- Type: Gusuku
- Founder: Satto?
- Year: 1350?
- Destroyed: 1945
- Reconstructed: 1992
- Location: Shuri, Okinawa
- Japanese/Okinawan:首里城(Shuri-jou / Sui gusuku)
Shuri castle was the chief royal palace of the Kingdom of Ryûkyû, serving as the chief royal residence, political center of the kingdom, site of numerous rituals and ceremonies, and repository of numerous national heirlooms, official records and other artifacts.
Rebuilt beginning in 1992, following its destruction in the 1945 Battle of Okinawa, the castle grounds are now the nationally-funded "Shuri Castle Park". Along with a number of other gusuku and related sites across the island, Shuri Castle was designated a World Heritage Site in 2000.
It is not clear when the castle was built. Most sources place its construction during the reign of Satto, king of Chûzan (r. c. 1355-1395), some as early as 1237, but all agree that it was definitely built by 1427, during the reign of Shô Hashi (r. 1422-1439), first king of the united Kingdom of Ryûkyû.
Succession disputes which broke out following the death of King Shô Kinpuku in 1453 led to the destruction of the palace buildings at that time, and the loss of many artifacts including silver seals granted the kings of Ryûkyû by the Hongwu Emperor as signs of authority. The castle was rebuilt shortly afterward.
The reigns of Shô Shin (r. 1477-1526) and Shô Sei (r. 1527-1555) saw considerable renovation and expansion of the castle, including the construction or expansion of the outer ring of stone walls, addition of the stone dragon pillars (1508) at the entrance to the Seiden, and the construction of a number of temples and secondary buildings outside the castle complex proper, including the royal mausoleum of Tamaudun, completed in 1501. The castle would remain through the centuries largely in the form it took at this time.
It was famously sieged in 1609, when the kingdom fell to forces of the Shimazu clan of Satsuma han. Ryukyuan defenses fell quickly to the samurai invaders, who entered the castle on 1609/4/3; King Shô Nei surrendered two days later. The castle was looted: many artifacts and documents were stolen or destroyed, and the king was taken hostage along with the queen, crown prince, and a great many government advisors and officials. Shô Nei was allowed to return to Shuri, however, in 1611, and to resume governance of the kingdom, under the watchful eye and strict guidelines of Satsuma; Shuri castle remained the center of governance until the abolition of the kingdom in 1879.
Commodore Perry entered the castle on two occasions in 1853 and 1854, despite having been explicitly told that he would be "neither expected nor welcome". The gates were opened for him out of fear that he might bring force to bear upon them were he denied entry. The Ryukyuans were successful, however, in denying him an audience with the king or dowager queen, holding to their insistence that the regent would be the highest ranking official Perry would be permitted to meet. Both marches on the castle served essentially as shows of force or authority for Perry, who wished to prove to himself (and to the Ryukyuans) that he was of sufficient power and authority to make demands such as these and to have them met.
Shuri castle was destroyed by fire at least five times in its history, most recently by Allied bombing in World War II; reconstruction began in 1992.
Records from the time indicate that when the castle was rebuilt in 1672, following a 1660 fire, the roofs were tiled where they had been previously covered in wooden shingles, as a precautionary measure towards better fire-proofing. Archaeological excavations, however, have found both Korean and Japanese roof tiles dating to before this fire, indicating that at least some sections of the castle bore tiled roofs much earlier. The castle burned again and was rebuilt in 1690, 1709, and 1730. Considerable repair work was done in 1837, but the castle would not suffer destruction again until 1945.
The kingdom was abolished and replaced with Ryûkyû han in 1872; the abolition of Ryûkyû han in turn and establishment of Okinawa prefecture in 1879 was the final nail in the coffin for the Ryûkyû Kingdom. The castle was occupied by Imperial Japanese forces, specifically the Kumamoto Garrison, immediately upon being vacated by the former king and his court.
The Kumamoto Garrison was removed from Shuri castle in 1896, and three years later, Shuri Ward petitioned the national government to convert the castle grounds into leisure space, citing the then-popular Victorian idea of the association of public leisure space with social progress. The petition argued that Okinawa Prefecture had failed to provide public leisure space in accordance with policies being implemented throughout mainland Japan, and that it would be most regrettable if the castle were to sink into further disrepair and delapidation due to abandonment. Shuri Ward requested ownership/administration of the castle grounds, but was refused. The following year, the Home Ministry agreed to sell the castle buildings to the Ward, but only leased the land for a thirty-year period, retaining control/ownership. Shuri Ward was finally permitted to buy the land outright in 1909.
