A Tale of Two Islands – Gunkanjima and Kelham

Unfortunately I can’t afford a ticket to Japan to visit Battleship island, so I had to look a bit closer to home. Luckily, I live in Sheffield – Steel City! – where Kelham Island Museum is located. Since both Gunkanjima and Kelham are formal industrial zones, I was hoping that this visit would provide me with some first hand experience equitable to visiting a museum about Gunkanjima and would provide me with a strong basis from which to draw a comparison between the two abandoned industrial islands.

Kelham Island Museum by Jim Ennis Photography

If you are not familiar with this museum, the first thing that you will notice is that it is very, very big.
As befitting an industrial museum, everything you could possibly need, or, indeed, ever want to know about Sheffield’s industrial heritage is here.

Situated, funnily enough, on Kelham Island, there is enough there for anyone with a casual interest in all things Sheffield to come out with a head full of newly acquired knowledge. Example: did you know, the tallest building in the world (somewhere in Malaysia) is covered in Sheffield steel? There is everything there, from the tiniest etchings and engravings on spoons, to the biggest steam powered engine you will ever see in your life.

Located in one of the city’s oldest industrial districts, the Museum is stands on a over 900 years old man-made island, resulting from the construction of a mill race, in the 12th century, which diverted water from the River Don to power a corn mill belonging to the Lord of the Manor. It is reported that the island was subsequently named after the Town Armourer, Kellam Homer, who owned a grinding workshop on the neighbouring goit (mill race) in 1637. Having remained meadowland for much of its existence, John Crowley’s Iron Foundry was built on the site in 1829 and continued in operation until the 1890s. This building was replaced by a power station, in 1899, to provide electricity for the new fleet of trams in the city. These are the premises now occupied by the museum.

Far from a traditional museum, Kelham Island is a very hands on experience – I saw a school visit which was careering around an assault course based on how steel is made. I found this a bit ironic, as UK factories during Victorian times did use to actually employ children because they were cheap, did not complain, had nimble fingers, and could crawl about under machines. However, they risked getting caught in the machinery, losing hair or arms. By the time Gunkanjima started its coal mine work, children under the age of 10 in the UK were forbidden to work in one.

(To be continued.)


What about American and European modern ruins? Where does Japan stand?

Japanese modern ruins versus American modern ruins?

Japanese modern ruins versus American modern ruins?


“America you have it better
Than our old continent
You have no ruined castles
And no primordial stones”

American ruins have become increasingly prominent, whether in discussions of  “urban blight” and home foreclosures, in commemorations of 9/11, or in postapocalyptic movies. From numerous scenes of urban desolation—from failed banks, abandoned towns, and dilapidated tenements to the crumbling skyscrapers and bridges envisioned in science fiction and cartoons — readers and moviegoers of the early 21st century have become familiar with such visions of an American city. Typically, but not exclusively New York – transfigured through ruination and depopulation into a potentially fruitful yet inscrutable site for archeologists. Imagined ruinscapes, populated variously by cyborgs, gangs, vampires, zombies, or survivalists, have served as a stock backdrop to postapocalyptic science-fiction cinema, novels, comics, and video games.

There are deviations as well as derivations from European conventions. Unlike classical and Gothic ruins, which decayed gracefully over centuries and inspired philosophical meditations about the fate of civilizations, America’s ruins were often “untimely,” appearing unpredictably and disappearing before they could accrue an aura of age. As modern ruins of steel and iron, they stimulated critical reflections about contemporary cities, and the unfamiliar kinds of experience they enabled. Nick Yablon argues that modern American ruins were cheap, banal, illegible, and ephemeral and in their essense they were “untimely.” Owing to their rapid creation and consumption, they lacked the temporal distance necessary for nostalgic appreciation and historical situation. Their modern materials also yielded troubling impermanence. Old before their time, and yet somehow not old enough, these “day-old ruins” highlighted the incongruity of a young nation undergoing destruction while still in its earliest stages. By interrupting linear narratives of progress and decline, these ruins exposed the uneven nature of American urban development, in both its outward processes and its cultural manifestations.
In stark contrast to the grandiose neoclassical piles conjured by its antebellum landscape painters and poets, the actual ruins found in the urbanizing landscapes of nineteenth-century America tended to be prosaic, even tawdy structures. Materials and styles of constructions in the United States presents further information. Houses built of cheap material such as wood, and with crude techniques such as the balloon frame, do not offer resistance to decay, fire, or vegetative growth. Conversely, the newer industrial materials of steel, iron, glass, and concrete are too durable – liable only to rustm shatter, or crack. Connoisseurs of ruins instead favour stone (ideally marble) structures and bronze objects for the modulated way they register the effects of time. Ernst Block says that the machine age has produced buildings that “cannot grow old, but only ro[t] in the course of years” (386-87).

