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As I continue my reading of newspapers from around the time of the first postwar restoration of Shuri castle in 1989-1992, I came across a short essay by Takara Kurayoshi 高良倉吉 which I found interesting and which I thought I might share. Takara (b. 1947), at that time the head of the Urasoe City Library and now Professor Emeritus, University of the Ryukyus, is one of the top big-name scholars of the history of the Ryukyu Kingdom alive today.

The following is only a very rough summary / translation of his essay; I apologize but admit directly here that I am not taking the time to do a better, closer, more careful translation. Any misrepresentations are my own. If you wish to cite, quote, or refer to this essay for your own purposes, I would strongly encourage you to go back to the original.

“Shuri Castle: Topics Going Forward, Thoughts as We Approach the Public Opening”
「首里城 これからの課題―一般公開を迎えて思うことー」
Takara Kurayoshi, head of the Urasoe City Library
Ryûkyû Shimpô, 2 Nov 1992

Takara writes that being involved in the project is like a forest. Looking at it from the outside, you might not be able to see just how dense and complicated it was. For years, people worked hard to raise money, and also discussed and debated, dealing with the desired form and content, but also limitations of budget, and some problems ultimately had no solution. So, he asks, as the public opening approaches, please don’t come to this with an arrogant attitude, or looking at it knowingly, and criticize the restored castle. Please recognize the great work and energy that went into this, and first show respect to those efforts.

The architects who went without sleep and without breaks. I keep thinking about (or “you should keep thinking about”?) the artisans who brought the highest expert techniques/skills to this. The restored Shuri castle was not brought about by the gods. It was built with limited documentary sources, limited budget, limited knowledge, and of course it is not perfect. As a result, the various aspects of its imperfection must become the subject of new investigations in “Shuri castle research” going forward.

What I would like to caution people on is that the detailed data about how the castle was reconstructed has not been made public yet. We were too busy to put it all together properly; so, once this data is made public, or published, then the true evaluations can begin.

As you will see when you visit the restored castle, what has been restored is only one portion of the castle. The king’s study (shoin and sasunoma), and the living quarters of the royal family (ouchibaru) are not included. The castle’s largest sacred space, the kyô no uchi, has also not been restored. In the future, how should these areas be restored, will also be a topic to discuss. [Note: all these areas which he mentions here were later restored.]

To restore these as-of-yet unrestored areas, appropriate study is necessary. There are many points regarding the structures of the Ouchibaru which are unclear, and the concrete appearance of the Kyônouchi is also unclear. Thus, specialists must from here forward perform surveys, and amass research.

On a related note, what should we do with the nearby Engakuji temple? Should it be restored, or not? If it is to be restored, how would the restored space be used? I think that the prefecture needs to put some thought to that soon.

There hasn’t been much research on the Engakuji yet. To make this decision whether to restore it or not, it is essential first to amass relevant historical sources. Personally, I do think that the restoration of Engakuji would be essential to the continuation (the passing down) of the techniques that allowed for the restoration of the castle, though.

(Takara Kurayoshi, at that time head of the Urasoe City Library)

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Kobikishiki procession of logs from Kunjan passing through the streets of Shuri, on the way to the castle site. Photo from Ryûkyû Shimpô newspaper, 3 Nov 1989.

Reading scholarship by Tze May Loo and Gerald Figal, the only work I know of in English on the history and significance of Shuri castle (Sui gusuku, Ufugusuku), I found that while both tell fascinating, touching, and profoundly informative and important stories about the events leading up to the restoration of the castle in 1992, neither focus very much on that moment in history. I most sincerely recommend both books to historians of all stripes, as I think everyone should know more about the history, culture, and current struggles of the peoples of Okinawa, Hawaiʻi, Guam, East Turkestan, Kurdistan, and countless other places & peoples all too often overlooked and under-known. But also because I think these two books, one on the ways a site such as Shuri castle is shaped, appropriated, altered both in its physical being and in its meaning and significance by early 20th century imperialist/colonialist processes of the construction of national narratives and national identity, and the other on how such a site is shaped by touristic motives and the political and economic forces of the late 20th century. Along with works on the history of ʻIolani Palace, and countless other examples from around the world, these are valuable and informative examples for how we can understand sites of history and heritage in the West as well, and around the world.

But, Loo spends little more than a paragraph on the completion of the restoration in 1992, at the end of a chapter covering the entire postwar period, and Figal similarly focuses chiefly on the postwar period as a whole and not on exactly how people were feeling and thinking in 1989-1992 as the restoration project was underway.