Around 1925, the castle was converted into "Okinawa Shrine", a Shinto shrine within the national networks of State Shinto. This was done so that the castle could be designated a National Treasure, which it was that same year, in order for considerable national funds to be diverted to funding restoration and preservation efforts. This transformation of the castle into a shrine was necessary because at the time, up until 1932, Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples were the only sites which could be declared National Treasures.
Some repairs were made to Shuri castle in 1930, but the castle - which hid a major military command post below it by this time - was destroyed in 1945. The University of the Ryukyus had its main campus on the castle site for many years after the war, until, after decades of popular movements and pushes to see the castle rebuilt, the university moved and reconstruction finally began on the castle in 1992, on the 20th anniversary of the reversion of Okinawa to Japanese sovereignty following the US Occupation.
The castle is situated on a hill, 130m above sea level at its highest point, the main palace hall (Seiden) facing the west. The grounds cover roughly 46,000 square meters, extending roughly 400 meters from east to west, and 270 meters from north to south. The compound includes four gates in the outer wall, and eight gates in the inner complex.
A gate in the eastern side of the outer walls known as the Keiseimon (継世門) serves essentially as the rear gate to the compound, situated as it is on the opposite end of the compound from the main gates to the castle, the Shureimon and Kankaimon. A pair of stelae which stand at the Keiseimon are said to have been erected in 1544, and were intended to serve as spiritual or symbolic protection against wakô. Two other outer gates, called the Uekimon (右掖門) and Shukujunmon (淑順門), situated to the north side of the complex, provided access to an inner garden, called the ouchibara (御内原) in Okinawan. Today, tourists following the designated route pass through the Uekimon on their way out of the castle at the end of their visit.
Just beyond the castle walls could be found the Buddhist temple Engaku-ji and the Ryûtan and Enkan ponds which were constructed for the leisure and recreation of visiting Chinese investiture envoys. One of the highest points in the compound, the "West Azana" or shimasoe azana, is also situated outside of the castle walls. Here, banners would be flown and a bell rung to announce the time. The azana rises roughly 130m above sea level, offering extensive views of Naha city and harbor, and of the castle. There is also an Eastern Azana, on the opposite end of the compound.
The walls themselves were tall and thick, composed of stones fit together to form a smooth, steep surface difficult to climb. Flat, narrow walkways topped the walls, but they lacked merlons (aka battlements or crenelations) or loopholes which would have protected defenders atop the walls while allowing them to fire down upon invaders.
The symbolic entrance to the castle proper was the Shureimon, originally constructed around 1555, which remains today one of the most famous symbols of Okinawa, and specifically of the kingdom and the castle. Architecturally patterned after a Chinese paifang gate, the Shureimon takes its name from the plaque installed upon it which declares Ryûkyû to be shurei no kuni (守禮之邦), often translated as "(a) Nation of Propriety." This plaque was originally only displayed when Chinese investiture envoys were visiting the kingdom, but during the reign of King Shô Shitsu (r. 1648-1668), the plaque came to be hung at the gate permanently. Historian Mark McNally has suggested that the plaque was especially seen as a reminder that the kingdom should strive to aspire to being a "kingdom of propriety."
Just within the gate can be found the stone gate to Sonohyan utaki, a sacred space of the native Ryukyuan religion, where the king and others would often pray. The gate was constructed in 1519, upon the orders of King Shô Shin, by a stonemason from Taketomi Island named Nishitô.
Beyond the symbolic Shureimon, the main gate granting entry through the outer walls of the compound is the Kankaimon, flanked by two stone shisa (lion dogs). Like most of the gates in the walls of Shuri Castle, the Kankaimon consists of a gap in the stone wall, with a wooden structure atop it, with a flared tiled roof. "Kankaimon" can be translated as "Gate of Welcome," a name given to it to better convey a spirit of welcome for visiting envoys of the Chinese Emperor. It was built originally sometime around 1477-1500.
A short distance down the wall from the Kankaimon is the Kyûkeimon, the women's gate, which is elevated somewhat, and reached by a short staircase. Constructed during the reign of Shô Shin, the Kyûkeimon was also used when the king paid official visits to temples and shrines, or to sites in Urasoe or further north. Rainwater falling on and around the castle naturally gathered here, at a pair of springs which thus served to supply fresh water to the castle.
An additional external gate, the Bifukumon (美福門), used to face the southeast. There are no known extant photographs of the gate, only a painting by oil painter Yamamoto Hôsui which is believed to depict the gate; Hôsui visited Okinawa in 1887, and the gate is believed to have been lost soon afterwards. Excavations on this, and other sections of the site continue, and the gate may be rebuilt someday, along with other parts of the castle compound.
