Shuri CastleChapter 19A from the unpublished book, Tomiko
as told to J. R. Nakken
© Copyright 2020 by Susan Fisher
The throne room inside the Seiden (main hall) at Shuri Castle.
Often called one of the most magnificent castle sites in the world, Shuri “commands the countryside below for miles around, and looks toward distant sea horizons on every side,” according to historian George H. Kerr. During those 450 years, from 1429 to 1879, the castle, from its Seiden (main hall) through a dozen other structures, was the focal center of politics, economics and culture of the Ryukyu Islands. In the Seiden, which housed the throne room, were two great dragon pillars, and decorations of glazed golden dragons abounded. The Kugani-udun was the private area for the king, his wife and mother. More Chinese influence than Japanese in its architecture could be seen throughout the castle, except in the Nanden and Bandokoro structures where visiting Japanese were entertained. Ryukyuan elements were also to be seen everywhere, in the limestone used in construction and in the Okushoin-en south of the Seiden. Designed as a rest house for the king, it is the only garden that now exists in a Ryukyu Islands gusuku.
In that 4 ½ centuries, the castle “burned down” in 1453, 1660, 1709 and 1945, and was rebuilt each time. During King Sho Nei’s reign, Japanese samurai forces seized Shuri in 1609. They soon withdrew and Japan returned the king to his throne in 1611, ceding the castle and the city back to the Ryukyuans. But from that time, the kingdom was a vassal state under Satsuma’s suzerainty until 1879.
American history tells us of Commodore Perry’s glorious forays into Japan and the Ryukyus and his Friendship Treaty with the Okinawan prefecture. Probably equally whitewashed (or blackwashed?) is Okinawan history, which tells of Perry’s bully boys and bully black ships and how he finally forced his way into Shuri castle, twice, but was denied an audience with the king both times. The truth of Perry’s ventures in the early 1850’s probably lies somewhere in between the two accounts, but the fact remains that the so-called Friendship Treaty set the precedent for the American occupation of Okinawa, assimilation of its farmland for U.S. military use, and continued unwanted major presence until 1972.
At the end of that 4 ½ centuries, in 1879, the kingdom was annexed by the Japanese Empire and the Ryukyu’s last king, Sho Tai, was moved to Tokyo and elevated into Japanese aristocracy. Shuri was then used as a barracks for the Japanese army, who created an immense warren of tunnels and caves beneath it. The Japanese garrison withdrew in 1896, and the castle’s decline began. In 1923, however, Seiden was spared demolition by being designated as a prefectural Shinto shrine, Okinawa Shrine, and subsequently designated as a national treasure.
At the end of World War II, the Imperial Japanese Army set up headquarters in Shuri’s underground, and made myriad lines of last-ditch defense in the Shuri region. It was well known that the Japanese hierarchy had only contempt for Okinawa and its people, and they gave no thought to the centuries of history in the castle. In the final days of the bloody battle of Okinawa, the American battleship Mississippi shelled the castle relentlessly and on the third day Shuri was afire. On the fifth day, U.S. marines captured what remained of Shuri castle.
A castle steward who survived the battle was one of eight employed to safeguard the kingdom’s antique valuables from the impending invasion. He told of secreting treasures, including the thousand year old crown and a sacred set of 22 ancient books, the O-Moro soshi, in a drainage ditch. “I saw the crown go down,” he reported in 1997, “in a black lacquered box.” When asked how the items were hidden, he said, “We were told the Americans would soon be repelled, so the ditch was just covered with a tatami mat and brush.” He then reported that when he was allowed to visit the rubble of the palace, he saw that the hidden treasures had been taken from their hiding place, and some of the boxes, empty, were still laying around.
After the war, the University of the Ryukuus was established on Shuri’s site, and it remained there until 1975. Reconstruction of original structures had begun in 1958, and beginning in 1992, the main buildings and walls around the central castle were rebuilt and called “Shuri Castle Park.” Its stone walls and foundations that existed before 1950 were designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
What of the treasure, you are probably asking. What of the Ryukyu’s silken helmet crown, studded with jade, pearls and precious stones? In 1953 a U.S. Naval Commander gave a hoard of Okinawan treasures, including the O-Moro soshi, to the United States Government, denying that he had ever had the crown in his possession. A grand ceremony was held in 1953, on the centennial of Commodore Perry’s Okinawa visit. The U.S. State Department presented the recovered items to the Okinawa government. No mention was made of the method in which they were recovered, according to all accounts. Whereabouts of the crown remains a mystery to this day.
In a fifth and recent conflagration on Hallowe’en, 2019, Shuri castle was again nearly demolished by fire. The Seiden was completely destroyed, as were the surrounding Hokuden, Nanden and Bandokoro. News sources reported that “six castle buildings, some 4200 square meters in total, were gutted.” The Eastern world mourned.
In one week, a crowdfunding campaign set up in Okinawa’s capital, Naha City, raised $3.2 million in donations, and it was just the beginning of an outpouring of love and respect for the ancient site. Fear not, indomitable Shuri Castle will rise again.