Okinawa 50 years since return / The long road toward postwar restoration of Shuri Castle

The Yomiuri Shimbun
The Shureimon gate in the center is sandwiched between the University of the Ryukyus campus, left, and the grounds of Josei Elementary School in this photo taken on April 28, 1972.

In this series, we mark the 50th anniversary of Okinawa’s return to Japan by looking at its past and present through photographs.

Shuri Castle in Naha, often described by locals as the “heart and soul” of Okinawa, was almost completely destroyed by fire during the Battle of Okinawa. Under U.S. rule after World War II, only the Shureimon gate, marking the entrance to the castle grounds, was restored.

In the aerial photo that appeared in the Sunday edition of The Yomiuri Shimbun on May 14, 1972, the day before Okinawa was returned to Japan, the gate in the center looks small but has a strong presence.

The large buildings to the left were the campus of the University of the Ryukyus, which was established by the United States on the site of the castle.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
The area around Shureimon gate as seen on Dec. 9. Structures for Shurijo Castle Park are seen on the former site of the University of the Ryukyus campus on the left, while a renovated Josei Elementary School sits on the right.

Immediately after Okinawa’s return to Japanese sovereignty, a movement began among citizens calling for the rebuilding of the Shuri Castle structures. But because that meant having to relocate the university, it took time to get the project off the ground.

The Japanese government started the rebuilding work in 1989, and two decades after Okinawa was returned to Japan, Shuri Castle was restored to its former splendor in 1992.

“When I first saw the main hall, I was overwhelmed by its beautiful vermilion color and majestic appearance,” said Mieko Gibu, a 78-year-old former teacher living nearby.

Gibu attended the university, and recalled seeing the Shureimon gate on her way to classes. She still treasures a group photo taken in front of the gate at graduation.

The main hall was tragically lost again in a fire in October 2019. The central government plans to begin reconstruction in the next fiscal year, with the aim of completing the work by 2026.