Ghosts continue to haunt Japan’s Battleship Island

AFP-JIJI

The haunting silhouette of Hashima Island, known in English as Battleship Island, rises up from the sea, an abandoned testament to what was once the most densely populated city on Earth.

Thousands of men, women and children lived and worked on the island just off the coast of Nagasaki, working undersea coal mines that powered Japan’s rapid industrial rise from the late 19th century. But over the years, it made less and less economic sense and in 1974 operator Mitsubishi Mining abandoned the site.

Known in Japanese as Gunkanjima, it was the villain’s lair in the 2012 Bond film “Skyfall” and won UNESCO heritage status three years later, in 2015.

Not everyone, however, is happy about the attention being given to the sea-wall encircled island, a popular tourist destination whose silhouette is likened to a destroyer. The former city’s crumbling concrete walls, smashed windows and rusty iron support bars harbor a dark secret — Chinese and Korean workers were once forced to work here, slaves to their colonial master Japan.

“Gunkanjima is an evil place,” said Zhang Shan, vice president of the Chinese Forced Labor Association after the island achieved UNESCO status. “(The UNESCO status) was a desecration and a shock for the victims.” According to Zhang, the Chinese Forced Labor Association protested to UNESCO over the heritage status, but received no reply.

For others, the island holds different memories. Minoru Kinoshita, 63, who was born on the island, says, “I’ve come here often and every time I see that my hometown is falling into an increasing state of decay.”

The 6.3-hectare (16-acre) island — packed with a school, swimming pool, open-air market, hospital, small jail and rooftop vegetable gardens — was the only home Kinoshita had ever known until the age of 13. His father was the local movie theater projectionist, and he remembers it as a magical place for kids, a dense labyrinth of buildings perfect for playing hide and seek.

Battleship Island’s population peaked at nearly 5,300 around 1960. It was an offshore version of Europe’s once-booming mining towns. And like its overseas counterparts, the work was anything but pleasant.

Four or more people lived together in tiny tatami-mat rooms. Residents boarded up windows when violent typhoons lashed the island, and the mines at which most worked operated 24 hours a day in rolling eight-hour shifts.

Up to 1,000 meters below sea level, men toiled in cramped and stifling spaces where they had to defecate into small holes that they dug themselves.

“The air was thick with humidity,” says Tomoji Kobata, 79, who worked on the island for about a year and a half during the early 1960s. “It was sticky and the coal dust mixed with our sweat so we were black from head to toe.”

More than 200 workers died in accidents over the years. Others suffered from silicosis, a work-related lung disease.

And there were some were not there by choice.

At different times in the first half of the 20th century, Japan brutally occupied the Korean Peninsula and parts of China and in the years leading up to and during World War II it sometimes used the nations’ workers as slave labor. Reliable figures on the number of forced laborers, however, are hard to come by.

Mitsubishi Materials, a descendant of the original operator on Battleship Island, has made an acknowledgment of the forced labor, and said it will place a memorial at some of its former mining sites to honor those laborers. The company also awarded nine former Chinese laborers who were forced to work at other locations about 100,000 yuan ($14,500) each, while a couple of other settlements are also underway.

In 2015, Tokyo said it would take steps to ensure visitors to the island understood that many Koreans and others were brought to the island and forced to work under what it described as “very harsh conditions.” Tourist brochures mention their plight, and guides remind visitors that it was not only Japanese who toiled below ground and sometimes died.

For former resident Kinoshita, the UNESCO status could restore some of the structure of the island. He hopes it will mean more funds to restore the dilapidated buildings, and it will help keep memories alive — such as his memory of the day in 1966 when his family bid the island a final farewell.

“When we got on the boat to leave, I saw my friends waving a banner with my name on it,” he remembered. “There was also a message: ‘Never forget our island!’ “