Tragedy Bias

When Notre-Dame Cathedral burned, it seemed like the whole world cried. And rightly so. That beautiful, historic building held a special place in our hearts. Especially if you’ve had the opportunity to visit it in Paris, as I have.

Another beautiful, historic complex of buildings burned to the ground on October 31st (still October 30th here in the US). It was first built in 1429, and has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And yet this tragedy barely caused a blip on anyone’s radar. I wouldn’t have even heard about it if a friend hadn’t told me. (Thanks, Mor!)

I’m talking about Shuri Castle in Okinawa. Shurijo was the palace of the Ryukyu Kingdom between 1429 and 1879. It was almost completely destroyed during the Battle of Okinawa in 1945, but it was lovingly restored in 1992. Now 5 major buildings, comprising about 4,200 square meters, have been gutted by this blaze, which took 11 hours to put out.

Here is Wikipedia’s descriptions of the buildings that are now in ruins:

  • Bandokoro – located south of the Una, and paired with the Nanden, originally the main reception area, currently housing a museum. The two were built between 1621 and 1627.

  • Hokuden – the “North Hall”, located north of the Una, originally an judicial and administrative center where Sapposhi (Chinese envoys) were also received, currently housing a museum and gift-shop. Originally called the Nishi-no-udun or Giseiden, it was built around 1506–1521.

  • Nanden – the “South Hall”, formerly an entertainment area for Satsuma envoys, currently an exhibition space.

  • Seiden – the “Main Hall”, also called the State Palace, was situated to the east of the Una, but facing west towards China, and contains the throne room and royal living and ceremonial areas. The western facade includes two 4.1 meter high Dai-Ryu Chu (Great Dragon Pillars), crafted of sandstone from Yonaguni Island, and symbols of the king. The left dragon is called Ungyou, and the right is Agyou, and these motifs are replicated throughout the building including the roof. Other decorative elements include botan (peony flowers), shishi (golden dragons), and zuiun (clouds). The Shichagui (first floor) was where the king personally conducted affairs of state and ceremonies. The Usasuka was the lower area in front of where the king sat, with the Hira-usasuka (side-areas) flanking either side. The second floor included the Ufugui, the area for the queen and her attendants, and the Usasuku, the upper main throne room of the king. Behind it are the Osenmikocha, chambers where the king would pray daily. According to historical records, the Seiden was burned down and rebuilt four times (most recently in 1992), and was also used as the prayer hall for a Shinto shrine between 1923-1945.

This is heartbreaking. But I’m also struggling with a little bit of frustration, because it barely caused a ripple in the news cycle. Why is that?

Well, if you’re like me, you’ve probably never heard of the place. Obviously that doesn’t help. Okinawa is rather out of the way for your average tourist. And we Americans have an annoying tendency to overlook things that do not pertain to white culture.

We shortchange ourselves by having such a Eurocentric worldview. There are so many amazing places that, as UNESCO correctly points out, are part of our world heritage. When we lose one of these places, we are all the worse for it.

It’s as though non-white tragedies are somehow less significant than white ones are. I’ve written about this before. When the factory collapsed in Dhaka, Bangladesh, killing 1,000 underpaid workers instantly, the story disappeared in days. If 1,000 Americans or Northern Europeans died like that, we’d be discussing it for months.

There’s something very wrong when so much history and beauty can collapse into a pile of ash, and so many people can be crushed in a factory, and no one even blinks. We can’t even be bothered to look up from our smart phones and have a moment of silence. Am I the only one who thinks this is the greatest tragedy of all?

Shuri Castle Burning

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