Gunkanjima 軍艦島

by Daniel Simmons

Fifty years ago, the tiny, mostly-artificial island of Gunkanjima (“Battleship Island”) had the greatest population density of any place on earth. At its peak in 1959 there were 5,259 people packed onto the island’s 15 acres. The population now? Zero.

Over the course of eight and a half decades, starting with its purchase of the reef here in 1891, the Mitsubishi Corporation ripped roughly 16.5 million tons of coal from the seabed and built an industrial fortress atop it, piling up mine shafts and then-innovative concrete apartment complexes to house the hard-working miners and their families. Added to the jumble were facilities to make the hard island existence more bearable: school facilities, a gym, a movie theatre, restaurants, a hospital, a hairdresser, a Shinto shrine and a Buddhist temple, and even a pachinko parlor. Encircling the island was a high seawall, giving it the appearance of a battleship (thus the island’s popular sobriquet, which has effectively replaced the formal moniker “Hashima”). In the 1950s and 60s the island was a veritable microcosm of urban Japanese life, a metropolis in miniature form.

So what happened? The exodus began in the late 60s, when the waning demand for coal forced Mitsubishi to relocate many of the residents to factories elsewhere in Japan. Finally the decision was made to shutter the island for good. The last of the miners waved their goodbyes in 1974 and the island has been deserted ever since, left to the winds and the waves. Look up the literature on Gunkanjima and you’ll find many a melancholy ode to its crumbling disrepair: abandoned buildings brooding beneath dark clouds, torn tatami mats littered with lost objects robbed of their original contexts, haunted staircases leading nowhere. Good luck finding a description of the place that doesn’t throw in the word “eerie” or “ghostlike.”

Certainly there is a surreal, somber ubi sunt poetry to the ruins, yet on a sunny spring day of calm seas and blue skies, the mood at Gunkanjima can seem positively festive. So it was when we visited the island last spring. In April of 2009 the island was reopened to the public for tourism visits, and thousands have now made the one-hour sail from the Nagasaki city harbor to perambulate the outskirts of the island’s ruins. Cheerful guides helpfully put things in context: the tunnel entrances leading down to the mines, the apartment building that was the tallest concrete structure in Japan in its day. Their explanations serve both as a history lesson and a cautionary tale; in some ways Gunkanjima is a vision, writ small, of a post-human planet, reclaimed slowly but inexorably by the forces of nature.

How to get there:

Adventurous, camera-toting haikyo enthusiasts have laid siege to the island on unofficial (read: illegal) clambering explorations in recent years, ferried to the island by local fishermen looking for a few extra yen. We suggest you stay on the side of the law (not to mention safety!). Weather permitting, Yamasa Kauin tour boats leave the Nagasaki Port Ferry Terminal (nearest the Ohato tram stop); a round trip that includes an hour on the island costs about ¥4000. For more info (Japanese only), see the following website:







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