A tiny island in Nagasaki Prefecture, once prosperous for its coal but deserted for the last 30 years, is in the limelight again, thanks to its naming as a possible World Heritage site and rekindled interest in relics from Japan’s first steps toward becoming a modern industrial power.

Hashima, 19 km southwest of Nagasaki port, is popularly called Gunkanjima (“Battleship Island”) because its cluster of buildings looks like the former Imperial navy warship Tosa.

The 1.2-sq.-km island was uninhabited until the Edo Period (1603-1868), when coal was found, and became prosperous during the subsequent Meiji Era.

At the height of Japan’s economic prosperity around 1960, the isle had more than 50 apartment buildings and a population exceeding 5,000. But around 30 years ago, the place became deserted again.

The island drew renewed attention in 2008 because it was nominated to be an UNESCO modern industrial heritage site. The Nagasaki Municipal Government also started to restore structures on the island long battered by typhoons and waves.

“The island used to be (equated with) Japan’s future,” said Dotoku Sakamoto, 54, a former islander and head of the nonprofit organization working to achieve Gunkanjima’s World Heritage listing.

Hashima’s coal contributed to Japan’s modernization. Its proximity to Nagasaki port, the only door to the West for two centuries, allowed the island to quickly introduce Western technologies when Japan opened up. Coal mining development began in 1870 and by 1890 the Mitsubishi conglomerate began full-scale extraction.

The island’s high-quality coal was chiefly supplied to Yawata Iron and Steel Works, Japan’s first modern ironworks, and supported the iron and steel industry.

But when oil replaced coal as the key source of energy, the island fell on hard times. The mine complex was closed in 1974. Within three months, all of the residents had left to find new jobs.

Last November, the Nagasaki Municipal Government opened Gunkanjima to the press. Landing on the island is not allowed yet because the aged structures are dangerous. The city is now building an inspection road so the island can be open to the public this spring.

Architects say the island’s mining town is unique in the country’s construction history, with many of the abandoned buildings boasting an intricate structure. However, many of their walls have collapsed and debris is everywhere. Plants and grass now occupy the ruins.

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