Shuri Castle and Japanese Castles: A Controversial Heritage

Oleg Benesch, Ran Zwigenberg

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


On October 31, 2019, a massive fire tore through the UNESCO World Heritage site of Shuri Castle in Okinawa, sparking a global reaction and comparisons with another World Heritage site. As in the case of Notre Dame, government officials immedicately declared their intention to rebuild, and donations flooded in from Okinawa, throughout Japan, and other countries. Shuri Castle is widely recognized as the symbol of the former Ryukyu kingdom. This article shows that the significance of Shuri Castle can only be fully understood by examining it in the context of castles in modern Japan. By understanding the commonalities and differences between Shuri Castle and mainland castles, we use the site as a tool to examine Okinawa's modern history. In spite of Shuri Castle's early origins and architecture differing somewhat from mainland Japanese castles, it was treated similarly to these other sites in the modern period. Like hundreds of other castles, Shuri Castle was taken over by the central government in the early Meiji period (1868-1912). Like dozens of other castles, Shuri Castle eventually became a garrison for the modern military. Like the castles at Nagoya, Hiroshima, Wakayama, Okayama, Ogaki, and Fukuyama, it was destroyed by US bombs in 1945. Like many other castles, it was demilitarized under the US Occupation and came to host cultural and educational facilities. The reconstruction of Shuri Castle from wood using traditional techniques in 1992 echoed similar projects at Kanazawa, Kakegawa, and Ōzu, as well as dozens of planned reconstructions. For many regions in Japan, castles have played a similar role to Shuri Castle, serving at times as symbols of connection to the nation, and at times as symbols of a local identity opposed to the often oppressive power of the central state. Examining the modern history of Shuri Castle as a Japanese castle can further complicate our understandings of the complex dynamics of Okinawa's relationship with Japan over the past 150 years.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number5334
JournalAsia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus
Issue number24
StatePublished - Dec 15 2019

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Anthropology
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Political Science and International Relations
  • History
  • Cultural Studies


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