Investigators are inspecting the burned-out ruins of Shuri Castle on Okinawa to determine the cause of a fire that almost completely destroyed the symbol of the Japanese island’s cultural heritage.
The fire burned down the three main halls and four nearby structures at the castle in Okinawa’s prefectural capital Naha. It took firefighters 11 hours to extinguish the blaze.
More than 130 investigators are inspecting the site on Friday.
They believe the blaze started inside the Seiden, the castle’s centrepiece, at around 2.30am on Thursday.
The late hour and the castle’s design, with a spacious wooden main hall connected to other main buildings by hallways, might have allowed the flames to spread quickly.
Shuri Castle is a Unesco World Heritage site, which dates from the 1429-1879 Ryukyu Kingdom era.
The castle, which burned down during the Second World War, was largely restored in 1992 for the 20th anniversary of Okinawa’s reversion to Japan which ended the island’s 27-year US occupation.
Historians and other experts had continued their restoration efforts until recently.
Many Okinawans expressed deep sorrow and devastation over the near-loss of Shuri Castle, which is a symbol of their cultural roots as well as the history of their struggle since the 1879 annexation by Japan.
Okinawa governor Denny Tamaki said his heart was broken, but he expressed his determination to reconstruct the castle.
Mr Tamaki, who cut short a trip to South Korea and returned to Naha on Thursday, was in Tokyo on Friday meeting top officials of the central government to seek their support.
Chief cabinet secretary Yoshihide Suga expressed his sympathy to Okinawans, adding that the government is willing to do everything it can to help the castle’s reconstruction.
Investigators are focusing on the ruins of the Seiden hall. Footage on Japan’s NHK television, taken from a helicopter, showed dozens of uniformed officials wearing white helmets sifting through charred debris, putting pieces into buckets for further examination.
The castle had hydrants, alarms, portable extinguishers and water outside the buildings, but there were no sprinklers installed inside, Naha fire department official Ryo Kotani said.
The fire was detected when a security guard at the gate closest to the main structures rushed to Seiden in response to an alarm, Mr Kotani said.
The blaze had engulfed the hall and spread to nearby structures when firefighters arrived about 20 minutes later.
Treasures displayed at the castle are replicas of originals safely stored elsewhere in the city, fire officials said.