Photo/IllutrationShuri-jo castle in June 2019 (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

Nearly three months have passed since Okinawa Prefecture’s Shuri-jo castle, the most prominent symbol of the southernmost prefecture’s unique culture and tradition, burned down in a fire.

While the project to rebuild the castle is making headway, it should be more than the simple reconstruction of the castle. The undertaking should be a great opportunity to take a fresh look at the culture and tradition of the Ryukyu Kingdom (1429-1879), to rediscover the cultural and historical heritages of the region, and to send out new messages about them.

The site of the castle, which was destroyed during World War II, is a state-run national park. The central government plans to develop a work schedule for the reconstruction project by the end of March. There is good reason for the government to provide financial and other support for the undertaking.

But the project should be led by the prefectural government and people in the prefecture. The central government has been at loggerheads with the local administration over a plan to relocate a U.S. military base within the prefecture.

But the central government should not use the castle restoration project as a political bargaining chip to promote the plan to build a new military base in the Henoko district of Nago, a city in the northern part of Okinawa. It should focus on playing a supportive role to help the prefecture tackle the challenge in a sincere manner.

Shuri-jo castle was burnt down during the 1945 Battle of Okinawa and its key facilities were restored in 1992 as a project to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Okinawa’s reversion to Japan.

The work was based on careful and meticulous, multifaceted research.

Most key reference materials in the prefecture were destroyed during the war. But documents concerning the Ryukyu royal family found in Tokyo and memos and photos produced by prewar researchers were available and closely examined and assessed to restore the castle as it was built during the Ryukyu Kingdom era.

To restore a mounted and framed work of Chinese calligraphy given to the kingdom by a Chinese emperor, the emperor’s handwriting was carefully analyzed.

After the restoration work was complete, the castle was also used as a venue for traditional ceremonies, dance and music performances.

The restoration of Shuri-jo castle led to increased use of traditional red tiles for public facilities in the prefecture. The castle was a towering symbol of local people’s identity and pride as well as a popular tourist site that attracted 2.8 million visitors annually.

Even after the restoration, efforts continued to uncover facts about the governing system and rituals of the kingdom and its relationships with other parts of Asia.

Newly discovered materials have led to the realization that corrections are needed to certain details including the design of the interior of the “Seiden” main hall.

There may be more related documents and materials waiting to be discovered both in and outside Japan.

Local universities and research institutes should play the leading role to establish a system to gather and share new information and knowledge about the castle.

The project is facing a range of challenges, including the difficulty of securing such materials as wood and lacquer and such skilled workers as shrine carpenters and craftsmen.

It is now difficult to secure a sufficient number of high-quality red tiles because of a shortage of craftsmen due to changes in lifestyles and the poor availability of necessary clay.

But research to overcome these problems has been made to gain better knowledge about factors crucial for making red tiles, such as how the constituent parts of clay and the temperatures of baking affect the colors of tiles.

Traditional skills and state-of-the-art technologies should be combined to restore the castle, which was once described as “gigantic Ryukyu lacquerware” because of the lavish use of lacquer for both the exterior and the interior.

One big difference from the previous restoration project is that many people--not just in the prefecture but also in other parts of Japan and the world--have expressed their desire to see the castle again.

Okinawa thrived on trade with other Asian nations and had a unique history separate from mainland Japan. If the project inspires people to learn more about the region’s history, it will help them think about how this nation has been formed from a different perspective.

The reconstruction of Shuri-jo castle will offer a superb opportunity to make fresh reflections on “Japan.”

--The Asahi Shimbun, Jan. 29