As if from a dream, the island floated over the sea like a terra-cotta dreadnought from a century ago. I’d arrived at Gunkanjima, or Battleship Island, and its profile was unmistakable from the deck of my ferry battling high waves and winds.
Formally known as Hashima Island, Gunkanjima is Japan’s greatest ruin of modern times. Once home to thousands, the mining colony was abandoned 40 years ago and is now a place of rust, rubble and ghosts.
Recent years have seen an explosion in travel to Japan’s abandoned buildings, theme parks and industrial sites. This boom in haikyo (ruins) tourism, while a niche phenomenon that can sometimes involve illegal trespass, is set to expand with this year’s addition of Gunkanjima to the UNESCO World Heritage list. Opened to visitors in 2009, the island mine is a 30-minute boat ride from Nagasaki City.
As the ferry circled the island, a tour guide briefed the passengers about Gunkanjima’s history. Coal was first discovered there around 1810, when it was merely a small group of rocks. The Saga samurai domain (also known as the Hizen domain) mined the island until the Mitsubishi zaibatsu conglomerate bought it for ¥100,000 and began full-scale extraction in 1890. Hashima’s coal was prized for its quality, and mine shafts were eventually sunk to a depth of up to 1 km beneath the waves. Meanwhile, in tandem with Japan’s burgeoning industrialization, the group of rocks was built up into a large artificial island through six landfill projects. Defying relentless waves that occasionally destroyed piers and seawalls, the island grew to a surface area of 6.5 hectares, with a circumference of 1.2 km and a length of 480 meters.
In the early to mid-20th century, Gunkanjima became a human anthill as extensive facilities were added for the thousands of miners living there. The concrete agglomeration rose nearly 50 meters above the sea and featured densely packed apartment buildings and mining facilities. Period photos of Hashima show a lively community on the island, with kids playing on swing sets, laundry hanging from balconies and a courtyard known as Hashima Ginza bustling with vegetable sellers.
Amenities included an outdoor swimming pool, bathhouse, movie theater, pachinko parlor and gymnasium, as well as a Buddhist temple and Shinto shrine, where people would pray for the safety of miners. There was also an elementary and junior high school, hospital and koban (local police station). The two officers stationed at the island’s koban had few crimes to occupy themselves with, the tour guide said. The worst offenses were public drunkenness, which landed some locals in jail for the night.
James Bond fans may be familiar with Gunkanjima for inspiring the lair of villain Raoul Silva in the 2012 film “Skyfall,” though no scenes were actually shot on the island because it’s too hazardous. Indeed, when I set foot on it, I had the impression of entering a bombed-out shell of a city, a fragment of war-ravaged 1980s Beirut adrift on the Pacific. It’s hard to imagine that as many as 5,300 souls once lived here, with families crammed into apartments only six tatami mats large. The population density was nine times that of central Tokyo in the 1960s. With families sharing kitchens and bathrooms, privacy was unknown; amorous couples had to make do with the seawall when they wanted to be alone.
Due to the dangers of crumbling masonry, tours are restricted to the southwest periphery of the island along a path that’s only about 200 meters long. Still, visitors can view the remains of the steps to the No. 2 mine shaft, a collapsed brick bathhouse where miners once washed off the grime from toiling under the waves, and the No. 30 building, built a century ago and now Japan’s oldest concrete-reinforced apartment block. Towering eight stories over a rubble-strewn yard, the building — a honeycomb of black holes — is eerily silent save for the ever-present howl of the wind.
I wanted to leave the tour path and venture into the heart of Gunkanjima, but that’s only possible with special permission from Nagasaki City. For those who aren’t willing to wait several months for an application to be approved, there are numerous videos and photos on the Internet that show household objects left behind when the island was abandoned in 1974 amid Japan’s shift from coal to oil. Broken dolls and crockery litter the rooms. Outside, trees and shrubs have taken over rooftops and courtyards. On his website Totorotimes.com, Frenchman Jordy Meow, a haikyo enthusiast, has remarkable images of vintage pachinko machines, sewing machines and televisions, abandoned in the apartments and now in advanced stages of decay. Google Street View, meanwhile, has a 360-degree walkthrough of Gunkanjima.
Several companies now operate tours to the island from Nagasaki, with most costing about ¥3,000 to ¥4,000 and lasting roughly three hours (for details see www.gunkanjima-nagasaki.jp). Tours are often fully booked or cancelled due to high waves, so your best bet is April to October, when the sea tends to be calmer. But one of the most comprehensive resources for learning about what life was like on the island is the new Gunkanjima Digital Museum in downtown Nagasaki — some consolation if you do miss the tour. Opened in September the museum has a collection of archival images and modern high-def video of the island shot by drone. There are also dioramas and a recreated apartment and mine shaft.
These exhibits can give some clue about what life was like for the miners who worked the black seams under the ocean. They descended hundreds of meters into the depths, where conditions were backbreaking. It was hot, humid and dangerous — gas explosions could rip through the tunnels at any moment. The official tally of workers who died over the mine’s lifetime is about 200, but it could be much higher. Workers would emerge from the mine caked in coal dust, so exhausted that they barely had the energy to wash before collapsing on the tatami in their cramped apartments.
The mine and other related new UNESCO sites in Japan also have a darker side. In World War II, hundreds of Korean and Chinese workers were forced to toil on Gunkanjima as part of the tens of thousands who worked at Japanese factories and industrial sites. Those who lost their lives at the subsea mine may not have been recorded. South Korea and China had opposed Japan’s nomination of the 23 industrial sites for UNESCO status, but withdrew when Tokyo agreed that the registration should mention the history of forced labor. Japanese officials, however, used a more colloquial expression than “forced labor” and the current UNESCO web page on the sites does not mention that chapter of their history, but tour companies such as Gunkanjima Concierge do.
Gazing up at the shell of the No. 30 building, I wondered whether the new World Heritage status, the product of intense local and national lobbying, was appropriate for Gunkanjima. Aesthetically speaking, the island is about as charming as an oil refinery. It’s a hideous pile of industrial concrete — Japan is full of concrete, from mountain dams to tetrapod-covered coastlines — and it seemed a poor addition to a list that includes Todaiji Temple in Nara Prefecture, not to mention the pyramids of Egypt.
But while I was looking at the remains of the pool where Gunkanjima’s residents once cooled off, I remembered that World Heritage is also about a people’s cultural heritage. In their thousands, Gunkanjima’s unsung laborers extracted 1.5 million tons of coal from the hellish mine over the years. They also helped realize “Japan’s unique achievement in world history as the first non-Western country to successfully industrialize,” as UNESCO describes the legacy of Hashima mine and the other 22 sites. Battleship Island is more than just a spooky industrial ruin being ground to dust by the elements. It’s a testament to those who lived and worked there, and attention must be paid.
How to get there: Five companies run Gunkanjima tours from Nagasaki Port — Gunkanjima Concierge (www.gunkanjima-concierge.com), Gunkanjima Cruise (www.gunkanjima-cruise.jp), Yamasa Kaiun Co., Ltd. (www.gunkan-jima.net), Seaman Shokai Co., Ltd. (seaman.jp) and Hironori Baba (095-894-2039 ).Tour prices are all around ¥4,000 plus an extra ¥300 to enter the island.