On November 21st I went to Gunkanjima with my laboratory. As I have mentioned before I worked on an Individual Study Project under the supervision of a Japanese professor and I would join his laboratory every once in a while on field trips. This was another one of them, but it was not just your ordinary place.
For those who are unfamiliar with Gunkanjima, it is an island near the city of Nagasaki. The name means ‘battleship island’ because the shape of the island resembles a warship, but the official name is Hashima. I think a lot of people have seen or heard of this place somewhere as it is well known for its eerie ruined buildings, abandoned by human life in a haste years ago, reminiscent of post-apocalyps scenes. This is one of the reasons why it was also used for a scene in the latest Bond movie Skyfall, although slightly altered.
But why did the place get abandoned in the first place? Hashima used to be a very small island of little importance until in the 19th century it became a coaling mine for Mitsubishi Company. In that time coal was an important natural source and the demand was high. More coal needed to be mined and more miners were needed and they began to live on the island. So they would build and expand the island slowly but surely.
At its peak the island grew to about three times its original size and had around 5.200 inhabitants. Tall apartment buildings to house 5.200 people, schools, pools, a cinema, a hospital, some shops, a shrine and a coal mine working space were built on an area of just 6.3 hectare, making it the most densely populated area in recorded history. With its coal Hashima greatly contributed to Japans’ modernization during the Japanese Industrialization.
However, at the end of the 20th century coal fell out of favor and oil became the new source in favor. Mitsubishi thus closed the coal mine in 1974 and there was no reason to stay on the island anymore. Everyone moved back to mainland Japan en masse to find jobs there and the island got abandoned. Since then island lies exposed to the forces of nature, tortured by typhoons and high waves. The place fell to ruins because no maintenance was being done to the buildings. And it became the ghastly place it now is.
Unesco World Heritage
Now we weren’t going there just for fun. We had a few meetings prior to going there to learn about the history and importance of the place. It was serious business.
Tourists are allowed to enter as well, but there is only a small part of the island they can visit and they are not allowed to get off the concrete path made for them. Now you’d think that this place is interesting because it resembles a post-apocalyptic place, great for photographers and adventurers. And I guess that is true for most of the (foreign) tourists that come there.
But after years of being deserted Gunkanjima suddenly became a point of interest again because they realized its significance and it is now a possible candidate to become UNESCO Cultural World Heritage as an Industrial Site and there is a reason for that; It is the first place in Japan to use reinforced concrete for multi-story buildings. It was way ahead of the techniques used on mainland Japan and shows the importance of the island for the Industrialization Period of Japan.
And that is way it is important to preserve the place and give it the attention it deserves. My professor is part of the committee that advises on this matter and is pushing to get Gunkanjima on the heritage list, and that’s why we were going there. He wanted our tips and opinions and I feel honored to be a part of that.
School in ruins
To see this all in real life and learn about it more up close we were given a tour through the island by someone who is an expert on the history of the island. First we had to take a small boat from Nagasaki to the island for about half an hour, guarded with gloves, thick soled shoes and a helmet, it is a dangerous place after all. We got on the island and first saw what used to be the elementary school.
From the first second you step on the island you step into a totally different world that I just can not describe as anything else but eerie, breathtaking and surreal at the same time. The buildings have been teased by the forces of nature so much that the foundations of the buildings lay bare and were even partly missing. All windows are broken, doors are often gone, plants are beginning to take over the buildings. Everything is in ruins. Sometimes you find a lost shoe or childrens toy. Very strange.
The strangest thing however was when we went through the apartments later on and took a like inside the houses, some looked like people left in a hurry for something life threatening; cups still on the table, shoes still in the shoe closet, open bottles in the kitchen. It is really everything what you would expect from a ghost town. But that is not all I want to tell you. It is so much more than that.
After taking a look at the school we made our way through the debris. Even though the buildings are very broken down, it is still easy to see some of the gorgeous architectural elements and it is amazing to think that the Japanese built concrete high rise apartments like this back in the day. We then made to the famous ‘Stairway to Hell’, a very steep stairway leading to the top of the small mountain on the island where the shrine used to be.
The way up to the shrine was the most beautiful to me; you could see the symmetrical shape of the buildings and ‘secret’ pathways that lead into the apartments, together with the plants that are now intertwined with buildings I felt like I was part of a Ghibli movie. The shrine itself had a great view on the island and the surrounding sea and islands. ‘One of the smaller nearby islands was used as a graveyard to put the ashes of cremated people’ is what our guide told us.
When we went back down after taking group pictures we actually went inside the apartments. The first building we went in was supposedly for the rich and more important people because the building in front of it was occasionally being tortured by big waves thus working as a protection shield for this building. Interesting isn’t it? That’s why all the hallways in the buildings had doors as well; to stop the waves from coming all the way into their houses. A popular activity of the housewives on stormy days was to watch the big waves from the rooftops.
The apartments were incredibly small by the way, only one room for a whole family. I wonder how people kept their sanity; no space in their home, no space outside either.
Mountains of Debris
There was a concrete bridge connecting the two apartment buildings. We had to cross it one at a time to prevent it from breaking down under our feet. Going down the second apartment was a challenge as well with broken down stair cases and debris everywhere. But that was nothing in comparison to what came next. There was literally a wall of wooden debris that we had to climb over which was insane and when we go that done there was this whole area of stone debris which used to be the cinema. So we had to climb another mountain of debris, careful of every step you take. It is certainly an adventure and scary as well.
When we made it past bare foundations of buildings and more debris we made it to the oldest building of Gunkanjima and the first building in Japan built with reinforced concrete (if I am not mistaken), apartment no.30. Finally we walked the last part on the concrete road for the tourists and walked on what used to be the working place for the coal miners.
Now, the message that I want to leave here is one of raising awareness and caution. Yes, Gunkanjima is an excellent place for taking gorgeous photos and it will bring out the adventurer in you. But please be aware of the significance this place holds in Japanese history. Please be aware why it deserves to be an UNESCO World Heritage Site. Don’t go there just for fun or for the sake of having been there, go their to learn something and to reflect on what you see.
As a beginning researcher of the protection of cultural heritage I only hope this place will get the restorations it needs and that the people visiting there won’t make the already bad state of the buildings there even worse by mindlessly trampling all over the place in the hope to have a post-apocalyptic adventure. This place is a perfect example of what can happen when we don’t see the value of what is in front of us and forget about it. I hope that we won’t let other places fall down to a ruined state like that of gunkanjima, only to realize afterwards how important and valuable it is when it is too late.