Gunkanjima: The Japanese Island Time Forgot


Battleship Island, JapanPhoto:
Image: Alex Hoban

Hashima Island, about an hour’s sail or 5 km west of Nagasaki, conjures none of the images usually associated with islands. Instead of sporting white beaches and palm trees, Hashima is home to a dense forest of abandoned high-rises, making it look like a large vessel going to war – hence its nickname, “Battleship Island” or “Gunkanjima” in Japanese.

Once the hub of Japan’s deep-sea coal mining activity, the less than one square kilometre island packed from 5,300 to 13,000 people in its heyday, depending on which source one believes, making it one of Japan’s most densely populated places. Mitsubishi Motors owned the mining facility and operated it for almost 90 years from 1887 to 1974. After that, coal mining underwent a worldwide decline and many mines had to close for good, among them Hashima Island.

Hashima Island today: Rubble and decay…
Rubble and decay on battleship islandPhoto:
Image: Alex Hoban

Ever visited a pigeonry? Cramped living conditions in “Gunkanjima”:
Cramped living conditions on Hashima IslandPhoto:
Image: Alex Hoban

The mine workers, with their work gone and no other reason to stay, packed their families and only their most necessary belongings and skipped the claustrophobic town without hesitation. Remains like children’s toys, posters, school supplies and personal items bear witness to the mass exodus even today.

Left behind: Japanese comic books from the ’70s:
Remants of life on Hashima IslandPhoto:
Image: Syouzourasen

Immediately after the last inhabitants left, the Japanese government declared the island out of bounds because they wanted to hide the difficult living and working conditions that the island’s occupants had endured for almost a century. Setting foot on Hashima Island was declared illegal, with punishment for anyone caught 30 days in jail and immediate deportation. The island was soon buried and left to oblivion, literally, the whole place rotting away. Entire façades broke away from the buildings, roofs caved in, and anything metal rusted in the salty sea air, leaving desks, TV sets and typewriters to disintegrate fast.

View on Decrepit Gunkanjima Apartments
View on Decrepit Gunkanjima ApartmentsPhoto: Jordy Theiller

And now, after 35 years, the Japanese government has decided to open Hashima Island to the public again. Why, one wonders, now that everything has pretty much rotted away and the island is more a ghost town than ever – and a very unsafe one too? Education might be a primary reason. Why else would Hashima Island tour tickets be half price for elementary school children? One can just picture wide-eyed 8-year-olds making their way through the rubble while their teacher scares them with stories of how children who didn’t study enough ended up on the island…

Hashima Island’s abandoned school:
Hashima Island schoolPhoto:
Image: Syouzourasen

More likely, the authorities caved in after international pressure mounted to preserve the island as a historical monument that also exemplifies Japanese life in the Taisho Era (1911-1925) and the Showa Era (1925-1989). Recent video games and mangas have also featured the island, proving that “Ghost Island” is not yet forgotten.

Clearly, for former residents, visiting Hashima Island has sentimental value, as this is where they lived, worked, socialized and their children were born and went to school. In fact, a tour was recently organised for 70 former residents but bad weather prevented landing on the island. Maybe it was better that way.

Read a first-hand account of a daring illegal visit to Battleship Island in Vice Magazine.

And for a Tribute to Gunkanjima, go to this site, the aim of which is to help promote the island and have it registered as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Source: 1, 2, 3, 4

We’ll even throw in a free album.