So I decided to head into the newspaper archives. Thank you to the Okinawa Bunka Kenkyûjo at Hôsei University for keeping these old newspapers and making them available when it seems no online database, and only one institute or library at the University of Tokyo does so.

On November 2 and 3, 1989, three years before the restored castle would be opened to the public for the first time in history, the groundbreaking ceremony 起工式 was accompanied by a number of other celebratory events. A tree-felling or lumber-carrying ceremony 木曵式 (J: ”kobikishiki”) was performed in Kunigami (O: Kunjan), in the northern portion of Okinawa Island.

Right: Priestesses chanting prayers for the success of the restoration efforts, as they march alongside the logs of Kunjan wood, through the streets of Shuri. ”Ryûkyû Shimpô”, Nov 3, 1989.

Prior to the castle’s destruction in 1945, it had last been rebuilt (and not merely repaired or renovated) in a major way in 1714. The wood at that time came primarily from the Yanbaru 山原 forests of Kunjan, as it had in earlier times as well. Now, in 1989, there were few or no trees of sufficient size in Yanbaru to use for actually rebuilding the castle; those in forests in mainland Japan were largely in protected areas, and so ultimately the restoration project imported wood from Taiwan. Nevertheless, in keeping with tradition and the powerful symbolic importance of incorporating lumber from Yanbaru, the ”kobikishiki” was performed in Kunjan, and several trees were ceremonially carried to Shuri.

More than 500 people from neighboring villages came to watch the Kunigami Lumber-Carrying Ceremony Festival, with one elder interviewed in the Ryûkyû Shimpô saying that “there is no one here who has truly carried the lumber for Shuri castle,” which I took to imply a deep feeling of the importance and significance of these events, and perhaps a happiness at seeing such ritual traditions restored, or reenacted. People performed Kunjan sabakui, a folk song and dance closely associated with exactly such activities – the people of Kunjan prided themselves for centuries on their trees being used in the royal palace – a song and dance regularly performed still today, but not within the direct context of a “tree-felling” ceremony for the castle for over 30 years, since the restoration of the Shureimon gate in 1958, and not (as far as I know) since this time, in 1989.

A video I found on YouTube of students at Okinawa University of the Arts (Okinawa Geidai) performing Kunjan Sabakui in 2015.

Watching this video, I can only imagine how dancers and onlookers both must have felt at that time, performing a dance they’d all danced or seen so many times before, but one specific to their village, and specific to this event which only comes about once in a generation, or once in a lifetime, if even that. An opportunity to have the traditions and proud identity of one’s rural village play a part, a crucial part, in an event of such momentous significance for all Okinawans. For someone like me, who has only ever heard this song, or seen this dance, simply as yet another example of Okinawan folk song/dance amongst many others, it definitely takes on a new meaning now.

The felled trees were carried by participants for some distance within the local festival area in Kunigami before being placed into models of the Yanbaru-sen 山原船 ships which would have traditionally carried the logs, by sea, down to Tomari port near Shuri; in this 1989 event, these model ships (with the logs aboard) were instead placed on trucks, which then transported them down to Naha, the prefectural capital, in a “motor vehicle parade” 自動車パレード which played a part in multiple local festivals – Nago Festival, Tomari Festival – as it passed through those neighborhoods over the next day. The entire island (or, some large part of it) was thus brought into the festivities, the excitement, of this first step restoration of the castle.

By early the following afternoon (Nov 3), the logs were making their way down Kokusai-dôri, the main central tourist & shopping street of downtown Naha, from Makishi to Asato, and then through the neighborhoods of Shuri, on their way to the castle. As the procession did so, it was preceded by lion dances and other processions by groups from each of those neighborhoods it passed through. The newspaper reported 「カメラや映写機に歴史のひとコマを収めようと郡らがった。」“Cameras and video cameras gathered together hoping to capture just one shot of history.” And as they paraded, those carrying the logs chanted, in the Okinawan language, 「さー首里城の御材木でえびるヨイシーヨイシー」(saa, Sui gusuku nu uzeemuku deebiru yoishii yoshii, “saa, this is the lumber of Shuri castle, yoishii yoshii”) and 「首里天じゃなしぬ御材木だやびる」(Sui tin janashi nu uzeemuku dayabiru, “this is the lumber of the heavenly lord of Shuri”).

A 93-year-old woman sitting and watching the parade said “I have been looking forward to this Shurijô kobiki, which I had only heard people talk about” (or, “which I had only heard about in stories”).