Upon entering the Kankaimon or Kyûkeimon (both built c. 1477-1526), a visitor, official, or royal would next ascend a set of stairs flanked by seven stone tablets of investiture, representing prior kings and the authority of the Throne. Even the king himself would dismount here from his palanquin and bow before proceeding further into the complex.
These stairs lead to the Zuisenmon, a red-painted wooden structure perched atop a gap in the stone wall. Zuisen means, essentially, "spring of beauty/purity/youth and good fortune." This gate was originally built in 1470.
The path into the castle is never straight, the gates often situated at right angles to one another, in theory slowing an invading army and leaving attackers quite open to fire from defenders, stationed in the wooden gate structures and armed with Chinese-style firearms or bows & arrows. Stephen Turnbull notes, however, that the gates, and castle walls in general, lacked loopholes or other defensive features for defenders to hide behind. All in all, when the castle was invaded by Satsuma samurai in 1609, it fell quite quickly.
The next gate after the Zuisenmon is the Rôkokumon, or "Water Clock Gate", the final stone gate, which leads to a small plaza where a replica of the famous Bridge of Nations Bell is today kept inside a small structure called the Tomoya. The Rôkokumon, constructed in the 15th century, was as far as aristocrats came in their palanquins; in respect to the king, they would alight here. A tank of water was held in the wooden structure atop the gate; as water leaked out, guards charged with watching the water level determined the time and communicated it by beating a taiko drum; guards in the nearby Uekimon would then transmit the message further by ringing a bronze bell. A sundial was installed nearby in 1739, and gradually came to replace the water clock.
The Kôfukumon, a large, vermillion wooden structure leads finally into the shicha-nu-unâ (下之御庭), an area equivalent to what would be called the second bailey in English or ni-no-maru in a Japanese castle. The offices of the jishaza (寺社座), which oversaw Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples, and the ôkumiza (大与座) which mediated disputes between aristocrats, were housed here.
The shicha-nu-unâ contains the "Shuri forest utaki", or Suimui utaki, a sacred grove surrounded by its own low stone walls, which features in myths about the origins of the kingdom, and appears numerous times in the Omoro Sôshi, a collection of Okinawan myths in the form of songs or poems. Another important sacred site related to the origins of the castle and the kingdom, the kyô-no-uchi (京之内), is located along the southern wall of the shicha-nu-unâ. Here, the high priestess (kikoe-ôgimi) performed rituals to pray for the prosperity of the kingdom, safety for important sea voyages, good harvests and the like on behalf of the king and kingdom.
The keizuza (系図座) and yômotsuza (用物座) were also located in the shicha-nu-una. These two offices handled, respectively, aristocrats' official geneologies, and supplies for the castle.
Another large, vermillion wooden gate, the Hôshinmon, leads into the central bailey, or unâ (J: honmaru). Completed some time before 1562, the gate was overhauled in 1754 to better follow Chinese models. The structure was used as storage for documents and materials related to musical entertainments, tobacco, tea and the like, and for rituals and ceremonies; today, it serves as the central administrative office of the heritage site & public park. Of the three gateways in the Hôshinmon structure, use of the central one was restricted to the king, Chinese imperial envoys, and others of similar rank.
The Unâ (御庭) is a square, open plaza, bounded by the Hôshinmon on one side, the Seiden, the chief royal residence, facing it, and the Hokuden and Nanden on the remaining two sides. The plaza itself was the site of many important rituals and ceremonies, including New Year's ceremonies, and the formal investiture of each king, for which a symbolic model of the Chinese Imperial Court throne room would be constructed on the plaza. Red and white tiles form ranks filling the plaza and marking where officials and aristocrats of various ranks would stand for these ceremonies; an aisle in the tile patterns leading directly across the plaza from the Hôshinmon to the Seiden was called the ukimichi (浮道, lit. "floating path") in Japanese, and was used only by the king, representatives of the Chinese Emperor, and others of similar rank. Overall, the plaza, and buildings within it, were conceived as a miniature of the Forbidden City (the Imperial Palace) in Beijing.
The two-story Nanden (南殿), or "South Hall," on one size of the plaza, is known as the Hae-no-udun (南風御殿) in Okinawan. It and the one-story Bandokoro (番所) attached to it are Japanese-style structures which housed Satsuma officials and Japanese-style ceremonies. Records indicate it was first built in the 1620s, though archaeological excavations have discovered earlier foundations. There do not appear to be any records of it ever having been painted and so, in accordance with one school of Japanese traditional architectural customs, it remains composed primarily of bare wood. The two buildings today include exhibition spaces, where artifacts related to the castle and the royal family are put on display.
