NAHA, OKINAWA PREF. – Police and firefighters on Friday began investigating the fire that destroyed Okinawa’s Shuri Castle the previous day.
The fire, which started at around 2:30 a.m. Thursday, engulfed seven wooden buildings that occupied more than 4,000 sq. meters of a hill overlooking the prefectural capital of Naha. It was extinguished at around 1:30 p.m. There were no reports of injuries.
As around 100 local officials entered the site in the morning, smoke was still rising from the remnants of the castle’s Seiden main hall, where the authorities suspect the fire started.
“The people of Okinawa are discouraged,” Okinawa Gov. Denny Tamaki told reporters in Tokyo, where he was requesting government help for rebuilding the castle, which is part of a national park that opened in 1992.
Tamaki met with land minister Kazuyoshi Akaba and Seiichi Eto, minister in charge of Okinawa issues.
“We, as the government, promise to work on rebuilding it,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told members of his Liberal Democratic Party in charge of promoting disaster resilience.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a news conference, “The state will do whatever is necessary for rebuilding, including providing financial support.”
The original Shuri Castle dated back to the Ryukyu Kingdom, which spanned 450 years until Japan annexed Okinawa in 1879. It welcomed envoys sent by Chinese emperors as well as Commodore Matthew Perry and the U.S. warships he commanded in 1853.
The castle, a well-known symbol of the prefecture, had been rebuilt under a government project after it was destroyed in fighting with U.S. forces in World War II in 1945. The ruins, excluding the restored buildings, were registered as a part of Japan’s 11th UNESCO World Heritage site in 2000.
Thursday’s fire destroyed the restored Seiden main hall, the Hokuden north hall and Nanden south hall just days after a festival re-creating scenes from ancient rituals opened at the castle on Sunday.
Workers were installing lights and other equipment nearby until 1:30 a.m. Thursday before they closed shutters and left. Some of the event’s props had been left in the main hall, according to the officials.
While the buildings were equipped with fire alarms and extinguishers, they did not have sprinklers, which are only mandatory at hotels and other accommodations.
Following the fire that damaged Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris in April, the Japanese government called for strengthening fire prevention measures to protect cultural properties nationwide.
The government has earmarked around ¥8 billion ($74 million) in the fiscal 2020 budget for such efforts, quadrupling the amount for the current year.
But restored buildings, such as Shuri Castle, are not designated as national treasures or important cultural properties, which are eligible for government subsidies, and their owners are responsible for taking fire prevention measures.
The castle was a major tourist spot, attracting about 2.8 million people in fiscal 2018. The site is scheduled to be on the route for next year’s Olympic torch relay.
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