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Ruins Become Japan's Eleventh World Heritage Site

February 1, 2001
Shuri Castle represents Okinawa's centuries-old culture, which is distinct from that of Japan proper. (PANA)

Okinawa Prefecture, located at the southern tip of Japan, comprises some 170 islands large and small, scattered over a wide area of ocean. In July 2000, the Group of Eight summit of world leaders was held in Okinawa, which is about two and a half hours from Tokyo by air.

Though it is now part of Japan, several hundred years ago Okinawa was a separate country known as the Ryukyu Kingdom, and many gusuku (castles) and other ruins remain on the islands as legacies of this era. On November 30, 2000, the World Heritage Committee of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) added Shuri Castle and other Okinawan ruins to its World Heritage List of cultural treasures. The Okinawan ruins are the eleventh cultural treasure in Japan to be added to the list. The previous Japanese addition to the list were several shrines and a temple in Nikko, Tochigi Prefecture, which were listed in December 1999.

The Uniqueness of Okinawa
From 1429 to 1879, Okinawa was under the direct control of the Ryukyu Kingdom, which maintained diplomatic and trade contacts with China, Korea, and Southeast Asia and paid tribute to Chinese emperors on a regular basis. Some scholars therefore assert that Okinawa belonged to both Japan and China.

Thanks to cultural influences not only from China but also from the Korean Peninsula and Southeast Asia, Okinawa has a culture all of its own, distinct from that of other parts of Japan. And Okinawan hospitality is in a class by itself too; it warmed the hearts not only of the journalists sent to cover the G8 summit meeting, but also of the leaders of the participating nations.

Legacies of the Ryukyu Kingdom
UNESCO added the Okinawan castle ruins to its World Heritage list because they constitute the heritage of an independent country that developed its own unique culture while also maintaining contact with Japan, China, and Southeast Asia. A total of nine Okinawan ruin sites have been added to the list, including five castles: Nakijin Castle (located in the village of Nakijin); Zakimi Castle (located in the village of Yomitan); Katsuren Castle (located in the town of Katsuren); Nakagusuku castle (located in the village of Kitanakagusuku); and Shuri Castle. The four other sites are Sonohyan Utaki Ishi-mon, the stone gate of Shuri Castle; Tama Uden, the kings' family tomb; and Shikina-en, the imperial villa garden (all located in the city of Naha); and Seifa Utaki (located in the village of Chinen).

All of these structures were created between the latter half of the fourteenth century, when the Ryukyus established a unified kingdom, and the end of the eighteenth century. Shuri Castle, where a dinner party for the G8 summit leaders was held, once functioned as the residence of the Ryukyu kings. Gusuku served as a defensive stronghold and a base for powerful families, or aji, during the process of the kingdom's political unification, and as a spiritual bedrock where the community established solidarity through such practices as ancestor worship. The castle gate, where state religious rituals were held, expresses the unique, nature-based religious faith of the Ryukyu culture.

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Trends in JapanCopyright (c) 2001 Japan Information Network. Edited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.