Okinawa: Skills passed on during rebuilding of Shuri Castle

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Workshop participants learn traditional roof tile laying techniques in Yaese, Okinawa Prefecture, on Oct. 29.

NAHA — After burning to the ground in October 2019, Shuri Castle in Naha is set to rise from the ashes as reconstruction work begins. The rebuilt main hall is scheduled to be completed in the fall of 2026.

The fire at the castle, which served as a royal palace during the Ryukyu Kingdom (1429-1879), destroyed seven buildings, including the main hall, north hall and south hall.

The Yomiuri Shimbun

Essential to the reconstruction project will be the ability of present-day workers to reproduce the castle’s red tiled roofs and lacquered red walls, both unique to Okinawan architecture. However, it is not easy to secure professionals skilled at such work. Developing capable craftspeople remains as a long-term issue.

Fewer roofing professionals

The Yomiuri Shimbun

“The key is to make the gap between tiles as small as possible. Finally, plaster it in, and you’ll have a typhoon-proof tile roof,” Tadashi Tabata explained to five young craftspeople during a workshop on laying roof tiles.

In late October, Tabata, 59, conducted the workshop at a construction company in Yaese, a town in the southern part of the prefecture, using a model roof. He is the representative director of an association of businesses that specialize in laying Ryukyuan red roof tiles.

The workshop was started by the Okinawa Churashima Foundation, which manages Shuri Castle, in the aftermath of the 2019 fire with subsidies from the Cultural Affairs Agency. In fiscal 2022, 14 trainees will learn how to make and lay roof tiles and how to apply lacquer to buildings. These are the basic techniques that will be required to reconstruct the buildings of Shuri Castle and to maintain them once work is completed.

Demand for Ryukyuan red roof tiles declined sharply during the U.S. occupation of the prefecture as concrete buildings proliferated. The number of professionals who lay such tiles has decreased to just 16 individuals through retirement and a lack of young workers willing to learn the skills.

The central and prefectural governments, in cooperation with the foundation and the Okinawa Prefectural University of Arts, plan to provide training for young professionals at the construction site of the main hall as a model case for human resource development.

Damaged art, crafts

The fire also damaged artwork and crafts, such as paintings, works of calligraphy and ceramics, which had been preserved as treasures of the Ryukyu royal family.

Courtesy of Okinawa Churashima Foundation
Nanako Doi repairs a Ryukyuan lacquerware piece in October 2020.

According to a report compiled in the spring of last year by a management committee of experts, 391 of the 1,510 treasures were destroyed by the fire. Another 364 items were deemed to be in need of repair, 281 of which are Ryukyuan lacquerware pieces that were seriously damaged by heat and water. The report states that it will take at least 20 years to finish repairing all of the items.

In the whole country there are fewer than 10 specialists capable of repairing lacquerware pieces designated as cultural properties, according to the foundation. In Okinawa Prefecture, Nanako Doi of Ryukyu Urushi Kogeisha is the only one.

Doi drawn to the “gentle curves” of Ryukyuan lacquerware, trained for 15 years in Tokyo, before moving to Okinawa Prefecture. She now conducts repair work on lacquerware, mainly at museums.

“The items [affected by the fire] severely deteriorated overnight, sustaining damage that would normally have occurred gradually over 50 or 100 years,” Doi said.

Doi, 49, started repairing damaged items from Shuri Castle in fiscal 2020. As the work entails meticulous cleaning and adhesive work, as well as repeated careful dryings, she is only able to repair one severely damaged piece per year.

“We are responsible for preserving the treasures of the Ryukyu Kingdom for 100 years to come,” Doi said. “Objects aren’t eternal, but we can hand down techniques from generation to generation.”

Though it takes five to 10 years to acquire the necessary skills, Doi is steadily teaching these techniques to her student.