Gunkanjima – a ‘dark’ or a ‘disaster’ tourism site?

Dark and Disaster  Tourism

Human interest in death and destruction has been apparent for centuries. From times of pilgrimage, roman gladiator fights and public execution to the modern day interest in accident sites known as “rubbernecking” and the actual visiting of sights where death and destruction has occurred. Although this interest in death and destruction has spanned across the centuries, only in the past two to three decades has it become a booming, formalised industry, coined ‘Dark Tourism’ (Foley and Lennon, 1996) and ‘Disaster tourism’ (Stone, 2006).


Killing Fields in Cambodia attracting 'dark tourism' enthusiasts.

Killing Fields in Cambodia attracting ‘dark tourism’ enthusiasts.

Death is inherent in dark tourism. It is something universally intristic and thanatourism has been an aspect of tourism longer than any other form of heritage (Seaton, 1996). The term ‘Dark Tourism’ can be defined as ‘visitations to places where tragedies or historically noteworthy death has occurred and that continue to impact our lives’ (Marcel, 2003, 2114). Examples of such sites include Auschwitzh, Ground Zero, Alcatraz, and The Killing Fields in Cambodia, all of which tourists can access.

Sign in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina shames 'disaster' tourists.  Credit: Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Sign in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina shames ‘disaster’ tourists.
Credit: Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Disaster tourism is the practice of traveling to areas that have recently experienced natural or man-made disasters. Individuals who participate in this type of travel are typically curious to see the results of the disaster and often travel as part of an organized group. Many people have criticized disaster tourism as exploitation of human misery and a practice that demeans and humiliates local residents. Others argue that tourism to devastated areas can offer a boost to the local economy and raise awareness of the incident, both of which are often needed after a tragedy. It should be noted that disaster tourism is separate and distinct from the efforts of humanitarian groups who may bring in work crews from outside the area to assist in cleanup, rebuilding, and provision of necessary services to local residents.


Lennon and Foley identify two broad categories of those ‘tourists’; those who are in some way personally connected to the site and travel to connect personal thoughts, experiences, grief and memories (Lennon and Foley, 1999) and those that travel to these sites for the sole purpose of entertainment and have no connection to the site (Best, 2007).

Sometimes travel to such places typically occurs due to the sightseer’s voyeuristic desire and after media coverage of an event (Light, 2000). Rojek (1997), cited in Light, 2000, 145-160, argues that sightseers travel to these places in order to affirm their identity in a situation that temporarily disrupts normal life.

Today there are a multitude of categories of dark and disaster tourist sites and typologies, being referred to as ‘holocaust tourism’ (Ashworth, 1996), ‘graveyard tourism’ (Seaton, 2002), ‘phoenix tourism’ (Causevic and Lynch, 2007), ‘prison tourism’ (Strange and Kempa, 2003) and ‘vulture tourism’ (Stone, 2006).

Gunkanjima VS dark tourism

Thomas Nordanstad, filmmaker of the short documentary about Hashima island, says the place is haunted.

“There are ghosts there for sure. And there is something not right about the place. For sure. There is nothing pretty about it. There’s nothing beautiful about it. The whole place is just death and decay.”

The decay is obvious, but death? Coal mining was not a safe job, but that’s true for any mine around the world. The fact that could classify Gunkanjima as a ‘dark tourism’ site is the same one that puts a black mark on the non-profit organization’s “The Way to World Heritage Gunkanjima” request to list the site as a UNESCO World Heritage. The South Korean authorities contest the submission on the grounds that the coal mining facilities in the island employed forced Korean and Chinese labourers during WWII.

By the time Japan surrendered to the Allied forces in August, 1945, about 1,300 labourers had died – either from underground accidents, illnesses related to exhaustion or malnutrition, and a much quicker death – jumping over the sea-wall in a vain attempt to swim to the mainland.
Director of the Nagasaki Peace Museum, Yasunori Takazane says Japan needs to address the issue with more honesty. “Auschwitz is registered as world heritage site so people can remember the historical crime. As for Hashima, some seem not to want to remember that dark side and focus instead on its contribution as a locomotive of Japan’s industrialization. That’s a betrayal of history.”

