Fire engulfs large sections of the Shuri-jo castle complex early on Oct. 31 in Naha, Okinawa Prefecture. (Video footage by Shohei Okada and Shinichi Fujiwara.)

NAHA--A raging fire fueled by strong winds here destroyed large portions of Shuri-jo castle, a UNESCO World Heritage site that served as the center of politics and culture for the Ryukyu Kingdom (1429-1879).

Fifty-three firetrucks and 171 firefighters battled the blaze, which started in the wee hours of Oct. 31. By 11 a.m., the fire had been extinguished.

"We could not contain the fire because the wind was strong,” said a high-ranking police officer at the scene. “The many wooden structures and the (recently reapplied) lacquer may have also had an effect.”

There were no immediate reports of injuries from the blaze.

Residents in the area could only watch in horror as wooden structures of the castle, restored from the destruction of World War II, went up in flames.

Naha Mayor Mikiko Shiroma expressed the prefecture’s anguish over losing a complex of such historical significance at an emergency news conference held in the morning.

“It was a symbolic existence not just for Naha but also for everyone in Okinawa Prefecture,” she said. “It was a major asset for the tourism industry. I feel despair at losing a symbol that told the history of Ryukyu.”

According to fire department officials, as of 8 a.m., six structures with total floor space of 4,200 square meters had been destroyed by the fire. They included the Hokuden, which served as the site for one of the dinners held for the Group of Eight summit in Okinawa Prefecture in 2000, and the Nanden and Bandokoro, which displayed arts and crafts during the reign of the Ryukyu Kingdom.

The fire also damaged the Shoin, where the Ryukyu king went about his official business, the Sasunoma waiting room for Ryukyu royalty, and the Kugani-Udun and Nike-Udun, the former private quarters of the Ryukyu king and his immediate family.

“To us, Shuri-jo castle is a god-like existence,” said Toyoko Miyazato, 84, who lives nearby. “I am so sad I don’t know what to say.”

Firefighters were first notified about the blaze at the castle around 2:40 a.m. on Oct. 31.

The fire spread quickly because most of the castle’s structures are made of wood. Moreover, the castle is situated on higher ground, making it more vulnerable to flames being whipped up by the wind.

The Japan Meteorological Agency said somewhat strong winds were blowing in Okinawa early on Oct. 31.

According to police officers, a security guard at the castle first noticed the fire when a heat sensor went off. When the guard unlocked the door to the Seiden main hall, smoke billowed out.

Police suspect the main hall was the point of origin for the fire. They also said they received no reports of suspicious individuals in the area and are considering arson as a low possibility.

According to sources, work had continued at the Seiden main hall until late on Oct. 30 in connection with a festival at the castle that began on Oct. 27 and was scheduled to end on Nov. 3.

The workers had all gone home before the fire broke out, and they did not use any heat source during their work, the sources said.

Many of the destroyed structures were located in an area requiring an admission fee to enter. The area is closed to the public at night.

When the fire was out of control, police began evacuating residents from the vicinity to community centers.

The castle was destroyed by fire during the Battle of Okinawa in 1945.

However, the Shureimon main gate was restored in 1958 and restoration work for the Seiden main hall was completed in 1992.

In 2000, the castle was among the Gusuku Sites and Related Properties of the Kingdom of Ryukyu named to the UNESCO World Heritage list.

Work to reapply lacquer was completed in December 2018 following a restoration project lasting two years and three months to deal with deterioration of the Seiden caused by strong sunlight, rain and wind.

It was the first full repainting of the structure since the Shuri-jo Castle Park opened in 1992.

Park officials said the Seiden could be considered a work of lacquerware because natural lacquer had been applied.

Shuri-jo castle was scheduled to be the starting point for the Olympic torch relay in Okinawa Prefecture next May. Local officials are now trying to confirm if the park complex can be used next year.