What an incredible thing it must have been to be there in that moment. Even as there is no longer a king, and no longer a kingdom, I would not be surprised if for many of these people this meant a whole lot more than just “reenacting” something of the past, as though it were a mask or costume they wore, an act they were putting on. For many of the participants, surely, this wasn’t “reenacting” in the sense of our Civil War reenactors, or Colonial Williamsburg reenactors, or museum guides who dress as Teddy Roosevelt or Ben Franklin for purely educational (and partially hobbyist or entertainment) purposes. This wasn’t just a costume or an act, this was people taking up the same role that their ancestors had performed, embodying Ryukyuan identity in relationship to a castle – a symbol of cultural greatness, of rich heritage to be proud of – that was long gone but that was about to rebuilt. This was interconnected with feelings of Ryukyuan identity and culture, so long trampled upon, actively suppressed and passively neglected, reviving, regaining strength.

I do not speak Okinawan; I understand just enough to understand the phrases above, but I feel a poetry, a cultural aesthetic in the above words that English translations cannot convey, and that feels a bit too hard or cold (かたい) if rendered into standard Japanese. What a feeling it must have been for participants, especially those from Kunjan, whose ancestors supplied lumber to the castle, to be able to be there in that moment, chanting those words, “we bring lumber to the king, lumber for the castle,” and especially amidst their own life experience of never having seen a castle on that site, only an empty space (well, a university campus) where a castle had once stood.

As they processed through the streets, the log-carriers were accompanied by, among many others in historical and festival costumes, Ryukyuan priestesses in white robes who performed purification chants and kweena クェーナ prayers that the restoration of the castle should go without incident.

A video I found on YouTube of a kweena prayer being performed at Shuri castle in 2016.

Meanwhile, as the log-carriers made their way into Shuri, another procession departed from the castle gates. Recreating a procession of the king’s formal ceremonial visits to three shrines or temples in the area immediately around the castle, this was the 24th year in a row that this “old-style procession” 古式行列 had been performed in Shuri. With a reproduction of the centuries-old bell at the royal Buddhist temple of Engaku-ji rung as a signal, this royal procession – consisting of numerous Shuri/Naha locals dressed as members of the royal court, with one dressed as the king and riding in a lavish palanquin [on wheels, I’m guessing, not actually carried on people’s shoulders] – made its way down from the castle gates, and through the streets of Shuri, where it mixed with a hata-gashira festival group, and then joined the log-carrying procession as they made their way into the castle.

As the logs, felled in the Yanbaru forests of Kunjan and ceremonially transported all the way here to Shuri for the first time in decades, perhaps centuries, arrived at the Unaa 御庭, people sang Kajadifû bushi かぎやで風節, an extremely standard song to be performed for an auspicious start or end to any event, but which surely took on extra meaning that day.

今日の誇らしゃや 何にぎやな譬る
Kiyû nu fukurasha ya, nao ni jana tatiru

“To the happiness of this day, what can compare?”

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Early in the morning on Thursday Oct 31, 2019, exactly 27 years to the day after its postwar restoration was complete, seven of the central buildings of Shuri castle (Sui gusuku) the royal palace of the Ryukyu Kingdom, burned down in what seems to have been a tragic, tragic accident.

The front page of the Ryûkyû Shimpô newspaper, Nov 1, 2019.

I awoke that morning to this shocking news. Whether I saw it first on Twitter or on Facebook, I don’t recall. I had actually been in Naha just a week or so earlier, but hadn’t made it to the castle on this visit. Video of the castle in flames was showing amongst other news briefs on the video screens on the Tokyo Metro subway as I made my way into work, and by the time I got into the office, there was an email very kindly forwarded to me by a friend, from Singapore-based Channel News Asia looking for someone to speak briefly, live on-air, via Skype. We had already begun to see reactions in the English-language news, social media, and elsewhere – of which I, I will admit, was guilty as well at first – dismissing the fire as being not that important, since the buildings destroyed were all 1990s-2000s reconstructions and not authentically historical buildings. As I later learned, contributors on Wikipedia similarly came to a swift conclusion not to include the fire in the “In the News” section of Wikipedia’s front page because, as one user wrote, “If this was about the original buildings being destroyed, it’d be newsworthy,” later adding “Thanks for the correction, let’s make it a strong oppose then. I’ve got clothes older than the buildings destroyed. This is completely misleading and not in the slightest newsworthy.” Having since read much, not only in scholarship and newspapers, but also on friends’ social media accounts, about how much the castle meant to them, I was saddened and infuriated.

