A 600-year-old Japanese castle has been gutted by a fire that tore through the World Heritage-protected site, reducing much of it to charred embers.
The blaze erupted at the 14th-Century Shuri Castle, the seat of the ancient Ryukyu Kingdom, shortly after midnight local time (3pm GMT) and quickly spread through many of the wooden buildings on the site.
BREAKING: Aerial footage shows devastation at the site of Shuri Castle in Japan, a UNESCO World Heritage Site which dates back to the 14th century pic.twitter.com/UdOCeh7pkN
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Tomoko Miyazato, 84, who watched Shuri Castle as it burned said: ‘For us, Shuri Castle is like a god.’
A clip shows glowing hot ember beams as all that remain of the castle’s main hall.
Additional aerial footage shows the entirety of the complex totally ravaged. ‘It’s just a skeleton,’ said onlooker Yabiku Taumi. ‘It’s a shock.’
Firefighters, accompanied by a dozen firetrucks, were still battling the fire as dawn broke on Thursday. It was unclear if anyone had been injured.
They were called to the emergency at 2.47am local time and nearby residents were evacuated to safer areas soon after, Okinawa police spokesman Ryo Kochi said.
‘The cause of the fire has not been determined yet but a security company alarm went off at around 2:30 in the morning,’ said Kochi.
‘It started at the main temple and looks to be spreading fast to all the main structures… Firefighters are still battling the fire,’ he added.
Shuri Castle is divided into five separate buildings with the Seiden, the main and largest structure, at the centre. According to local broadcaster NHK, the blaze began there and has now spread to other buildings on the complex.
Police said that the fire has almost completely gutted the main Seiden building and the north hall, known as the Hokuden.
According to Okinawa police, it was the castle guards who first noticed the fire.
‘I am extremely shocked by the initial reports of the fire at Shuri Castle,’ Naha Mayor Mikiko Shiroma said at an emergency meeting in the regional capital broadcast on national broadcaster NHK.
‘It is a World Heritage site that represents Okinawa. More than anything, I am very worried about the fact that many Naha citizens live in neighbouring areas, and I have received reports that the fire might be threatening or affecting residents of the areas,’ she added.
‘Naha city will make our greatest possible efforts to do everything in our power’ to deal with the fire and its aftermath, the mayor said.
Kochi said a tourist event was being held at the castle from the 27th, and some work linked to the event continued until 1am but it is not clear whether that was linked to the fire.
The upper part of the main hall collapsed just before 5am.
The fire services have also called on nearby residents to take care.
A city district of Naha today, Shuri was the political and administrative hub of the Ryukyu Kingdom for almost 400 years. The current structure is a reconstruction based on original plans and photos of the old castle.
The castle has been destroyed and rebuilt often since it was first built in the 1300s, usually by war, but most notably during the Battle of Okinawa in 1945.
The Japanese army had set up base camp under the hilltop fortress and the allies shelled it for three days before it went up in flames.
It was almost completely destroyed by the bombing and is now a university campus after the University of Ryukyu was established on the site of the ruins in 1950.
The castle was largely restored in 1992 as a national park and was designated as the UNESCO World Heritage site in 2000.
Okinawa was under US occupation until 1972, two decades after the rest of Japan regained full independence.
The castle is separated into five different buildings with the Seiden the most lavishly decorated.
It was used for centuries to welcome foreign guests and to host major state ceremonies.
In 1992, the castle was reconstructed to the way it was originally during Ryukyu dynasty, based on historical records, photograph and memory.
Before the fire, visitors were able to tour the Seiden building and find recreations of royal thrones.
The site sees around 1,700,000 tourists visit annually.