In southern cities such as Naples, Italy, Block observed, modern ruins such as broken water pipes and abandoned railroad tracks are permitted to remain in place for years, and may even have unintended benefits (in this case, channeling water down the tracks into the drier districts). But given the rapid and seemingly relentless process of capitalist urbanization in the United States, its ruins typically prove ephemeral. Despite some efforts to preserve them for future generations, the ruins of fires, earthquakes, or bankruptcies tend to disappear almost as quickly as they have materialized, recycled for their precious building materials, deployed as landfill, or simply erased to clear the way for new grounds of capital investment.


“I hear the ruin of all space, shattered glass and toppling masonry, and time one livid final flame. What’s left us then?” James Joyce, Ulysses  (1922)

In the past millennia of European history, many great civilizations have constructed cities filled with temples, theaters, palaces, and other structures of striking beauty.However, W.G. Sebald has written four novels, which navigate the haunting and labyrinthine topographies of destruction in Europe after WWII. The physical presence of the ruins of modernity is dilipidated train stations, abandoned industrial lands, wrecked ships, discarded colonial objects, bombed-out buildings, and decaying institutions of power. Through them Sebald reveals the violent underbelly of progressive hopes of modernization: the exploitation of nature, the genocidal legacy of European imperialism and overseas empires, and the human and natural catastrophes of warfare.

In 1953, at a time when much of Europe still lay in ruins and the spectre of atomic war loomed ever larger, the English novelist and travel writer Rose Macaulay published Pleasure of Ruins, her classic study of the aesthetics of destruction. In a fastidious and, at times, eccentrically written book, she traces the development of a taste for desuetude from Renaissance dream narratives to the ‘heartless pastime’ pursued by Henry James on his travels in Italy. It is not until the final pages that Macaulay acknowledges she is writing among modern examples, and then only – in a short ‘note on new ruins’ – to claim that the wreckage caused by bombing in World War II lacks the proper obscurity to qualify as pleasing decay: ‘Ruin must be a fantasy, veiled by the mind’s dark imaginings.’ According to Macaulay, the ruined houses, shops and churches of London, Hamburg, Coventry and Dresden would need to be softened by nature and time before being elected to a canon that includes Pompeii and the Parthenon. Macaulay’s language, however, suggests that the wreckage she sees around her enthralls her. Of a bombed-out house, she writes with some lyricism: ‘The stairway climbs up and up, undaunted, to the roofless summit where it meets the sky.’

Macaulay’s ambivalence about the status of the modern ruin – her own home and library were destroyed in the Blitz – indicates a fundamental confusion at the heart of the Ruinenlust that gripped European art and literature for centuries. In a highly refined and historically precise form, a version of that admiration for decay seems to have seized artists internationally in recent years: we might think, for example, of works as diverse as Roger Hiorns’ Seizure (2008), installed in a decayed London flat. In other cases, such as Runa Islam’s film of the Museum of the 20th Century in Vienna, Empty the pond to get the fish. (2008), the ruin in question is explicitly that of a mid-century Modernism. Some broad themes survive in this newly desolate but fantastical landscape: on the one hand, the ruin appears to point to a deep and vanished past whose relics merely haunt the present, reminding us of such airy and perennial themes as the hubris of Man and the weight of History.

For sure, the past century did not lack for straightforwardly kitsch or nostalgic versions of the taste for ruins. The most notorious example is Albert Speer’s concept of ‘ruin value’, according to which the monumental architecture of Welthauptstadt Germania – Hitler’s projected replacement of Berlin as Germany’s capital city – was conceived with an eye to its future picturesque decay.It was, however, among artists who referred, directly or obliquely, to the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Bloc that the theme of ruin flourished in the 1990s and beyond. Tacita Dean’s film Sound Mirrors (1999) broods over the remains of British prewar acoustic early-warning technology that seemed to presage the silos and satellite dishes of the Cold War, while later Berlin-based films such as Fernsehturm (Television Tower, 2001) and Palast (Palace, 2004) more readily reflect on the ageing or half-demolished architecture of the East.

