle for three days, setting it alight.

1950-1975:  The University of Ryukyus was set up on the castle site and remained there for 25 years.

1992: The castle was reconstructed in its original form.

2000: Shuri Castle, along with other sites in Okinawa, was named an UNESCO World Heritage site.