I still feel conflicted about having accepted the invitation to speak on-camera, rather than doing the “recognize your privilege” thing and deferring to Okinawan or Okinawan-American friends – I hate that anyone should think that I would be eager to use such a tragic event as an opportunity for self-promotion. But I did think that most Okinawans or Okinawan-Americans I might pass it along to were likely plenty busy with commenting or responding in other ways – and many did end up being interviewed by the media, or having an opportunity to respond publicly in other ways, and I hope I can feel okay with the idea that I wasn’t really stealing anyone’s spotlight but simply adding an additional, supporting, voice, repeating and amplifying the voices I had heard, to do what little I could to try to help correct some misunderstandings and, simply, to bring Okinawa, its people, and their history and culture, to the world’s attention if only for a moment.

Jon Itomura, executive director of Hawaii United Okinawa Association, being interviewed by the Ryukyu Broadcasting Company (琉球放送, RBC):

Since then, I have been keeping up with the news as much as I can, and with individual friends’ and colleagues’ social media posts, as well as discussing the fire and the significance of Shuri with friends both here in Tokyo and overseas. That very night, after the fire, I immediately started reading two books which had long been near the very top of my “to read” pile: Tze May Loo’s Heritage Politics: Shuri Castle and Okinawa’s Incorporation Into Modern Japan, 1879–2000, and a chapter on Shuri castle and “Ryukyu Restoration” in Gerald Figal’s book Beachheads: War, Peace, and Tourism in Postwar Okinawa. Thanks to another kind recommendation, I was able to share some of what I had learned, about Okinawans’ own feelings about the significance of the 1992 restoration, the existence of the castle since then, and the tragedy of its loss, in a piece for a UK-based art world magazine, Apollo. My sincerest thanks to Dr. Simon Kaner for passing this opportunity along to me, and to Apollo for seeking to publish something on this beautiful and powerful place that has such a special space in so many people’s hearts.

The main hall (Seiden 正殿, or Momourasoe udun 百浦添御殿) at Shuri castle, in a photo I took in Sept 2014.

There is still so much more that I have to say, and that so many others have been saying. It’s been more than two weeks since the fire now, and a part of me felt that I really ought to post something here on the blog almost immediately. Some of my loyal readers, if I indeed have any (I don’t presume I do), may have noticed the conspicuous absence of any comment on the event until now. But I delayed because I felt there was still so much to read, and to think about, and to synthesize. And I think there will still be more posts yet to come. But I wanted, now, finally, today, to start to share some introductory thoughts. Over the coming days and weeks, if I end up keeping to it, I may end up posting more.

For those interested in contributing to the reconstruction efforts:
*One way to do so, particularly for those in the US, is through a GoFundMe organized by the Hawaii United Okinawa Association.
*Those who pay taxes in Japan can redirect their furusato zeikin to the reconstruction effort: https://www.furusato-tax.jp/gcf/717.
*And the Ryûkyû Shimpô newspaper is maintaining a list of other ways to donate: https://ryukyushimpo.jp/news/entry-1019118.html

Those who have visited the castle may wish to share photos with a lab at the University of Tokyo which is working to combine crowdsourced photographs into a 3D virtual digital model, or recreation, of the castle. See this link: https://www.our-shurijo.org/index_en.html

Another organization is working on creating an archive of people’s thoughts and experiences regarding the castle – not just rebuilding the castle, and continuing to try to safeguard the roughly 1100 out of 1500 physical historical cultural treasures which survived the fire, but to build and maintain an archive of memories. Watch this space: https://miraifund.org/kikin/shurijo/

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A typical scene in Nishihara. Just walking along the side of the highway, no shops at all in the immediate vicinity except for auto repair and the like…

As I wrote in my last post, Nishihara is… a new experience for me. Quite scattered and disparate in its layout. Just walking around the neighborhood immediately off-campus to the south, Uehara, I think I’ve counted at least five hair salons (for whatever reason), at least five car places (dealerships, garages, auto repair, motorbike shops, etc.), one fast food joint, plenty of real estate or apartment management places, a bunch of other random establishments, and zero bookstores. Zero cute cafés. Zero welcoming-looking restaurants. No supermarket that I’m aware of. Certainly no big box electronics store (or even a small one). I’m not even sure I’ve seen a cellphone store at all, in this particular neighborhood. On one day I popped off campus, thinking I would find, just something, whatever, to eat for lunch, and just make it quick and come back to my room to do more work. I wandered around for literally at least 30-40 minutes, getting further and further from campus, finding absolutely zero places that looked inviting – or even open – before I finally found myself at a supermarket (and still no appealing-looking restaurants), way off in another part of town entirely.

