National | Regional Voices: Okinawa

Shuri Castle fire threatens Okinawa's tourism and traditional crafts industries

Okinawa Times

A predawn fire that destroyed much of Shuri Castle in Naha, Okinawa Prefecture, has shocked the local tourism industry and associations of traditional Ryukyu Kingdom crafts, raising alarm about the loss of the historic attraction and potential harm to the prefecture’s ability to promote its culture.

Akio Uehara, former director of the Ryukyu lacquerware cooperative business association, stressed that traditional crafts are underpinned by tourism in the prefecture.

“If we lose a sightseeing route touring textiles and craftworks after Shuri Castle, there will be some impact on our industry,” he warned.

Large parts of the castle, including the main, north and south buildings, were gutted in a fire early on Oct. 31. The exact cause of the blaze remains uncertain, but officials have hinted that an electrical fault could have been the cause.

The castle, which once served as the political and cultural heart of the Ryukyu Kingdom (1429-1879), was destroyed in the Battle of Okinawa during World War II, but the structures were rebuilt in 1992. The castle is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site and draws in millions of visitors every year.

Uehara is worried about reconstruction, as a shortage of craftsmen is worsening.

“Shuri Castle itself is a work of lacquerware,” Uehara said. “To restore the castle, we’ll need many craftspeople, but their numbers are fewer than they were 30 years ago.”

Masumi Akamine, director of the Naha Traditional Textile Business Cooperative, fears the loss of the castle may threaten the namesake textiles that have a historic link to the Ryukyu Kingdom.

“Shuri Ori textiles use a technique that was developed under the kingdom’s patronage,” Akamine said.

“The word ‘shuri‘ derives from the name of the castle. We lost the symbol and that may affect our industry.”

A staff member at Shuri Ryusen, which offers workshops on Okinawa’s traditional Bingata dyeing near Shuri Castle, said “foot traffic (to the shop) might be affected” now that the castle has burned down.

Local tourism-related groups are also feeling the pinch from the loss of a popular tourist spot in the prefecture and called for cooperation to overcome the shock.

“We should cope with this difficult situation by promoting the charms of other tourist attractions, such as Shikinaen (the largest secondary residence of the Ryukyu royal family),” said Kenji Sugimoto, president of JTB Okinawa Corp., which is under the umbrella of JTB Group.

Ichiro Miyazato, director of the Okinawa Prefecture Hotel Ryokan Life Sanitation Association, demanded “the prefectural and central governments work together toward reconstruction in a speedy manner.”

Satoshi Toyama, who heads the prefectural hotel association, emphasized the need for broader support.

“(The fire) has made us rethink the importance of cultural asset management. We ask for tourists’ cooperation on restoration for the second time,” he said.

Takeshi Sakumoto, who heads the Naha City Tourism Association, joined the chorus demanding solidarity on reconstruction. “Not only the tourism industry but people living in the prefecture should unite and act for reconstruction,” said Sakumoto.

This section features topics and issues from Okinawa covered by The Okinawa Times, a major newspaper in the prefecture. The original article was published on Nov. 1.