Nakijin gusuku

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A view of the walls of the Shigema enclosure, seen from within the main enclosure
A model of the castle's walls, showing the overall layout
The Heirôjô, used today as the main gate to the castle
Shrine to the Hearth Deity (Hinukan)
  • Type: Okinawan Gusuku
  • Founder: Haniji
  • Year: c. 1315-1320s
  • Destroyed: after 1665
  • Status: Ruins
  • Japanese: 今帰仁城, 今帰仁グスク (Nakijin-jou / Nakijin gusuku)
  • Okinawan: 今帰仁城 (Nachijin gusuku / Nachijin gushiku)

Nakijin gusuku is traditionally said to have been the residence and administrative center of the Okinawan kingdom of Hokuzan, which controlled the northern part of Okinawa Island in the Sanzan Period of the 14th-15th centuries. While recent scholarship has challenged the notion of distinct territorial states in this period, Nakijin was certainly the seat of the most powerful local lord within northern Okinawa, and from the 16th century onward remained a significant site for the Ryûkyû Kingdom. The fortress covers roughly 38,000 square meters - roughly the same land area as Shuri castle and double that of Nakagusuku gusuku - and is often cited as the largest of Okinawa's gusuku.[1]

Though there had been Lords of Nakijin prior to the early 14th century, and thus some form of chiefly residence can be presumed to have been on or near the site before, it is believed that the gusuku form of Nakijin castle only emerged sometime in the 14th century; some sources give the year 1383 as the year that Haniji, generally cited as the first king of Hokuzan, became lord of Nakijin gusuku.[1] The fortress is located atop a rocky outcropping on the northern coast of the Motobu peninsula, facing out over the South China Sea.

The castle is separated from the main mountain mass of Motobu on the east by a steep drop into a gorge with a stream at the bottom. Another steep drop to the north and northeast from the castle drops down to the shoreline. A small harbor inlet here once served the castle, while Unten harbor, the main port in northern Okinawa, lay roughly 5-6 miles to the east[2].

The compound is divided into nine enclosures, which move up the hill from west to east. The widest enclosure, the ûshimi (J: ôsumi) enclosure, contains the Heirôjô main gate of the castle, as well as areas for martial arts practice, training of horses, and a quarry. Though geographically located at what would seem to be the rear of the castle, the Heirôjô is described in the 1713 Ryûkyû-koku yuraiki and elsewhere as the castle's main gate. Though it fell into disrepair by c. 1900, the gate was reconstructed in 1962 and serves as the main gate into the complex for visitors today.[3] Some accounts suggest that a secret passage once existed allowing besieged defenders or residents to escape to the ûshimi from inside the castle, but excavations have yet to be conducted in this area of the grounds.[3]

The kaazafu enclosure lies to the right, and stone steps lined with cherry trees lead higher and deeper into the compound. The uumyaa enclosure contained the three chief palatial buildings in the complex: Hokuden and Nanden (North and South Halls), and Seiden (Main Hall), and served a similar function to the unaa at Shuri castle, as the central plaza in which court rituals and political events took place.[3] The next enclosure, moving further up the incline and closer towards the areas of central importance, is the uuchibaru, which housed the women of the Nakijin court, and contained a sacred stone that represented the guardian deity of Nakijin. This sacred space was known as the Tenchiji-Amachiji, or the "upper utaki within the castle" (城内上の御嶽), and was off-limits to men; along with a site to the northwest of the ûmyaa, identified in the Ryûkyû-koku yuraiki as the soitsugi or the "lower utaki within the castle" (城内下の御嶽), it was known as an ibe (イベ), a particularly sacred type of utaki.[3] The view from the uuchibaru was particularly good, allowing a view out over Kunigami, to the islands of Iheya and Izena, and on a particularly clear day, even as far as Yoronjima.[3]

The topmost enclosure contains an additional shrine to the hearth deity, or hinukan.[1] The royal residence was located here, at the highest and innermost part of the complex, and was surrounded by a small garden with a spring. Three shrines (uganju) stood at the highest point of the precipice.[2] A path leads from here to a rear gate of the castle, called the Shijima-jô or Shigema-jô. Excavations in this area uncovered numerous Chinese celadons, Vietnamese and Thai ceramics, and Chinese coins, indications of Nakijin's maritime power and activity.[1]

In a less inner enclosure, located at a somewhat lower elevation, were four wooden structures, including both administrative buildings and residences for certain of the castle's closest vassals[2]. As was typical of gusuku construction at this time, the stonework of the walls was very solid, but quite rough, with a relative lack of precision fitting or fine cutting[2]. Roughly 1500 meters of limestone castle wall remain today[4]; stones are piled three to eight meters high, and two to three meters thick. A deep valley cut by the Shijima River which runs behind the castle makes it almost entirely unapproachable from that side.[1]

The castle saw three generations of rulers before being attacked and seized by the armies of Chûzan in 1416. So-called "wardens of the North" (Hokuzan kanshu) appointed by the royal government beginning in 1422 would continue to make their residence there for several centuries afterwards. Though these Hokuzan kanshu are generally regarded as serving a political and military strategic purpose in holding the north for the kingdom, Gregory Smits suggests that even more so than those considerations, their primary purpose was in facilitating the maintenance of particular spiritual rites at the castle's Kanahyan utaki by the Aoriyae priestesses, whose rites at Nakijin mirrored and complemented those performed at Sonohyan utaki at Shuri.[5]

Nakijin castle was burned down by invading armies from Satsuma han in 1609,[6] and though rebuilt to some extent, and briefly restored to use by the Hokuzan kanshu, the post was abolished in 1665 and the castle left to ruin.[1] The village immediately outside the walls of the castle similarly fell into decline and was ultimately abandoned; left as it was at that time, this area has today become a valuable archaeological site for understanding medieval and early modern Ryukyuan village life.[7]

As a tourist site, the ruins are particularly known for the beautiful view out over the South China Sea, for the impressive grandeur of the castle walls, and for the overall amount of space taken up by the castle grounds[8]. Hokuzan in general was characterized by wider spaces, or at least less dense settlement and population, than Nanzan and Chûzan, the other kingdoms on the island at that time. Nakijin is also consistently among the first places in the country to see, and celebrate, the sakura blooming each year[8].


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 Kitahara Shûichi. A Journey to the Ryukyu Gusuku 琉球城紀行。 Naha: Miura Creative, 2003. p47.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Kerr, George H. Okinawa: the History of an Island People. Revised Ed. Tokyo: Tuttle Publishing, 2000. pp. 61-62.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 Plaques on-site.[1][2][3][4][5]
  4. "Nakijin-jô-seki." Okinawa Konpakuto Jiten (沖縄コンパクト事典, "Okinawa Compact Encyclopedia"). Ryukyu Shimpo. 1 March 2003. Accessed 29 September 2009.
  5. Gregory Smits, Maritime Ryukyu, University of Hawaii Press (2019), 96-97.
  6. Pamphlets available on-site.
  7. Uezato Takashi, Dare mo mita koto no nai Ryukyu, Naha: Borderink (2008), 12.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Kadekawa, Manabu. "Nakijin-jô-seki." Okinawa Chanpurû Jiten (沖縄チャンプルー事典, "Okinawa Champloo Encyclopedia"). Tokyo: Yamatokei Publishers, 2003. p55.