Now, granted, I do think that once I get a bit more settled in, and start to get more familiar with what’s available on each side of campus, in each part of the area, I’ll feel a bit better about all of this. After four years in Santa Barbara, I’m finally starting to feel that there’s really enough variety of dining, and enough to see and do otherwise – almost.

In the streets of Naha’s Tsuboya neighborhood. One shop after another, each inviting, each providing goods or services of real interest, like in a normal town.

But, still, I imagine you can understand why it was a major breath of fresh air to take the bus down to Naha, the prefectural capital, the other day. A city I’m familiar with, with lots of familiar sights, and just a real city, filled with things to see and do, all the resources you could possibly want. I was glad to discover that the bus runs relatively frequently, goes at least kind of late into the night (until 9:30 or so – thankfully not 6:30 or 7 as I’d feared), and takes only about half an hour. Looks like I’ll be able to get down into the city relatively easily and often. Thank god. Even so, I think next time around, the next time I find myself in Okinawa on a fellowship or a postdoc position or a sabbatical or whatever, I think next time it’d be super great to be based at the Okinawa University of the Arts – right below the castle, right in the city (more or less). I’m sure Ryûdai will be fantastic, in all sorts of ways, in terms of students and faculty and the library, and hopefully in terms of arts and events too. But, oh boy, how awesome would it be to live right there in Shuri? Next time.

This time, I took the bus to Omoromachi, and if I remember correctly went first straight to the big electronics store – Yamada Denki – and picked up a five-meter-long ethernet cable, so I can finally use my computer (with internet connection) in bed. Relax while I simultaneously get shit done – shit like blogging; or, maybe, actual reading/research work. With no stores around that I had yet found near campus, none at all really outside of basic convenience stores, even something as simple as this took a real adventure to get. Then I was pointed by the Yamada Denki folks across the street to San-e, the big department store / shopping mall, where I was able to get a prepaid data SIM card. Still no voice function (which means no phone number – hopefully I won’t need to have a number to put down on forms or anything), but, I’m all set on data for the next month – thank god. One more thing down.

As it turns out, we /do/ have such things here in Nishihara, too, just not immediately near campus (so far as I’ve seen thus far) – I would later discover a San-e way down near the town hall (about a 45 min walk from campus), which though still pretty basic compared to what’s available in the totality of Naha City, is just sizable enough to provide for much of what I’d feared was only available in the city. Namely, things like prepaid data SIM cards.

The main lobby of the Okinawa Prefectural Museum. Clean, sleek, bright. I wish I could share with you photos of the actual galleries, but they don’t allow photos…

In any case, errands accomplished, I poked over to the Okinawa Prefectural Museum. Thought I was going to buy up some museum catalogs, maybe some other stuff. As it turns out, (1) the one catalog I was really looking for, from an exhibit only two years ago on Kumemura, is all sold out and gone, and (2) there weren’t really any exhibits up right now that I wanted to bother paying to see. So, I bought myself a little coin purse, to hold all the change that keeps otherwise falling through the holes in my pants pockets, and I moved along.

Before leaving the museum, though, I decided to go check out the rental galleries – outside of the paid areas of the museum, where groups or individuals can come in and rent out the space for their own use. The last time I was here, two years ago, these spaces were being used for an exhibition of college students’ artworks, from the Okinawa University of the Arts. Maybe like a BFA thesis / graduation show. I’m not 100% clear. This time, I happened to catch a one-day-only exhibition of Western Australian artists, organized by Peter Davidson. I feel like the name is really familiar – like maybe I’d come across his Okinawa work before already – but if I have, I still haven’t quite figured out why the name rang a bell. Maybe it’s just a really common name.

“Okinawa Study” by Peter Davidson. Image from Wild Swan Arts Group blog.

Spoke with Mr Davidson for a little while, and got to take a look at his paintings. They’re small, but wonderfully vivid and colorful. They really capture the richness of Okinawa, I think – the lush greenery, the orange of the roof tiles… It’s a shame that the photographs can’t capture the texture and vibrancy of these paintings. Makes them look so flat…

Skipping seeing any of the regular exhibits I’d have to pay for (and which I’ve already seen, and which they won’t let visitors photograph because they’re obnoxious jerks), I then went back to the monorail station and headed over to the Naha City Museum of History. I imagine I must have posted about this museum before – it’s a funny sort of place, very small, tucked away on the 4th floor of a shopping center in downtown Naha. But, despite its small publicly visible footprint, and small municipal sort of name (City Museum), the Naha City Museum actually holds numerous National Treasures in its collection, and is a major center of Historical activity, including not only extensive documentary archives & library, but also publications (e.g. city histories), and playing some major role in organizing the historical markers & explanatory plaques all around the city.

