‘Warship Island’ open to tourists once more

by Reiji Yoshida

A landing ban on uninhabited Hashima Island, better known as Gunkanjima, or Warship Island, located some 19 km off the city of Nagasaki, was lifted Wednesday for the first time in 35 years as more and more people have become interested in its ruins.

The landing ban on Gunkanjima, which takes its name from its concrete sea walls and high-rise structures that are said to resemble a warship, was imposed in 1974 when its coal mine closed and the island was abandoned.

The 6.3-hectare, 480-meter-long island at its peak had some 5,200 workers and their families living in a tight jumble of apartment blocks, which include the country’s first high-rise made of reinforced concrete.

Tourists are now allowed to visit the island if they join a ship tour that costs ¥4,000 for a round-trip ticket, plus an additional ¥300 landing fee. The stay on the island is limited to one hour, according to the city of Nagasaki.

Gunkanjima became famous thanks to photographs taken of the island by Ikko Narahara, one of Japan’s most respected photographers.

Narahara made a sensational debut in 1956 with an exhibition titled “Human Land,” in which he captured black-and-white images of mine workers living and working in the island’s severe and isolated environment. The exhibition turned Narahara into a star overnight and made Gunkanjima widely known across the country.

In January, the Cultural Affairs Agency chose the island as one of the Kyushu candidate sites for UNESCO World Heritage status.

The city of Nagasaki, which now owns the island, intends to turn it into a popular tourist site, and has already spent ¥100 million building a 230-meter pavement and piers.

“The city has organized an expert committee to discuss how the island should be utilized, and the committee decided to make the whole island an open-air museum for visitors to see the weathering process” on its structures, said Tatsutoshi Ogata, a city official in charge of tourism promotion.

About 10,000 people take cruise tours to view the island from the sea every year. The city forecast that lifting the landing ban will push the number of visitors to more than 20,000 annually, Ogata said.

The existence of many enthusiasts who visit abandoned buildings to experience their desolate atmosphere may be one of the factors that has boosted interest in the island, he said.