Tale of Two Castles

Posted by on Dec 2, 2011 in Okinawa, Travel Volunteer Journey | 2 Comments
Tale of Two Castles

According to our copy of the Lonely Planet, there’s a school of thought that believes that America deliberately left Pearl Harbour, Hawaii, open to attack in order to draw the country into the Second World War. Obviously as uneducated travel volunteers we’ve no idea if that’s true, but it’s an interesting perspective – and one that seems sadly ironic here on Okinawa. As these islands are to Japan, so Hawaii is to America: beautiful but remote tropical destinations that only have so much in common with their mother nations. If the sacrificial pawn story is true about Hawaii, then that means it has yet more in common with Okinawa: this place was strategically given-up to the advancing Allied forces as the Second World War reached its grizzly conclusion.

After bombardment, then invasion, America kept two hands firmly on Okinawa during the rebuilding of Japan, a grip that was only loosened in 1972. It didn’t let go altogether – the US has maintained a huge presence on the islands (managing 18% of the land on the main island) ever since, though these days it seems primarily in order to occasionally shake it’s military fist at North Korea, and to provide a de facto military support for the Japanese, who were banned from having any substantial force of their own after the war.

It’s something of a strained relationship, but it’s not the first time Okinawa has been in this position. Actually America are the third power to have taken a slice of this former island-country.

Okinawa was only annexed to Japan in 1879, up until which it had been its own nation altogether: the Kingdom of Ryukyu. For 450 years, it had been a largely autonomous entity, but when the Mejii Restoration era Japanese came calling, the King handed over the keys and ended the whole thing diplomatically. He may have keen a proud Ryukyun, but he was not stupid – besides the money and title in Tokyo probably softened the blow.

Before that, though, Ryukyu had been a major trading hub, with China being its principal client. That shouldn’t be a surprise – the 160 island of Okinawa are closer to Taipei than Tokyo. It was to the Chinese emperors that the Kings of Ryukyu paid most of their tributes, and Chinese representatives that were invited to come and enjoy the tropical island life. A Chinese official sat-in on the Ryukyu coronations; in fact those ceremonies were conducted exclusively in Chinese.

The new kings were annointed the enormous Shurijo Castle complex, which straddles a hill looking over Naha, the prefectural capital. It was pummelled into oblivion during the Allied invasion: the doomed Japanese military HQ was buried under the castle and bore the brunt of the air attacks.

The reconstruction we visited today could hardly be more popular – it may well be the single busiest tourist attraction we’ve visited in Japan so far. An estimated six million tourists come to soak up the Okinawan sun every year, and a third of them head to Shurijo to learn more about the history of Ryukyu. Not to mention to drink in the views across Naha and over the turquoise water to the Kerama Islands.

For us, though, it was actually a little too crowded, and we were glad to get out and head to an altogether more peaceful gusuku (Okinawan castle) in the village of Kitanakagusuku, a short drive away.

The bold Nakagusuku currently lies in ruins, with only the strongest parts of its 15th century structure in tact. But we kind of like it that way – especially as, unlike virtually everywhere else in Japan, the castles of Okinawa are made of stone. They feel altogether more substantial and durable; and with plants creeping in an around them and butterflies shambling through the sky, somehow more magical. The views here were even more dramatic, with a vast panorama that takes in both sides of the Okinawa’s southern peninsula, encompassing the Pacific Ocean on one coast and the South East China Sea on the other.

As Katy looked up to take a picture of some pampas grass growing out of the ruins, we noticed a pair of Chinook helicopters making their way back to one of the American bases. “Okinawa is open to everyone” they say – it’s just unfortunate that it’s never really had much choice in that regard.










  1. Katalin
    December 3, 2011

    Great articles and pictures you two! Good work :)

  2. ted
    December 19, 2011

    I visited Nakagusuku with an Okinawan friend who is a bit of a shamaness. She told me that any planned construction near the ruins is doomed to fail. On the next hill there is a parallel set of ruins of a failed hotel that whose company went bankrupt before the building was completed.

    Perhaps Okinawa isn’t open to everyone after all…