Gunkanjima VS disaster tourism

Although Hashima was by no means abandoned overnight, it feels as though it might have been. In the school, exercise books and broken abacuses lie in corners where sea winds have blown them. Sheets of X-rays scatter the floor in the hospital, with faded imprints of miners’ lungs still visible. Children’s shoes dot ruined pathways, as though their owners lost them while running to evacuate. Travellers admit that it feels a bit like Pripyat, the town adjoining Chernobyl, where residents really did leave in a hurry after the town’s nuclear reactor exploded in 1986. However, to be defined as a ‘disaster tourism’ spot, it’s not about the post-apocalyptic looks, but the circumstances behind it. Hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunami or attomic bombing are the main reasons for a site to be considered a disaster area. The most current disaster site is Fukushima – and since its clean up was estimated to take from years to decades, it puts it in the same disaster category with Chernobyl, which remains a nuclear dangerzone decades after its accident.

… But what about Hashima and the attomic bombing on Nagasaki, since the island is located in its prefecture? We already know that the forced Korean and Chinese labourers were ferried to the scene to clean up the rubble of the bomb attack. Most of those involved were consequently exposed to dangerous levels of radiation.
The only way the island was affected by the attomic bomb in Nagasaki was that the blast wave shattered or just rattled the windows of the buildings on the island. However, workers could not seize their work even then – they had to work even harder for the reconstruction of Japan.


Ashworth, G.J (1996). Holocaust Tourism and Jewish Culture: The Lessons of Krakow-Kazimierz. In Robinson, M., Evans, N. & Callaghan, P. (1998) (eds), Tourism Culture: Towards the 21st Century, 81. London: Athenaeum Press.

Best, M. (2007). Norfolk Island Thanatourism. Shima: The International Journal into Island Cultures, 1:2, 30-47.

Causevic, S. & Lynch, P. (2007). The significance of dark and nature tourism in the process of tourism development after a long-term political conflict: an issue of Northern Ireland. ASA Conference 2007 – Thinking Through Tourism.

Foley, M. & Lennon, J. (1996). JFK and Dark Tourism: Heart of Darkness. International Journal of Heritage Studies, 2:4, 198-211.

—————————- (1999). Interpretation of the Unimaginable: The US Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, DC, and “Dark Tourism”. Journal of Travel Research, 38, 46-50.

—————————- (2000). Dark Tourism: The Attraction of Death and Disaster. London: Continuum.

Light, D. (2000). An Unwanted Past: Contemporary Tourism and the Heritage of Communism in Romania. International Journal of Heritage Studies, 6, 145-160.

Marcel, J. (2003). Death Makes a Holiday. The American Reporter, May 29, 9 (2114).

Rojek, C. (1997). In Light, D. (2000). An Unwanted Past: Contemporary Tourism and the Heritage of Communism in Romania. International Journal of Heritage Studies, 6, 145-160.

Seaton, A.V (1996). Guided by the dark: From thanatopsis to thanatourism. International Journal of Heritahe Studies, 2:4, 234-244.

————– (2002). Thanatourism’s final frontiers? Visits to cemeteries, churchyards and funery sites as sacred and secular pilgrimage. Tourism Recreation Research, 27:2, 73-82.

Stone, P.R. (2006). A typology of death and disaster related tourist sites, attractions and exhibits. TOURISM: An Interdisciplinary International Journal, Vol. 52:2, 145-160.

Strange, C. & Kempa, M. (2003). Shades of dark tourism: Alcatraz and Robben Island. Annals of Tourism Research, 30:2, 386-405.


One thought on “Gunkanjima – a ‘dark’ or a ‘disaster’ tourism site?

  1. Nice discussion Monika. The following article might also be of interest. In it the authors are trying to unpack the idea of ‘darkness’ in dark tourism. What do we mean by the ‘darkness’ in dark tourism? Is it a useful category at all?

    Bowman, Michael S. and Phaedra Pezzullo, ‘What’s so ‘Dark’ about ‘Dark Tourism’?: Death, Tours, and Performance’, Tourist Studies, 9, 3 (2010): 187–202.

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