Gunkanjima’s role during the Meiji era


Japan was famously isolated from the rest of the world from 1603 to 1867, closed to western technology under the Tokugawa Shogunate, and where the only contact with the outside world was a small colony of Dutch traders who operated from Dejima, a small island in Nagasaki. Great Britain, and other European superpowers, thrived during and after the Industrial Revolution, exporting their technology all over the world while Japan remained closed. In 1852, before Japan opened its doors to the world, Shimazu Nariakira, Prince of Satsuma (currently Kagoshima Prefecture), based in the southern tip of Kyushu, built Japan’s first industrial complex. Its shipbuilding was hidden from the Tokugawa government and developed without the support of foreign engineers in order to defend Satsuma from Western Superpowers. Japan’s first small step towards industrialization was made on the basis of just one book from Europe, a drive to industrialize by themselves, and on the basis of the Japanese sprit of craftsmanship for iron and pottery which had attained pre-eminence in the pre-industrial era.


The Meiji Restoration accelerated industrialization in Japan, which led to its rise as a military power by the year 1905, under the slogan of “Enrich the country, strengthen the military” (富国強兵 fukoku kyōhei). The rapid industrialization and modernization of Japan both allowed and required a massive increase in production and infrastructure. Japan built industries such as shipyards, iron smelters, and spinning mills, which were then sold to well-connected entrepreneurs. Consequently, domestic companies became consumers of Western technology and applied it to produce items that would be sold cheaply in the international market. With this, industrial zones grew enormously, and there was massive migration to industrializing centers from the countryside. Industrialization additionally went hand in hand with the development of a national railway system and modern communications.
With industrialization came the demand for coal. There was dramatic rise in production, as shown in the table below.

Coal production

Coal was called “the black diamond” at the end of the Edo period. Kyushu was blessed with rich coal resources which contributed to the progress of technology and funded the city’s infrastructure, transforming the landscape of the area from rural to industrial. In order to transfer coal, railroads, ports, electricity plants and housing were developed with input from western engineers, first from Great Britain and later from Germany and US. Many coal fields transformed the rural landscape into a coal mining landscape.
The first modern coal mine in Japan was developed 14.5km offshore from Nagasaki, on Takashima Island. It was a joint venture between Lord Nabeshima of Saga and Thomas Glover. In 1869, a British engineer, Morris found coal at a depth of 45m on Takashima Island. Afterwards, the management of this coal mine was handed over to Iwasaki Yataro of Mitsubishi.


Mitsubishi had been established in 1870, two years after the Meiji Restoration, with shipping as its core business. Its diversification was mostly into related fields. It entered into coal-mining to gain the coal needed for ships, bought a shipbuilding yard from the government to repair the ships it used, founded an iron mill to supply iron to the shipbuilding yard, started a marine insurance business to cater for its shipping business, and so forth. Later, the managerial resources and technological capabilities acquired through the operation of shipbuilding were utilized to expand the business further into the manufacture of aircraft and equipment. Similarly, the experience of overseas shipping led the firm to enter into a trading business. The company bought into coal mining in 1881 by acquiring the Takashima mine and Hashima Island in 1890, using the production to fuel their extensive steamship fleet.



Hashima in Meiji-era, antique hand-tinted postcard of Nagasaki

Coal extraction began in 1870, under Koyama Hiide from Amakusa, and the mine subsequently passed to the Nabeshima clan of the Saga domain. In 1890, it was taken over by the Mitsubishi conglomerate, together with neighboring Takashima. In the beginning, Hashima was little more than a barren island of rocks thrusting out of the ocean. However, as mining technology developed, engineers carried out a series of land reclamations around the island while extending its revetments, until the island assumed the form seen today. The coal mined at Hashima was of high quality and was used primarily for iron and steel manufacture at Yahata Steel Works. Eventually these mining shafts reached depths of 1,000 meters under the surface of the island. However, even more elaborate than the buildings above ground were the extensive subterranean production facilities by which coal was extracted from beds 1,000 meters underground. As an island devoted to seabed coal mining, Hashima played a major supporting role in the development of modern industry in Japan. As the Hashima Coal Mine evolved, housing sprang up on the island to accommodate growing numbers of employees. From 1916 on, high-rise steel-reinforced concrete apartment buildings and other facilities sprang up one after the other.

A cross-section of the mine's construction

A cross-section of the mine’s construction


Itô, Chiyuki, and Yoshitaka Akui, (1995). Gunkanjima: Kaijô Sangyô Toshi Ni Sumu (Battleship Island: Life on an Industrial City on the Sea) Bijuaru Bukku Suihen No Seikatsu-Shi. Tokyo: Iwanami shoten.

Odagiri, Hiroyuki, (1996). Technology and Industrial Development in Japan. Oxford University Press. p. 76.

Yamamura, Kozo. “Success Ill-Gotten? The Role of Meiji Militarism in Japan’s Technological Progress.” The Journal of Economic History 37.1 (1997): 114-115.


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