Gunkanjima: an abandoned coal mining town like no other

Students of Japan’s modern industrial history may have heard of Gunkanjima.  Fans of James Bond movies may recognize it as villain Raoul Silva’s abandoned island hideout in Skyfall. Whatever it is, it sure is different!

Gunkanjima’s real name is Hashima.  Coal was discovered on Hashima, a rocky outcrop some 4.5 kilometers west of Nagasaki Peninsula, around 1810.  While there was some small scale mining, major mining operations did not begin in earnest until 1890.  By this time, Japan’s industrialization was in full swing and the coal was needed to power the nearby government-operated Yawata Steelworks.  The mine was soon drilled down to beneath the seabed, operating from 600 to 1,000 meters below the island and the surrounding sea via four different shafts between 1890 and 1974.

The location of the island, about 19 kilometers from Nagasaki Harbor, meant that it was not feasible for miners to live anywhere but on the island itself.  So Mitsubishi Corporation, operators of the mine, established a community on the island, gradually extending the island until it measured 480 meters by 160 meters, roughly three times its original size.  The company built high rise apartments, including Japan’s first ferro-concrete high rise apartment building (built in 1916), to accommodate the miners and their families.  At its peak in 1959, 5,259 people lived on Gunkanjima, making it the most densely populated place on the planet.

This might be a good spot to explain why Hashima Island is called Gunkanjima.  Gunkan means battleship.  From a distance, particularly from the windward side, this little rock covered with high rise buildings looks a bit like a battleship.  Hence the nickname Gunkanjima, battleship island.

IMG_0621In order to get miners to agree to move with their families to the island, Mitsubishi had to supply a lot more than just housing.  It also built a school (grades 1 through 9), a hospital, a day care center/kindergarten, a theatre, a department store, and even a swimming pool.  Meat and produce were brought in fresh daily by boat.

There was also a Shinto shrine at the highest point on the island and a Buddhist temple not far from the theatre.  Other facilities included a pachinko parlor and various restaurants and coffee shops.  Like most communities in Japan, the shrine hosted an annual festival that involved the entire community.

By today’s standards, the housing doesn’t seem like much, but for its times it was apparently regarded as very good.  Some apartments consisted of only a small kitchen/entry way and one six tatami mat-sized room (2.7×3.6 meters).  And that might house a family of four.  Others had one additional 2.7×2.7 room. The kitchen was rudimentary: a sink and a wood-burning stove (later converted to electricity).  There was a separate dormitory facility for unmarried men.

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The tallest high rise apartment was 9 stories; none of the buildings contained elevators.  All the apartments had shared toilets down the hall.  The apartments also didn’t have baths.  There were four bath facilities on the island.  Three of them were open to the general public and one was for the exclusive use of the miners coming off their shifts.  To be sure the miners would have welcomed a bath after eight hours at the coal face!

Miners were paid a premium for the hardship of living on the island, and so could afford luxury items like a television or a refrigerator before most middle class Japanese.

Among the things the island didn’t have was a cemetery and a crematorium.  Funeral matters were handled on the mainland.

The island had no fresh water.  Initially water was brought in by boat, but eventually the population on the island grew too large for that and a pipeline from the mainland was laid in.  Electricity was available relatively early, although initially the hours it was available was limited.  This may be one reason that there was a lighthouse on the island, which was otherwise shrouded in darkness at night.

The island also didn’t have sewers or a waste disposal system.  Everything was dumped straight out to sea, which, fortunately, has fast currents in this area.  (Also fortunate is that this was the age before plastic packaging, so what waste there was presumably biodegraded more readily than trash today.)

At its peak, the mine was in operation 24 hours a day, with the 800 miners working in three shifts.  They reached the coal face by descending 606 meters in the only elevator  on the island (capacity: 25) and then taking a small cable car that went down a 21 degree slope–so steep they had to sit facing backwards or risk being pitched forward.

Because of the depth of the mine and the geological activity under the whole of Kyushu, which is quite volcanicly active, working conditions were hot and humid.

The mine on Gunkanjima was closed on January 15, 1974.  The mine was, by that time, so deep that it was near magma and there were problems with gases seeping into the mine.  Also, by this stage of Japan’s economic development, the government had made a policy decision to rely more on petroleum for its energy needs.  The mine was, quite simply, superfluous to needs.

The miners and their families left Gunkanjima, some going to other mining work and others trying their hand at other jobs.

The island was abandoned to nature, inhabited only by birds (and possibly mice and rats), and very nearly forgotten.  Its deterioration over 45 years, as well as what hasn’t deteriorated, is fascinating to see.

In recent years Gunkanjima’s contribution to Japan’s modern industrialization has been formally recognized. It is part of the 2015 UNESCO World Heritage listing for “Sites of Meiji’s Industrial Revolution: Iron and Steel Shipbuilding and Coal Mining”.  The listing includes 30 sites altogether, including Gunkanjima and the Nirayama Reverberatory Furnace in Shizuoka.

Perhaps because of the eeriness of its decay, or perhaps due to some other morbid curiosity, Gunkanjima has become popular with tourists from Japan and around the world.  There are boat tours out to the island twice daily. During the boat ride, staff explain the history of the island and keep the passengers occupied with games and trivia quizzes.  Some English language support is available for those who don’t understand Japanese.

When conditions permit, tourists are landed on the island, where they can have a guided tour along purpose-built walkways that allow them to see the condition of the island for themselves.  For obvious safety reasons it’s not possible to allow people to freely roam.

On the day I visited, it was gray and overcast, perfect for visiting such a derelict site.  Unfortunately, the landing pier on Gunkanjima was badly damaged by Typhoon Hagibis in October 2019 (repairs expected by Spring 2020) so landing was not possible and we had to content ourselves with circling the island by boat.

A great alternative to visiting the island, or a supplement to a visit (either before or after), is the Gunkanjima Digital Museum, just a few minutes’ walk from the Tokiwa Terminal in Nagasaki.  The museum contains artifacts from Gunkanjima and scale models of the island, but more interesting are its 21st century technological simulations.  There is a theatre with incredible digital content called Gunkanjima Symphony that includes various views of the island and a montage of some 3,000 photos donated by former residents of the island.   There is also a video allows you to descend into the mine itself (fortunately, it does not simulate the hot/humid conditions). Two different virtual reality experiences that put you right inside the decaying buildings, or flying over them.

My visit at the museum was hosted by Kinoshita-san, a man who had been born on Gunkanjima in the 1950s and lived there for a number of years before the work of his engineer father took the family elsewhere.  It was fascinating to hear his memories of life as a child on Gunkanjima and to have him as my guide through the facility.

Today, we may view coal mining as dirty and polluting and look on those people who lived on Gunkanjima as trapped in such a tiny place.  But a visit to the museum and the island reveals a more nuanced reality. Gunkanjima made a significant contribution to Japan’s industrialization, and had a significant impact on the lives of the people who called it home over the four score and four years of the mine’s operation. It’s well worth a visit!

© 2019 Jigsaw-japan.com and Vicki L. Beyer
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