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Located about 9 miles from the city of Nagasaki, Japan is a unique and spooky industrial tourist hotspot.
Hashima Island was populated from 1887 to 1974 as a coal mining colony and housed thousands of workers in its heyday. When coal mining declined, operations at the facility ceased and the island was abandoned.
The island’s most notable features are its abandoned concrete buildings, undisturbed except by nature, and the surrounding sea wall. While the island is a symbol of the rapid industrialization of Japan, it is also a reminder of Japanese war crimes as a site of forced labor prior to and during WWII.
The 6.3-hectare (16-acre) island was known for its undersea coal mines, established in 1887, which operated during the industrialization of Japan. The island reached a peak population of 5,259 in 1959. In 1974, with the coal reserves nearing depletion, the mine was closed and all of the residents departed soon after, leaving the island effectively abandoned for the following three decades.
Interest in the island re-emerged in the 2000s on account of its undisturbed historic ruins, and it gradually became a tourist attraction. Certain collapsed exterior walls have since been restored, and travel to Hashima was re-opened to tourists in 2009. Increasing interest in the island resulted in an initiative for its protection as a site of industrial heritage.
During World War II, the history of the island is darker as Japanese wartime mobilization policies exploited enlisted Korean civilians and Chinese prisoners of war as forced laborers.
Made to work under harsh conditions, it’s estimated that over 1,000 workers died on the island between the 1930s and the end of the war as a result of unsafe working conditions, malnutrition, and exhaustion.
As a tourist site, the island was named a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Historical Site in 2015 and groups of visitors can be taken on tours. However, despite the public’s infatuation, the island’s legacy remains an enigma. It’s unclear whether the focal point of the island should revolve around its part in Japan’s industrial revolution or as a reminder of the forced laborers who had to endure excruciating circumstances.
Hashima Island’s Industrial Rise And Fall
Coal was first discovered on the 16-acre island in the early 1800s. In an attempt to catch up with western colonial powers, Japan embarked on a period of rapid industrial development starting in the mid-1800s and utilized Hashima Island for the endeavor.
After Mitsubishi bought the island in 1890, the company consequently developed seawalls and began extracting coal as Japan’s first major undersea coal exploitation.
In 1916, a 7-floor apartment block (Japan’s first large reinforced concrete building) was built for the miners.
To protect against typhoon damage, sturdy concrete was used to create apartment complexes, a school, and a hospital for the growing community.
While thriving as a coal mining facility, Hashima Island was home to thousands. In 1959, it reached its peak population of 5,259 residents.
In the 1960s, coal mines across the country began closing as petroleum became its number one replacement. In January 1974, Mitsubishi closed the Hashima mines for good.
Of course, when the operations ceased, the people left too. In just three months, the island cleared out. With nobody left to maintain the structures after the island was deserted, many of them collapsed and decayed into rubble over time.
Renewed Interest In Hashima Island
Even after the population dropped to zero, Mitsubishi maintained ownership of the island. In 2002, they transferred it to Takashima Town, which was absorbed by the city of Nagasaki in 2005.
After collapsed walls were restored, the island and its undisturbed housing complexes opened to tourists in 2009. The unique setup of the island, particularly the density of crammed buildings that have undergone weathering from corrosive seawater, has made it a popular destination.
“Accumulated reinforced concrete ruins do not seem to exist except Hashima,” researcher Takafumi Noguchi said, adding, “Concrete structures built in ancient Rome are the only competitor, but they do not contain reinforcing steel.”
Noguchi, along with a team of other researchers, began scaling the island in 2011 to see how the crumbling buildings could be saved.
Despite its booming tourist business and film appearances (including James Bond’s Skyfall), a vast majority of the island remains off-limits to visitors, as the massive investments needed to ensure the safety of the aged buildings would ultimately jeopardize the historical state of the property.
Controversy Over Gunkanjima’s Dark Past
The harrowing experiences of the slave laborers add an entirely different kind of eeriness to Hashima Island.
After Japan colonized Korea and invaded China, they used recruited labor in the 1930s and 1940s to force thousands of people to work the mines.
Past workers have recounted their time with grim details, describing the conditions as grueling and inhumane. The weather was humid and food was scarce. If they slacked, they were beaten.
The history enclosed behind the seawalls of Hashima Island is a lot of things: rich, complex, devastating. One thing that is clear: the Japanese enclave is a testament to how, in an abandoned area, nature and industry interact.
Multiple companies offer ferry tours to the island out of Nagasaki Port (located just a few stops from Nagasaki Station) for around $35 – $40.
A standard tour takes around 3 hours and includes a trip to the island’s 3 observation decks as well as an 1-long walking tour with a Japanese-speaking guide.
Because the abandoned buildings pose a serious safety risk, the tour is fairly restricted and visitors are not permitted to stray from the path. Unless you have a media/press pass, private excursions to the island are illegal. Additionally, due to the harsh waters and weather conditions in the area, passengers may be refused admittance based on physical condition. Newborn babies and pets are not allowed.
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