They have just two small gallery spaces, one where they show decorative arts, mainly – textiles, lacquerwares, and the like, often from royal collections, often including some National Treasures. I’ve seen the royal sword Chiyoganemaru in that space, and this time, they had a replica of the last surviving royal investiture crown on display. I was disappointed it was only a replica, but, what are you gonna do. In the other gallery, they started off with a bunch of various different things relating to the city’s history – maps and paintings of early modern Naha from the 19th century or so, and also a model of a section of downtown Naha as it looked in the 1930s. One of the few things in the gallery they explicitly said we could take pictures of.

And then, the rest of the gallery is what really rotates, thematically. Right now, 2016 is the 200th anniversary of the arrival of Basil Hall to Okinawa – his accounts of his journey remain one of the more canonical accounts in English. So, they had a very nice display detailing his trip, day by day, with copies of his journal, including the beautiful color illustrations, and so on and so forth.

Shuri Castle, lit up in the twilight.

Finally, after finding some food and poking around the Heiwa-dôri shopping arcade for a bit, I headed down to Shuri castle. I had been planning to get back to campus already by that point, as I was nervous about getting back after dark, and because I was already pretty tired, already feeling I’d had a long day. But, I saw a poster for a special Mid-Autumn Festival celebration at the castle, complete with lots of classical Ryukyuan dance and music, and this just wasn’t to be missed. So I steeled myself up, and lasted out the day, and finally headed down to the castle around 6pm, only to find that because of strong winds and potential of rain, the event had been canceled. Boo.

On the plus side, though, I’d never been to Shuri castle before so late at night. It was beautifully illuminated, and I managed to catch a few good photos. Plus, there were very few tourists around, inside the castle, so I got to get some closer photos than usual of things inside – and to just enjoy it and have a quieter, nicer. time of it, without so many crowds.

And then, when that was done, just very easily caught a bus back to campus. Great to know I can do that whenever, from now on. All in all, a really great day in the city. Looking forward to more such adventures – the next time there’s a concert or performance or museum exhibit, or whatever…

Except where indicated otherwise, all photos are my own.

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A model of the unaa (central plaza) at Shuri castle, showing the officials of the Ryukyuan court scholar-aristocracy lined up, facing east, for their New Year’s audience with the king, who faces west out of the second story of the Seiden (Main Hall). Photo my own.

Reading lots about Ming & Qing court ritual, the construction of kingship & emperorship, the significance of particular directions, and so forth, and I got to thinking… actually, I’ve been thinking for a while, why is Shuri Castle arranged facing west?

Any introductory course of East Asian art & architecture, and indeed most survey courses in History of East Asia, will touch upon the organization of the Chinese Imperial Palace. It is situated according to strict geomantic notions, relating to the significance of the cardinal directions, and in some important respects, as a model or microcosm of the cosmic order itself. In Beijing, as in Chang’an, the whole palace, and particularly the audience hall, is arranged on a north-south axis, with the Emperor sitting in the north, facing south. Officials gather to his south, lining up on the east and west sides of the hall, or of the courtyard, lined up with the highest-ranking officials to the north, closer to the emperor, and the lowest-ranking ones at the southern end of the line, furthest from His Majesty. When they kneel and prostrate, they do so to the north. This is all probably even more complex than I know, but at least one of the notions that may be connected into this is one mentioned in the Analects, attributed to Confucius himself, that the Emperor is like the North Star, sitting at the northernmost point of the cosmos, facing south towards all the other stars, and remaining still while all the other stars move about the North Star as central axis. Thus, both North and Center are the most elite directions in court ritual.

The rooftops of the various buildings in the Forbidden City, Beijing, all aligned to a north-south axis. Image from Translate.com.

This is emulated in the Honmaru Palace of Edo castle, the seat of the Tokugawa shogunate. While the Hall of Supreme Harmony (Tàihédiàn), the main audience hall at Beijing, is organized lengthwise, longer from east to west, the main audience hall at the shogun’s palace, the Ôhiroma, is much longer from north to south. Still, in Edo, in emulation of Chinese norms, the shogun sits at the northern end of the hall, his officials lined up along the eastern and western walls, from highest (north) to lowest (south) in rank (among those in the hall, of course – most of those of middling and low rank can’t even enter the hall), and the figure(s) being received in audience sit towards the south end. When all bowed and prostrated, they do so to the north, towards the shogun.