Japan and its own Gunkanjima island in comparison

To its advantage, when people talk about modern ruins, the word haikyo always makes an entrance. In Japan, ruins are known as haikyo (廃虚), (literally “abandoned place”) but the term is synonymous with the practice of urban exploration. Haikyo are particularly common in Japan because of its rapid industrialization (Gunkanjima!), damage during World War II, the 1980s real estate bubble and the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami.

Jon from L.A. explains in his blog article “I see Japan… from LA: Haikyo“, the stark contrast between US and Japanese abandoned places: while in Japan its common to leave behind their personal belongings, in the US, if a business or a building is closed down, usually the contents such as furniture, etc. are sold or taken away. He also states that while in the US looters or squatters would have taken care of the abandoned place, there is no such problem in Japan, where for example an abandonded theme park still to this day displays a collection of samurai armour (authentic or not). Overall, he expresses his surprise that things could be just left there.

At the same time, according to a recent survey by Time Magazine, a lot of tourist’s motivations behind visits to modern European ruins were their interest in ‘historical heritage’, ‘understanding’, ‘education’, ‘identification’ and ’empathy’. The only time a tourist would choose to explore a place in Europe because of ‘horror and morbid curiousity’, the exploration would take place in carefully planned and organised attractions, such as the York/London Dungeon, Madame Tussauds Tomb, Jack the Ripper Walk, and similar ‘Ghost’ walks.
However, Japan offers a range of quirky (theme parks, love hotels) and creepy (abandoned ghost towns) places, where urban explorers and tourists can visit and enjoy without any structure or guide.


Dillon, Brian (2010).  “Decline and Fall: Tracing the history of ruins in art, from 18th-century painting to 21st-century film”. Frieze Magazine, issue 130, April 2010.

Goethe, quoted in Lowenthal, The Past is a Foreign Country, 110.

Hell, Julia & Schonle, Andreas (2010). Ruins of Modernity. Duke University Press Books.

Korstvedt, Benjamin M. (2010). Listening for utopia in Ernst Bloch’s musical philosophy. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Macaulay, Rose (1953). The Pleasure of Ruins. London: Walker And Company.

Yablon, Nick (2010).Untimely Ruins: An Archaeology of American Urban Modernity, 1819-1919. USA: University of Chicago Press.

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 News.com

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

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.

Then and Now – photographs of Gunkanjima


Photograph of the Hashima elementary school's Sports Day. Fathers and sons are dancing together. Showa 47.

Photograph of the Hashima elementary school’s Sports Day. Fathers and sons are dancing together. Showa 47 (1972).

Newspaper article at the time.

Newspaper article at the time.

“The longer the island sits unprotected by the typhoons and crashing waves, the more the structure crumbles – and with it, the history of this silent island.” – Ross McDermott

Despite being off-limits to travellers, the island has become an irresistible magnet for urban explorers who go to extraordinary lengths to investigate and photograph the island’s abandoned buildings.


Sections A & B - note level of reclaimed land vs original island profile. With time, the reclaimed land section is being retaken by the sea.

Sections A & B – note level of reclaimed land vs original island profile. With time, the reclaimed land section is being retaken by the sea.


Sections C & D.

Area map of the island by Gunkanjima Concierge.

Area map of the island by Gunkanjima Concierge.

Year and extent of island expansion.

Year and extent of island expansion.

Brochure from local Nagasaki tour company.

Brochure from local Nagasaki tour company.

The Korean and Chinese families in Gunkanjima


Many accounts of Gunkanjima stress its industrial and human achievements, reflecting Japan’s modernisation. Burke-Gaffney stresses, though, it had a darker history. Many urban poor Japanese and their families were sent there to work during the Japanese government’s plan to increase their coal production. The workers on the island were to mine the coal underneath the ocean that surrounded it. In addition, during the 1930s and 1940, Japan turned it into a forced-labour camp for Korean and Chinese men, where hundreds of victims were worked to death. A Korean survivor, Suh Jung-Woo, recalled: “The digging places were so small that we had to crouch down to work. It was excruciating, exhausting labour. Gas collected in the tunnels, and the rock ceilings and walls threatened to collapse at any minute. I was convinced that I would never leave the island alive.”

Hence, one of the more colourful monikers of the island was given to it by the Korean and Chinese – “Hell island”.


