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Hashima Island, Japan: A deserted monument to the evils of industrialisation

Off the Japanese island of Nagasaki lies one of the starkest monuments to the country’s rapid period of industrialisation and the evils of the Meiji Restoration. Hashima Island, AKA, Gunkanjima, which translates literally to ‘Battleship Island’, is one of 505 uninhabited islands in the Nagasaki Prefecture but is without a doubt the most significant. 

On the one hand, it is a reminder of the mechanised nature of human development and, in particular, the evils of Japan’s Imperial history, and on the other, that even if something has such a dark past, when given time, nature will reclaim it, subduing the sins of old in the luscious greens of flora, and the ambience of fauna. This has happened everywhere from Central Europe to North America, but one place where this counterpoint between the peculiarities of human expansion and nature is felt lucidly is Hashima Island.

Looking at the location from afar, you instantly heed why it’s called ‘Battleship Island’. Jutting out of the sea, it looks exactly like a naval vessel of destruction, and the inertia of its image suggests that it is one that refuses to be pulled into the deep blue depths of Davy Jones’ Locker.

The most striking feature is the sea wall that surrounds the island, closely resembling the hull of a boat. From afar, you’d also be forgiven for arguing that it looks like a mountain, jutting out of the sea, echoing the mysticism attached to Japan’s ancient history, but as you draw close, it is made clear that this is no mountain, nor is it a Battleship. This is an island, one of Earth’s many freckles that have now been plastered in the coarse grey foundation of concrete. 

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The 6.3 hectare (16-acre) island was principally used for its undersea coal mines, which were established in 1887, right at the height of Japan’s industrialisation and the concurrent Meiji restoration. Coal was first discovered there around 1810, and from 1887 to 1974, it was operated as a seabed coal mining facility. 

Famously, Mitsubishi purchased the island in 1890, and it was under their direction that the coal started to be extracted from undersea mines, as well as the land reclamation, which tripled the side of the island, and the sea wall. Four main mine shafts were constructed, reaching up to one kilometre deep, connecting it to a neighbouring island. 

At the time, this was a reflection of just how far Japan had come since the days of the Tokugawa Shogunate and the new possibilities that industrialisation promised to deliver. Between 1891 and 1971, it is estimated that 15.7 million tons of coal were excavated in the mines. Japan had finally caught up with the West.

Hashima Island also represented a first for Japan. In 1916, the company erected the country’s first large reinforced concrete building, a seven-floor apartment block, to house the miners as their ranks were slowly swelling. Given that Hashima is situated in an area notorious for its extreme weather, concrete was used to protect against typhoon destruction, and even though it is battered today, it’s still standing tall. 

This was to be the first real piece of modern Japanese civilisation making a marked effect on the island, as afterwards, she spread across the island, with more apartments blocks, a school, hospital, town hall, cinema, shops, and even a pachinko parlour built over the next 55 years for the miners and their families to enjoy in their downtime.

Although it sounds as if some form of worker’s paradise was forming on Hashima Island, the truth is that it wasn’t. Beginning in the 1930s, when Imperial Japan was expanding across the rest of Asia, until the end of the Second World War in 1945, Korean and Chinese civilians, as well as other prisoners of war, were forced to work under extremely brutal conditions and faced horrific treatment at the facility as forced labourers under the country’s wartime mobilisation policies. 

(Credit: kntrty)

As was the case with many of those who worked as forced labourers for the Axis powers, during this period, many of the conscripted died on the island due to various hazards, including accidents, malnutrition and exhaustion. Given just the opacity of records and how consecutive governments have attempted to sanitise the country’s Imperial history, estimates range from 137 to 1300 deaths. 

“I was always starving since I received very little food,” Joo, who was forced to work in the island’s steel mill in 1943, told the Associated Press. “We were terrified of dying in bombings, but I suffered from hunger the most.”

After the war, the island rumbled on and reached its peak population o 5,259 in 1959. However, the writing was on the wall, and the society that had first colonised the island were now drawing back, as a shift in the global economy meant that Hashima Island was no longer a powerhouse.

In 1974, the coal reserves were nearly depleted after over 100 years of mining, and now, with petroleum replacing coal, Mitsubishi decided to close the mine. Needing to look for new work, all of the residents swiftly departed, and the island was left an abandoned concrete wasteland for three decades. Think Pripyat, just on a much smaller scale and without the radiation. It is important to note that Hashima wasn’t the only coal mine to shut down, as it was a trend occurring worldwide as the world was entering a new epoch.  

As with anything that lies in obscurity, interest in the island grew in the 2000s due to the haunting nature of its undisturbed ruins, and it is now a tourist attraction. Travel was re-opened to the island in April 2009 after 35 long years of closure, and strangely, it is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It stands as a symbol of both Japan’s remarkable industrialisation and the horrors it enacted during the Second World War. 

If you feel like you’ve seen Hashima Island before, that’s because you have. It was used as the lair of the villain Raoul Silva in 2012’s James Bond entry, Skyfall. The spectre of evil that covers the island is tangible and, thus, is perfect for a Bond villain bent on revenge and destruction. 

An incredible piece of Japanese, Korean and Chinese history, Hashima Island is a must-visit for anyone wanting to understand the area’s past. You can find more information here

Watch an exploration of the island below.

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