Volunteers Digitally Revive Japan’s Shuri Castle Following October Fire

The group is seeking one million images in order to create a high-quality reconstruction

Aerial view of the Shuri Castle fire
The October 31 fire destroyed seven buildings and was probably started by an electrical fault. Photo by STR/JIJI PRESS/AFP via Getty Images

In October, a devastating fire at Unesco World Heritage Site Shuri Castle left the residents of the Japanese island of Okinawa shaken. The aftershocks of this destruction affected everyone from academics to government officials and students, some of whom were reportedly unable to return to their studies until they had processed the loss.

Now, Rei Kawakami, a computer vision specialist at the University of Tokyo, is leading a team of volunteers in a campaign to resurrect the castle via a digital 3-D model. So far, the group has modeled the main hall, the crown display and the throne room.

“I've been to Shuri Castle and I knew that for the people of Okinawa it was part of life,” Kawakami tells Reito Kaneko of Kyodo News. “I have children and I imagined how overwhelming it would be if they were the ones who experienced this. I could not bear to do nothing.”

Shuri Castle was once the capital of the Ryukyu Kingdom, which was an independent island nation until its annexation by Japan in 1879. The castle was constructed more than 500 years ago in a unique architectural style that blended classically Japanese and Chinese designs, providing evidence of the extent of the kingdom’s trade with China.

Over its centuries-long lifespan, Shuri Castle has been destroyed and rebuilt multiple times. Prior to the fire, the most recent damage dated to the Battle of Okinawa in 1945. After the skirmish, the heritage site was renovated to feature an Okinawan architectural façade and a modern museum within the castle’s walls.

The October fire, likely caused by an electrical fault, destroyed many of the artifacts in storage or on display at the seven wooden buildings affected by the blaze. While government officials have promised to do everything necessary to restore the castle to its former glory, Kawakami hopes that the digital reconstruction, called Our Shurijo, will keep the site alive in the interim.

“The digital castle could be used to teach high school students in Okinawa, as well as to attract tourists until the castle is rebuilt,” Kawakami explains to Kaneko.

Though cost may become an issue, she says, “I will continue to do this project until we make local people happy.”

Kawakami and her colleagues released the first model of the main hall on Twitter on December 24. In the 3-D visualization, users can view the front steps and entranceway of the castle’s main hall from all angles.

Moving forward, the 20-plus volunteers hope to digitally revive all of the lost structures.

To do so, they need photographs—specifically, one million capturing the castle from all sides. Since Our Shurijo’s launch on November 9, 2,836 people have submitted more than 30,000 images. The group plans on sharing updated submission statistics on Twitter every Monday.

The project is more than just a visual reconstruction of the building. When contributors submit an image, they are asked to describe themselves and detail memories of the castle, as well as messages they’d like to share with virtual visitors. So far, about 40 percent of submissions have come from outside of Japan.

“I've heard that it will take a long time to reconstruct the castle,” Kawakami tells Kaneko. “I hope our project encourages local people and gives them the energy to move forward.”

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