Gunkanjima, officially “Hashima”, is a tiny island just outside Nagasaki Bay. Consisting mostly of man-made concrete-covered landfills, the island was a coal-mining operation run by Mitsubishi Heavy Industry and once boasted the highest population density in the world. Today, the only way to land on the island is by forking out 4,300 yen for a cruise tour that departs twice everyday from Nagasaki Ferry Terminal.
I was there a few days ago and took some pictures.
Hashima is an amazing place in many sense. Today it is known as one of the legends of urban exploration, but not too long ago it was a miniature city with permanent dwellers comprising the coal miners and their families.
The population density of the island at its peak was 83,500 people/km^2. In comparison, Tokyo’s is 5,874 people/km^2. It was the site of the first ever concrete high-rise residential building in the whole of Japan owing to its extreme lack of space.
The island is 320m long and 120m wide. It was originally 1/3 its current size. From 1897 to 1931, six separate reclamation projects brought it to its final size. Concrete wave barriers and structures surround the original island, creating the silhouette of a battleship when seen from afar. The island’s nickname “Gunkanjima” means “Battleship Island”. Apparently, the island also resembles an American aircraft carrier when seen from above.
Surprisingly, life was actually pretty good on the island. It had shops, a Shinto shrine, a primary school, a secondary school, a 60-metre swimming pool and high-rise residential apartments with facilities that wouldn’t look out of place in modern Tokyo. The reason is because everything on the island was subsidized by Mitsubishi. For example, every household paid only 10 yen per month for utilities and Mitsubishi covered the rest.
In the 1960s, every family on the island owned a television and air conditioner in a time when such appliances were rare even in Tokyo households. The annual salary of a teacher on Hashima was about 130,000 yen when the average across Japan was 50,000.
In a way, Hashima was an incredible and extreme example of the vertical natural of Japanese conglomerates and the way they take care of (and/or exert control over) their employees. Even today, when such life-time employment systems are showing their cracks, there are salarymen who never had to file their taxes because their companies have a department that does it for them.
Of course, the Hashima story is not totally sunshine and roses. Coal mines are not pleasant places no matter how much benefits the worker receive. Also, during the war, Koreans were forcefully made to work in the mines just like in many other wartime industries in Imperial Japan.
Still, there is something romantic and almost surreal about the community that once thrived on this mostly artificial island. It is one of those unique crossroads between small-town Japan and the high-tech modern industrial Japan. Kind of like Soukyuu no Fafner or the original Macross really.
As petroleum replaced coal in energy production, the island gradually emptied out and the mine itself was officially closed by Mitsubishi in 1974. The former residents were relocated to all over Japan and various associations exist for them to keep in touch.
Incidentally, most of the information here were covered by the tour guides for the cruise. For those considering the tour, please note that absolutely none of the tour material is available in English. Unfortunately, this is a location that attracts mostly Japanese tourists.
Travelling to Nagasaki was quite a pain due to the lack of Shinkansen, but it turned out to be worth it. I’ll do a write-up for the rest of the city soon.