The Hokuden (北殿), or "North Hall," also known as the giseiden (議政殿), faces the Nanden across the plaza, and is known as the Nishi-no-udun (北之御殿) in Okinawan. Built around 1506-1521, it is a structure more Chinese in style, which housed visiting Chinese officials and Chinese-style ceremonies and, as the site of the chief administrative offices of the royal government, was on an average day the busiest and most active building in the compound. Commodore Perry was also entertained and banqueted here on two occasions when he forced his way into the castle. Like the Nanden, the Hokuden today contains exhibition space devoted to material related to the castle, the royal family, and the kingdom's relationship with China.
A pair of buildings to the south of the Nanden, on the opposite side of that hall from the central plaza, served as administrative buildings and spaces for meeting with and entertaining Chinese investiture envoys and officials from Satsuma. The shoin or "study", and kusari-no-ma, as they would have been called in Japanese, were also used by the royal princes as secondary studies, and for other everyday purposes. The shoin appears in the 1713 Ryûkyû-koku yuraiki, but it is unclear how much earlier before that it might have been built. Connected to the Nanden by internal corridors, it contained the sasu-no-ma, the office of the royal scribe or clerk (yûhitsu), who was responsible for producing formal court documents, including those sent to the Emperor of China or the Japanese shogun. The shoin, which has today been reconstructed alongside the Nanden and other structures, also served sometimes as a waiting room or reception room for Chinese investiture envoys.
The chief royal residence, or Seiden (正殿), the structure at the heart of Shuri castle, faces and overlooks the unâ. The largest wooden building in the Ryûkyû Kingdom, it is three stories tall, and lavishly painted and otherwise decorated in vermillion and gold, with intricate carvings and other embellishments painted in bold colors. Its construction incorporates Chinese, Japanese, and native Okinawan architectural elements, including among many other features a Japanese karahafu gabled arch over the entrance, and Chinese-style two-tiered roof modeled upon that of the Chinese Imperial Palace.
Two stone dragon pillars flank the central stair of the Seiden; these, like just about everything on the grounds today, are reconstructions, though pieces of the pre-1945 pillars are now housed at the Okinawa Prefectural Museum. While most elements of the castle's design reflects Chinese, Korean, and Japanese influence, these dragon pillars resemble not those found anywhere in East Asia, but rather, a form typically seen in palaces and temples of Cambodia and Thailand, two of the many regions with which Ryûkyû traded heavily in the 14th-16th centuries. Dragons could also be found carved into and painted onto handrails, ceiling beams, and pillars throughout the structure.
Though palaces in China, in accordance with the principles of Chinese geomancy, generally face south, those same principles were applied to Okinawa with the result that it was deemed most appropriate for the Seiden to face, not south, but west. It does so with the mountains at its back, facing the port of Naha, it being believed that dragon lines connect the two points, the palace sitting on a spot which is a source of energy, which then flows down to the harbor.
The first floor, called the shicha-gui (下庫理) in Okinawan, was mainly used for government matters, and for more public rituals and ceremonies in which the king himself participated A series of sliding doors at the center of the front of the building opened directly onto the main audience chamber, or usasuka (御差床), above which (on the second floor) was the throne room. A throne sat here as well, where the king would sit to preside over government business, formal audiences and various rituals. Seats to his sides were reserved for the queen, their children, and royal grandchildren. The vermillion pillars to both sides of the throne were adorned with paintings of gold dragons and multi-colored clouds; hanging scroll paintings of kirin and phoenixes flanked the throne as well.
A narrow staircase behind the throne led directly to the throne room above, allowing the king, queen, and other top-ranking royals and officials to make their appearance traveling directly from the throne room to the audience chamber.
The second floor was called the ufugui (大庫理), and was the site of more private rituals and ceremonies performed only amongst the royalty and court ladies. It contained the throne room, but was largely a women's space. The throne room itself (also called usasuka like the audience chamber below) was decorated lavishly in gold and vermillion, as was the entire Seiden, inside and out. Two dragon pillars, painted gold, flank the throne, a Chinese-style chair elaborately carved and painted gold and vermillion as well. The dais upon which the throne sat resembled that of a Buddha statue, and was adorned with carvings of grape vine and squirrel designs. Some other elements of the decor featured gold inlay in black lacquered wood. Plaques given as gifts to the king by Chinese Emperors, bearing inscriptions of the Emperors' own calligraphy, adorn the throne room, where various more private rituals, as well as royal banquets, were held. Various objects would be brought out for rituals, including incense, candle-stands in the form of dragons, cedars, decorative golden flowers, and paintings of Confucius.
