Ravi is a traveler and foodie who loves to visit off-the-beaten-track places and understand the culture, history and customs behind them.
History of Hashima Island
Just nine miles from the Japanese city of Nagasaki lies an abandoned island devoid of any inhabitants but steeped in history. It is called Hashima Island. It is also called Gunkanjima (meaning "battleship") Island because of its shape.
Hashima Becomes a Prosperous Mining Facility
Coal was first discovered on the 16-acre Hashima island in the early 1800s. And to catch up with the western colonial powers, Japan launched an aggressive era of rapid industrialization. The island was bought and developed by the Mistubishi corporation in 1890 to mine the rich deposits of coal beneath the surrounding waters.
The company started developing the island, and soon it became Japan’s first major undersea coal exploitation facility. During the life of the mines there, many as deep as a kilometer down, a total of 15.7 million tons of coal was extracted.
A Densely Populated Wonderland (On the Surface)
And the residents of Hashima island were given a lot of perks for staying in near isolation from the mainland. They were housed in tiny but state-of-the-art high-rise apartments with the latest in electrical technology, including televisions, cleaning, and cooling devices. The island also had its own cinema, sports facilities, hospital, school, bathhouse, and graveyard. Freshwater and electricity were supplied from the mainland, nine miles away.
Space was at a premium, so every bit of space was either reused or multi-used. For example, children played on the building tops, which had extensive vegetable gardens and Olympic-size swimming pools. And with the monthly household electricity bill coming to only one yen, residents were further incentivized to bring more of their friends there.
At its peak of prosperity, Hashima was home to more than 5,000 people spread over 16 acres, making it one of the most densely populated places on Earth and a shining beacon of Japan’s rapid industrialization.
But there was a dark and brutal part to this glittering oasis of industrialization that began with World War II.
"Hell Island" Was Built by Prisoners of War
But the history of Hashima is far darker and more brutal than that of a simply abandoned coal-mining town of the 1970s. In fact, it is deeply drenched in the misery, blood, and torture of thousands of prisoners.
During World War II, Japan shipped more than 4,000 Korean civilians and Chinese prisoners of war as forced laborers to work in the coal mines under brutal, inhumane conditions. They were forced to dig for coal on the island, undergoing humiliation, cruelty, and brutal punishments for those who refused to work.
It is estimated that nearly 2,000 workers died on the island between the 1930s and the end of the war as a result of unsafe working conditions, malnutrition, and exhaustion. That is why the island was also called “Hell Island” or “Jail Island” by the prisoners who were forced to work there.
The Inhuman Activities at Hashima Island
Surviving workers have recounted their time with gory details of grueling conditions and inhumane treatment. The weather was humid, and food was scarce. If they slacked, they were beaten.
Sun Zhongwu, one of the Chinese laborers who was sent to the island when he was only 14, recounts, “If we failed to finish our daily tasks, we would be treated as slaves.”
Many of the laborers tried to escape but ended up drowning in the treacherous seas surrounding the island. The ones who were caught were either brutally punished or executed. Some of them even committed suicide, unable to bear the daily humiliation. It is estimated that a total of 722 Chinese and 1,442 Korean laborers were tortured to death on the island.
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As William Underwood, an expert in wartime Japan, stated, “Rampant racism and discrimination meant Koreans were treated as second-class subjects and would have been assigned some of the hardest and most dangerous jobs.”
The Island Experiences a Rapid Decline
By the early 1970s, the coal reserves started depleting and it just became too expensive to mine coal anymore. Moreover, petroleum had rapidly come up as an alternate resource. The mines started shutting down and people started abandoning the island.
In 1974, the island was finally shut down and has lain vacant ever since, with nature slowly reclaiming the ruined buildings. The once-bustling Hashima island fell into decay and was ignored for nearly three decades.
Renewed Interest in Hashima Island
In 2009, Hashima island became a major thorn in Japan-Korea relations when Japan proposed it to be recognized as the UNESCO World Heritage site for its role in the country's industrial revolution. South Korea vehemently objected to this move, citing that Japan had failed to acknowledge the Korean laborers who were forced to work on Hashima island in inhumane conditions.
Finally, in 2015, a compromise was reached in which Japan acknowledged its wartime atrocities on the island. The island was opened to the public and has now become a massive tourist attraction thanks to cult movies like Christopher Nolan’s Inception and Sam Mendes’s Skyfall, which were shot on this island.
Hashima's derelict ruins and eerie atmosphere have become a popular destination for documentaries, movies, and even adventure tourists wanting to go off the beaten track.
But a question remains: How will Hashima island be remembered in history?
Whether it will be remembered as a glorious remnant of an industrial revolution to be inspired from or as yet another evil remnant of World War II to be forgotten, nobody seems to know the answer to this question yet.
How to Get There?
It is quite easy to get to Hashima island, as it is only 20 km away from Nagasaki city. From Nagasaki Station, you can get into a street tram to Tokiwa Terminal where you can take a cruise to the island. However, there is a government restriction, and you cannot visit the island unless being part of a tour conducted by a licensed operator.
The complete tour package takes about three hours—two hours around the island and about an hour on the island itself. People are advised not to go too close to the buildings to avoid accidents due to the crumbling infrastructure.
Since the tours are becoming popular, it is advisable to book in advance if you want to visit on a public holiday or on weekends. You can access more information by visiting the Japan Guide website.
Some Things to Note While Visiting the Island
While stepping off the boat and entering the crumbling lost world of Hashima might stimulate your sense of adventure to immense proportions, there are certain things you need to take care of for your own safety.
- Do not attempt to visit the island on your own. Not only it is illegal but the crumbling building on the verge of collapsing might hurt your badly if you take the wrong step.
- Hashima island is surrounded by treacherous waters and the weather changes at the drop of a hat from sunny to being heavily windy and rainy. The tour operators reserve the right to cancel to tour due to adverse weather conditions.
- Hashima island requires you to be in good health to undertake the tour. The tour companies do not allow pregnant women or people with disabilities as per part of government safety rules
- Hashima Island is not your “normal” tourist place. There is sadness, decay, and a sense of melancholy as you visit the sprawling urban ruins. If this is not your cup of tea, stay away.
- Do not indulge in liquor while roaming on the island. Also, it is not a good idea to go off on your own, separating from the group. Safety is of paramount importance here. Stay safe.
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© 2021 Ravi Rajan