Most reports about the life on Gunkanjima come from the Korean workers. Koreans, being the direct victims of WWII, were brought to the island by force together with other Chinese war prisoners to work in the mine. They were working with the bare minimum protection, and were malnourished (with the boiled brown rice mixed with leftover beans and sardines) and overworked with the impossible to finish heavy labour. They were sent to 1 kilometer underground in the temperature over 45 degrees, pressed against each other in dangerous tunnels and crouching most of the times. You could easily count up to 4 to 5 deaths per month. The dead bodies were then shipped and burried in the neighbouring island, Nakanoshima. After work, they all live in the buildings lined up along the southern wall of Gunkanjima island. Seven or eight of them were confined in one small room, where nothing can be seen besides the sea. According to survivors’ testimony, the coal mine reached a depth of 1,000 meters, allowing seawater to sometimes seep into the pits where they worked, consequently exposing them to skin infections. Various gases including methane accumulated and condensed in the mines further exacerbating the already hazardous terrain. Even more worrying was the fact that Korean and Chinese laborers were often assigned to the most toxic gaseous sections.

“The Island was a living hell. You could not dare to escape it because of high breakwaters and huge waves. By the end of the war, Koreans were involved in dangerous work and they were often vulnerable to violence of mine supervisors,” recalled Park Jun-gu, 87, a victim of the mine.

In the peace museum at Nagasaki, testimonies from Korean forced laborers line the walls, collated by museum director Yasunori Takazane. “The common stories I heard from Korean and Chinese laborers was that they are enormously hungry. The meals were miserable and when they could not go to work they were tortured, punched and kicked.”

Hideo Kaji’s best friend at school was Korean. He says he didn’t see much discrimination against Koreans but he remembers his parents talking about one episode when a Korean worker was beaten. “My father and mother were saying how sorry they were but my Dad said it was inevitable because it is wartime.” He remembers resenting the Chinese as a child because they were “locked up in the southern part of the island, right where we used to play baseball. We were so upset they took our place to play, but after the war ended I learned they were forced to work there.”

Separated from their families and wives (most of whom were taken to become sex slaves for the Japanese army), they mutilated themselves in order to be expelled from the island; some swam to the nearest island (with the risk of getting caught and beaten), others simply committed suicide by jumping out the window. Approximately 120 out of the 500 Koreans working on the island between 1939 and 1945 died there. During the same period, in 1941, the Hashima mine produced its greatest amount of coal, as a result of the heavy demand from the war. Those who somehow survived the difficult years were then sent to Nagasaki to clean up the mess caused by the atomic bomb.

Tomoji Kobata only lived on Hashima for a year in 1961, and now he works for Gunkanjima Concierge, one of the tour operators that bring tourists to the island. He says he’ll tell visitors about the forced labor issue but he won’t dwell on it. “There were so many other sides to life on the island beyond that,” he said.

Japan was required to pay reparations to the countries it wronged during World War II as part of a series of post-war treaties. On the 50th anniversary of the end of the war, Japan’s Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama offered a general apology for the “tremendous damage and suffering to the people of many countries, particularly to those of Asian nations’ caused by its ‘colonial rule and aggression.'” But there have been several recent lawsuits, filed by Chinese workers against Mitsubishi, demanding compensation and a specific apology for their enslavement in facilities across the Japanese empire during the war. All have failed.


Following these facts, it is not surprising that the “Truth Commission on Forced Labor under the Japanese Colonial Rule” of South Korea disagrees with the attempt to register several of Hashima’s buildings on the UNESCO Heritage list.

A government investigation committee, unveiled a report on Japan’s forced mobilization of Koreans on Hashima Island during its colonial rule (1910-1945). The findings of the report is the culmination of research carried out by the Commission on Verification and Support for Victims of Forced Mobilization under Japanese Colonialism, an affiliate of the Prime Minister’s Office. The research, which began in May, highlights the inhumane conditions under which Korean laborers worked in coal mines on Japan’s Hashima Island. “We were able to verify through cremation-related records that poor working and living conditions caused frequent fatalities and scores of diseases that increased the mortality levels amongst the laborers,” said Yoon Ji-Hyun, a member of the commission.

One of the commission’s arguments was that the crimes against Koreans were being covered up in order to  make the island a more appealing tourist destination.

Lee Jae-cheol, spokesperson of the commission, said, “Nagasaki’s attempt to put Hashima Island where Koreans suffered so much on the World Heritage List is in line with the Japanese government’s attitude of whitewashing its history. We will take appropriate actions in relation to Nagasaki’s moves.”

The claim is not new, but new research has been delivered by a governmental agency created in 2005, the Commission on Verification and Support for Victims of Forced Mobilization under Japanese Colonialism, which already revealed last summer that, of the 7.8 million Koreans mobilized under Japanese rule (1910-1945), over 226,000 have been registered as victims.