For certain ceremonies, including New Year's celebrations and those occasions when the king formally dispatched a missive to the Chinese Emperor, the throne would be moved forward, and shutters on the front of the castle opened, so that the king would look down from under the karahafu gable upon the courtiers gathered in the unâ.
A room in the southeast corner of the second floor was used for personal private devotions to the Ryukyuan deities, and for certain religious rituals overseen by the kikoe-ôgimi (high priestess).
The third floor was not intended for active use or habitation, but only for architectural purposes including ventilation.
- Inoue, Munekazu. Nihon no Meijô (日本の名城, "Famous Castles of Japan"). Yuzankaku Publishing, 1992.
- Kerr, George. Okinawa: The History of an Island People. Revised Edition. Tokyo: Tuttle Publishing, 2000.
- Kokuei Okinawa Kinen Kôen (lit. "National Okinawa Memorial Park") Official Website. 2004. Accessed 20 January 2010.
- "Shuri-jô." Okinawa konpakuto jiten (沖縄コンパクト事典, "Okinawa Compact Encyclopedia"). Ryukyu Shimpo. 1 March 2003. Accessed 16 January 2010.
- Turnbull, Stephen. The Samurai Capture a King: Okinawa 1609. Oxford: Osprey Press, 2009.
- Technically, it is the ruins and the site below and around the rebuilt castle which are recognized by UNESCO, which does not consider reconstructions for World Heritage Site status.
- Kerr. p50.
- Kerr. p97.
- Kerr. p109.
- Kadekawa, Manabu. Okinawa Chanpurû Jiten (沖縄チャンプルー事典, "Okinawa Champloo Encyclopedia"). Tokyo: Yamakei Publishing, 2001. p54.
- Kerr. p310.
- Kerr. pp307-328.
- Okinawa Compact Encyclopedia.
- Kerr. p221.
- Loo, Tze M. “Shuri Castle’s Other History: Architecture and Empire in Okinawa.” The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus 41 (12 Oct 2009).
- Turnbull. p44.
- Kerr. p114.
- "Shisetsu annai: Keiseimon." Shuri Castle Park Official Website.
- "Shisetsu annai: Uekimon." Shuri Castle Park Official Website.
- "Shisetsu annai: Nishi no Azana." Shuri Castle Park Official Website.
- Mark McNally, presentation at "Interpreting Parades and Processions of Edo Japan" symposium, University of Hawaii at Manoa, 11 Feb 2013.
- "Shisetsu annai: Kankaimon." Shuri Castle Park Official Website.
- "Shisetsu annai: Kyûkeimon." Shuri Castle Park Official Website.
- This and seven others of Hôsui's Okinawa paintings are now held by the Museum of the Imperial Collections (Sannomaru shôzôkan) in Tokyo.
Takashina Erika 高階絵里加. "Yamamoto Hôsui no Okinawa hômon ni kansuru shiron" 山本芳翠の沖縄訪問に関する試論. Bijutsushi 144:2 (Mar 1998). pp141-142.
- Earth Exhibit of Ryukyu Kingdom. Ryûfûan Hawaii. 2010. p12.
- "Shisetsu annai: Rôkokumon." Shuri Castle Park Official Website.
- "Shisetsu annai: hieidai." Shuri Castle Park Official Website.
- "Shisetsu annai: Kôfukumon." Shuri Castle Park Official Website.
- "Shisetsu annai: Kyô no uchi." Shuri Castle Park Official Website.
- "Shisetsu annai: Keizusa / Yômotsuza." Shuri Castle Park Official Website.
- "Shisetsu annai: Hôshinmon." Shuri Castle Park Official Website.
- "Shisetsu annai: Unâ." Shuri Castle Park Official Website.
- "Shisetsu annai: Nanden / Bandokoro." Shuri Castle Park Official Website.
- "Shisetsu annai: Hokuden." Shuri Castle Park Official Website.
- "Shisetsu annai: shoin / kusari no ma." Shuri Castle Park Official Website.
- Gallery labels, Okinawa Prefectural Museum, August 2013.
- "Shisetsu annai: Seiden." Shuri Castle Park Official Website.
- Kitahara Shûichi. A Journey to the Ryukyu Gusuku 琉球城紀行。 Naha: Miura Creative, 2003. p11.