The Newsletter 85 Spring 2020

Shuri Castle as a symbol of peace in East Asia

On 31 October 2019, Okinawa’s Shuri Castle was completely destroyed by fire. The soul of the Ryukyu Kingdom, which had carefully been restored for 30 years starting in 1989, burned down entirely. For Koreans, this tragic event brought back memories of the 2008 fire that destroyed the wooden structure of Namdaemun (Soongrye Gate), the southern gate of the Joseon capital. Just as Korean history had unfolded under the watchful gaze of Namdaemun, Shuri Castle had stood witness to the fates of Ryukyu and its hybrid people. This piece was written in order to commemorate Shuri Castle, a symbol of peace in East Asia.

Shuri Castle became the seat of power of a unified Ryukyu Kingdom with the founding of the Sho Dynasty. The tablet that read ‘A Country of Good Proprieties’ [守禮之邦],which adorned Shurimon (the southern gate) and the tablet featuring the inscription ‘Land of Chinese Mountains’ [中山之土], a gift from Emperor Kangxi of Qing Dynasty that hung in the main hall of Shuri Castle, symbolized the kingdom’s status as a tributary state of China. In the early 17th century, the Ryukyu Kingdom was invaded by the Satsuma domain of Japan, which subsequently controlled the kingdom to profit from entrepôt trade with China. Nevertheless, the fact that the Ryukyu Kingdom signed a trade treaty with the United States in 1854 demonstrates how it had remained an independent kingdom.

The Ryukyu Kingdom’s misfortunes began with the Meiji Restoration. In 1872, the King of Ryukyu became the king of a mere ‘domain’; in 1879, the domain was abolished, Ryukyu became Okinawa Prefecture, and the king was degraded to a noble and forced to relocate to Tokyo. The latter process is known as the ‘Ryukyu Disposition’, but Professor Namihira Tsuneo of Ryukyu University, who has studied this period in detail, argues that as this term reflects only Japan’s position, the more objective term ‘Ryukyu Annexation’ should be used, in the way that Joseon is regarded to have been formally ‘annexed’ by Japan.

Following the Manchurian invasion, Japan pursued a strategy of assimilation of the colonies into subjects of the emperor, in order to strengthen the role of the internal colonies as key components of the empire; on the other hand, it also carried out a policy designating important historical monuments as places of cultural heritage in order to elevate the pride of its colonial residents. It was in this wider context that Shuri Castle was designated as a national treasure, just as the Japanese Government General of colonial Korea had designated Namdaemun as Korean Treasure No. 1. However, the hills of Shuri Castle were taken over by the headquarters of the 6th Division of Japanese troops to prepare for the Pacific War. The aftermath was terrible. In May 1945, as the American campaign to capture Okinawa was carried out, the Japanese headquarters and Shuri Castle were completely damaged by bombardment from warships. The monument of cultural heritage containing Ryukyu’s soul had disappeared completely.

During the American occupation, the government of Ryukyu was established and Ryukyu University was built on the ruins of Shuri Castle. As a result of the Cold War in East Asia, the American presence became permanent. The US military base in Okinawa proved its value through the Korean War and the Vietnamese War. Along with the other military bases deeply embedded in East Asia, it allowed the US to operate as a living power in the region.

The Ryukyu government restored Shuri Castle in 1958 but the restoration of the main hall took more time. Ryukyu at this time did not belong to Japan; only the potential sovereignty of Japan had been recognized. It was in 1972, during the Vietnamese War, that Ryukyu was ‘returned’ to Japan, becoming Okinawa Prefecture once again. After Ryukyu University was moved in 1979, Okinawa Prefecture and the Japanese government made plans to rebuild Shuri Castle. The actual restoration began in 1989, and the construction of the main hall, south hall and north hall buildings was completed in 1992. The castle became a park open to visitors. In 2017, it was visited by 2.85 million people.

Shuri Castle was used to project the image of Ryukyu’s past, as a place of coexistence and peace. This tied in with Okinawa’s strong tradition of peace movements that had taken root around the US military base. Amidst the attempt to relocate Kadena air base to Henoko and the resistance that emerged, many peace activists in Okinawa further called for the removal of US bases to Guam. However, the geopolitical atmosphere of the region changed in 2010 with the sinking of the Cheonan warship in the West Sea of Korea, and calls for US military base transfers from Okinawa fell silent.

In the 30 years since its restoration, Shuri Castle stood as a beacon of peace in East Asia. Its presence acted as a reminder that these islands, which have played such a crucial role in US strategies in East Asia, were once a peaceful and prosperous place of trade. It is therefore hoped that Shuri Castle will be soon be restored so that it may once again project our aspirations for peace East Asia.

Keun-Sik Jung, Professor, Department of Sociology, Seoul National University,