1877 photo reveals truth about Shuri Castle during Ryukyu Kingdom

Courtesy of Herve Bernard / Okinawa Prefectural Archives
A detail of the photo of Shuri Castle taken in 1877 shows a pair of dragon pillars facing forward.

NAHA — Details about the main hall of Shuri Castle in Naha during the time of the Ryukyu Kingdom (1429-1879) have been confirmed for the first time, thanks to a photo taken in 1877.

Shuri Castle, the royal palace and political and administrative center of the Ryukyu Kingdom, was completely destroyed by fire during the Battle of Okinawa in 1945. The main hall was reconstructed in 1992, and again destroyed by a massive fire on Oct. 31, 2019.

The project to reconstruct the Seiden main hall is underway — with new questions raised over the direction the Great Dragon Pillars faced in front of the hall.

Although the dragon pillars sitting beside the grand staircase of the building faced each other before the 2019 fire, the 1877 photo shows that they faced forward.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
The dragon pillars that survived the massive 2019 fire are seen facing each other in this photo taken in February 2020.

This finding could affect the government’s plan, which intends to restore Shuri Castle by 2026 with the pillars facing each other.

Ryukyu history specialist Prof. Atsushi Shiitada of Kanagawa University said at an academic conference last year that the photo was taken by a crew member of a French naval cruiser that stopped at Naha in 1877, and a descendant of its commandant owned the original photographic plate.

The main hall, where the king of Ryukyu conducted government affairs, was lost in the Battle of Okinawa. The Great Dragon Pillars are a pair of 3.1-meter-high stone pillars in the shape of dragons, which symbolized the king.

Separate photos taken late in the 19th century and early in the 20th that also show the dragon pillars facing forward are known. In the previous restoration that was completed in 1992, however, the pillars were restored with the dragons facing each other, on the grounds that they were depicted as such in several drawings from the Ryukyu Kingdom.

It was believed that the reason the dragons face forward in some old photos was because the Japanese military stationed at Shuri Castle changed their direction after the Ryukyu Kingdom was annexed by Japan in 1879 and became Okinawa Prefecture.

Given that the newly confirmed photo was taken two years before the annexation, it is clear that these pillars were facing forward during the Ryukyu Kingdom.

“The argument that the pillars were changed to face forward after the establishment of Okinawa Prefecture has lost its ground,” Shiitada said. “It is likely they were depicted facing each other in drawings in order to show the shape of the dragons more clearly.”

Following the findings from the 1877 photo, the government’s technological examination committee is reconsidering the initial plan. The committee is studying experts’ opinions and reevaluating the worth of drawings used as a basis for the restoration. It will decide on a policy by the end of next March.