The main audience hall at Nijô Castle in Kyoto, of similar design to that no longer extant at Edo castle, which would have also been oriented along a north-south axis. Photo from Marked Post.

So, why is Shuri castle, royal palace of a kingdom strongly modeled on the Ming Confucian mode, and with the palace’s architecture and layout in many other respects an emulation of the Forbidden City in miniature, oriented to the west, and not to the south?

It has been suggested(Though I am an idiot and did not note down the citation…) that the palace may have been arranged in this manner so as to face China, and thus to show the kingdom’s deference and admiration for the greatness of Ming civilization. However, within the traditional Chinese architectural schema, the emperor sits at north and looks ”down” upon his people, his realm, to his south. Thus, this arrangement would seem to have the King of Ryûkyû sitting in the east and looking ”down” upon not only his people, but also ”down” towards China, which is clearly not the intention. On the other hand, east is traditionally a more elite direction than west within the Chinese Imperial Palace, so situating the king in the east, facing west, makes some sense. I wonder what can be said for the fact that, by facing west, the king is, yes, looking upon his people insofar as he is facing the courtyard filled with officials, and beyond it, Kumemura and Naha, but, actually most of the people and land of his realm would be behind him, and to the left and right (north, and south). Maybe that’s irrelevant. No symbol can do everything.

The Seiden of Shuri castle, as it looks today, with the photographer (myself) facing south, and the Seiden facing west.

I wonder if perhaps this is connected to the distinctly Ryukyuan notions of the king as Tedako (太陽の子, son of the Sun), in contrast to the Chinese Emperor, who is the Son of Heaven (天子), but not necessarily associated with the Sun. The Japanese Emperor is also fashioned as descended from the Sun Goddess, but while he still sits in the north and faces south in the Chinese manner, that doesn’t mean the Ryukyuan king has to do the same. Yingkit Chan, in his brilliant 2010 MA thesis, in fact emphasizes that while Ryukyu is generally seen as having been heavily Sinicized, in truth, the Ryukyu court showed considerable agency in incorporating its adoption of Chinese elements into a court culture which remained distinctly Ryukyuan in many important ways. This would certainly seem to be one of them. In Ryukyu, unlike in China or Japan, there is also an association of the east with Nirai Kanai, the mythical home of the gods across the sea.

I have by no means “read up” on this issue – just read whatever I happen to have already been reading this week anyway, and sort of writing “stream of thought.” Who knows, maybe I’ll come across something in my further readings which actually explains it. In the meantime, what do you think? Any ideas? Have you maybe come across anything explaining the reasoning behind this?

Both Shuri photos my own, taken 18 Sept 2014.

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Looking back, I’m not sure I ever posted about my first trip to Shuri. In fact, it would seem I barely posted about my first trip to Okinawa at all. Granted, it took place a month or two before I ever started this blog, but even so…

As for Shuri, yes, I had been before, but it was raining that day, and so I was quite glad to go back on a nicer day, and to get some better photos. And, more than that, they’ve done quite a bit of work since I was there in 2008, and there are entirely new sections to visit. Now, granted, these new areas seem just a bit too new – the fact that it’s a reconstruction is just way too obvious, too in your face. I wish they’d done more to evoke the idea of what it actually looked like, actually felt like, historically, rather than a sort of far too neat, too clean post-modern reconstruction of it, with glass windows and even automatic sliding doors, though I do appreciate the need for climate control when certain galleries are featuring actual historical artifacts.

These newly reconstructed areas include the Kuganiudun, that is, private residence areas of the king and queen, and the Ouchibara, the Ôoku, essentially, of Shuri palace – that is, the harem, if you will, the women’s areas where the queen and the various secondary wives, concubines. and other women lived. I don’t know too much, actually, about the shogun’s Ôoku at Edo castle, but I imagine some similarities, esp. in that no men were allowed into the Ouchibara save the king, princes, or other royals. The Ouchibara is a major setting of the action in the recent TV drama “Tempest,” which was largely filmed here at the actual castle; though, just how accurately the show portrays the life and activities of the Ouchibara, I have no idea. And, despite my best efforts, I seem completely unable to find any good clips of the show to link to, let alone any clips (or even stills!) that really show the Ouchibara. Grrr. In any case, I suppose that’s all I have to say about the palace…

Above: The Shureimon, the main gate to Shuri Castle, and a prominent/famous symbol of Okinawa, seen on countless tourist brochures, souvenirs, and the like.