Lately, Korean authorities have been toying with Godwin’s law, and the parallel between atrocities committed across Asia under Imperial Japanese rule, and the Holocaust perpetrated by their Nazi friends in Germany. Like that “Do you remember?” campaign in the US demanding official apologies for sex slavery / “Comfort Women”. Some members of the commission claim that in the same way, a UNESCO listing of Hashima as a simple “industrial site” would be equivalent to the listing of Auschwitz-Birkenau under the same category.

Meanwhile, in startling closing arguments last September, Mitsubishi issued a blanket denial of historical facts routinely recognized by other Japanese courts, while heaping criticism on the Tokyo Trials and openly questioning whether Japan ever “invaded” China at all. Mitsubishi has ominously warned that a redress award for the elderly Chinese plaintiffs, or even a court finding that forced labor occurred, would saddle Japan with a “mistaken burden of the soul” for hundreds of years.


Burke-Gaffney, Brian, (1996). “Hashima: The Ghost Island”, Crossroads: A Journal of Nagasaki History and Culture (UWOSH). 4:33–52.



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.



The Facts

Name: Hashima (端島), or most commonly known as Gunkanjima (軍艦島), meaning “Battleship Island”

English: Aerial Photo of Hashima Island (lower...

English: Aerial Photo of Hashima Island (lower left), Nagasaki City, Nagasaki, Japan, 1983. 日本語: 端島(左下):長崎県長崎市、東シナ海)(右上は中ノ島) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Other nicknames: The Forbidden Island, The Ghost Island, Hell Island.

Ethymology: ‘Hashima’ means ‘Border Island’. ‘Gunkan’ meaning ‘battleship’, ‘jima’ being a form of ‘shima’, meaning ‘island’ – it was so called because of its resemblance to the former Imperial navy warship “Tosa”.

Located: 15 kilometres (9 miles) southwest from Nagasaki port, Nagasaki Prefecture, Japan.

Size: Surprisingly small – 480m long and 160m wide, overall 1.2-sq.-km. That’s roughly four football stadiums!

Population: Currently – 0. However, it was once the most densely populated city in the world. The population reached a peak of 5,259 in 1959 – a density of 835 people per 10,000 square metres (100m x 100m) for the whole island, or 1,391 people per 10,000 square metres in the residential district alone. Even by today’s standards, those buildings packed a lot of people. According to the latest Demographia report on world urban areas, Dhaka, Bangladesh, fits nearly 45,000 people per square kilometer. Gunkanjima, with roughly 5,000 people in one-fifteenth of a kilometer, would beat that by a lot — as well as Mumbai, Hong Kong, Bogota and Karachi, some of the modern world’s other super-dense cities.

Real or man-made?: Both. Before it was discovered, it was merely a rock reef. However, the dirt from the coal mining was thrown out around the small island and soon was shaped the way it is today.

Timetable of Battleship Island:

1810 – Coal was discovered on the reef.

1882 – Magotaro Nabeshima, the master of the former Nabeshima Han declared possession.

1887 – Nabeshima started building the first shaft.

1890 – Mitsubishi acquired the mine for 100 yen.

1895 – The second shaft was built.

1896 – The third shaft was built.

1897 – Yahata steel was established.

1904 – The Russo-Japanese war started.

1907 – An undersea cable from Takashima was drawn.

1914 – WWI started.

1916 – Japan’s first apartment house was built.

1921 – The Nagasaki Nichi Nichi Newspaper called the island ‘Battleship Island’.

1923 – The fourth shaft was built.

1938 – An undersea telephone line was established.

1939 – WWII started. Korean coal miners were brought to the island.

1941 – A record amount of 411.1 thousand tons of coal was mined in one year.

1945 – An atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. The war ended.

1946 – A labour union was established on the island.

1948 – The population on the island reached 4526.

1950 – The Korean War started.

1957 – An undersea water pipeline was completed.

1958 – Became the first in the nation to have tv sets and refrigerators.

1959 – The population reached 5259.

1964 – A gas fire accident happened. The mines were closed for one year.

1965 – A new mine was discovered.

1973 – Mining stopped as of December.

1974 – The mines were officially closed on January 15.

2005 – From August 23, landing on the island is permitted to journalists only.

2009 – Travel to the island was re-opened on April 22.


Burke-Gaffney, Brian, (1996). “Hashima: The Ghost Island”, Crossroads: A Journal of Nagasaki History and Culture (UWOSH). 4:33–52.

Kobayashi, Shunichiro, (2004). “No Man’s Land, Gunkanjima. Japan Deathtopia Series”. Tokyo: Kodansha.