I was glad to go back a few days later, to walk around Shuri and see a few other sites. Of the vast majority of them, nothing at all survives any more, and so all there is to see is a sign indicating their former location. But, even so, it is interesting to begin to get a sense – directly, by walking it – of just where these things were located in relation to one another. The previous time I had been to Shuri Castle, whether because of the rain, or who knows why, I had a certain impression of Tamaudun, Ankoku-zenji, and certain other sites being fairly distant from the castle, along a road that just kept taking me deeper and deeper into the neighborhoods, away from the monorail station, away from the castle. But now that I’ve done it again, I have a feeling this time around of them all being quite close by. In point of fact, as I wandered around the neighborhood looking for this and that site, I actually ended up right in the castle grounds, and at Engaku-ji, Ryûtan, and the Benten-dô all over again, these major sites that are just as adjacent, as nearby as could be to the castle. We learn that the Uchakuya (J: O-kyaku-ya, E:, roughly, “guest house”), where the chief Satsuma official stationed in Ryukyu, and his men, would prepare for visits to the castle, was located immediately adjacent to the Buddhist temple of Ankoku-zenji. (Incidentally, the Satsuma office was located downtown, so to speak, in Naha, in the Nishi neighborhood; a historical plaque stands there today as well.)

A map at the castle (was that there back in ’08?) even shows quite nicely where each of these things were in relation to one another, with the full extent of each building or compound outlined. Thus we can see how the temple Tenkaiji stood just down the road from the Shureimon – the main gate to the castle grounds – and just beyond Tenkaiji, immediately adjacent, remains Tamaudun, the royal mausoleum, with the Ufumi udun and Nakagusuku udun (the crown prince’s palace) just a little further down, across the street from Ankoku-zenji and the Satsuma guest house. The Nakagusuku udun was relocated in the Meiji period a little further away, to a site in front of the Ryûtan pond, labeled on this map as the prefectural museum, which really makes me wonder just how old this map is… then again, the new prefectural museum only just opened in 2008, so I guess the map might be only a little out of date, as jarring as it looks to me.

There’s construction going on today at the original Nakagusuku udun site; somehow I doubt it’s any kind of archaeological excavation, or reconstruction of the palace to serve as a historical site – probably just construction, in the standard sense. Might be they’re expanding the high school. Still, to see it laid bare that way, at least for the moment, even with no actual historical buildings standing, does help one imagine the site, a little bit, better than having new buildings actually there on top of it.

Digressing even further, incidentally, the “new”, later location of the Nakagusuku udun, by Ryûtan pond, was where many of the greatest royal treasures were kept before and during the war. I recently read about (and I think posted about) how the caretakers of the royal collections hid a number of the most precious objects in storm drains or the like, right outside the Nakagusuku udun, in the hopes that they could come back after the Battle of Okinawa had ended, and retrieve them. They did retrieve some items, but an original copy of the Omoro soshi had been taken to Boston – it was then returned, but a royal crown, one of only two surviving crowns, if it does even survive, has not been seen since. The one now at the Naha City Museum, designated a National Treasure, had been taken by the royal family to Tokyo back in the 1870s or so, and thus survived the war in that manner.

While there is almost nothing left to see of the Tenkaiji temple today (a well survives), the plaque marking the site tells us of its importance as one of the main Buddhist temples associated with and patronized by the royal family.

The royal mausolea at Tamaudun, in 1955, showing the damage from the Battle of Okinawa.

I also revisited Tamaudun, getting some new photos in better weather (better lighting and such), and just reacquainting myself with the site. Though I thought I remembered signs saying No Photos the previous time I was here back in 2008, there were no such signs today, or none that I noticed, so I made off with some good information, and with some photos of photos (even if it’s not fair use, or whatever the Japanese equivalent may be, I’m pretty sure pre-war photos are public domain, or non-copyrighted, though I also appreciate the complexities of the potential copyright of modern reproductions of old photos. Anyway, whatever. Much thanks to Tamaudun for allowing photographs of your gallery labels.) Tamaudun’s been expanded a bit, too, I think – a red-tile-roofed and wooden guardhouse stands where I really don’t remember seeing any such thing six years ago.

Glad to have gotten to go back, and explore some more sites. The Naha Machima~i people, and whatever other groups, have been expanding the number of sites that have nice formal plaques around town, with many of these being erected as recently as this year (so I wouldn’t have even seen them last year, even if I had been more diligent in my explorations), so it was great to get a renewed sense of the space of the former royal capital city of Shuri.

As always, except where indicated otherwise, all photos are my own.

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