The Japanese word Gunkanjima means “Battleship Island”. And indeed a lookout seems to be rising over the bridge of an enormous ship: long and massive, it looks more like a battleship than a cruise ship. But what we see from the tourist boat, when we visit Gunkanjima, is actually not a battleship but a small island with a huge concentration of concrete tower blocks. At some point in the 1950s, the 6 ha island had a population of over 80,000!
This weird and fascinating island has speedily become a major tourist attraction in Nagasaki since its listing as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2015, and overseas travellers are spreading the word and visit Gunkanjima.
Nickname “Battleship Island”
Gunkanjima is actually the modern nickname of the Island. The people who lived and worked there called their home Hashima (Fringe Island). Hashima used to be an even smaller island, just a few rocks really, not suitable for living, but scientists found a coal stratum that led from the neighbouring island of Takashima down below the sea.
There, on Takashima, mining had begun in the 18th century. When the Scottish entrepreneur Thomas Glover came to Nagasaki and took over the mine at the wake of the Meiji Restoration (1868), newly imported Western mining technology allowed the miners to go ever deeper below the sea-bed.
In 1887, Mitsubishi – who by then owned the Takashima coal mine – started a new mine shaft from Hashima to access the coal. And since there was a lot of coal (and the newly industrialising country needed all of it!), housing units arose even on the limited space of the island for the pitmen and their families. And this meant building high. As early as 1916, Gunkanjima had Japan’s first seven-storey ferro-concrete apartment house, followed by several blocks of nine-storey houses. Meanwhile, several rounds of land reclamation increased the space on the island somewhat, only to build more houses, schools, playgrounds for the children, and more industrial facilities.
The boat ride from Nagasaki harbour takes less than an hour – a nice outing on such a pleasant day as we had, but apparently it’s not always like this. We stop on Takashima Island to have a look at the local coal museum featuring a large model of Gunkanjima and lots of black and white pictures of the miners. “When it’s windy there is no chance that people understand anything I say on the boat, if they feel like listening at all – that’s why I offer an introduction at this model” the Japanese tour guide explains and points out the different buildings.
While some tours only circle the island by boat, we have chosen a tour that lands on Gunkanjima itself.
The island is uninhabited today: In 1974, when coal mining had become unprofitable, Mitsubishi decided to close down the mine – and to evacuate the whole island within weeks.
In spite of having the population of a medium-sized town, with sports clubs, a shopping street and a shrine, Hashima was in no way self-sufficient. Water, for instance, had to be brought by ship and was strictly regulated. Normal flats had no bathroom at all, and the public bath used seawater. So, as soon as the jobs ceised, people had to leave their homes, too. The buildings crumbled for the next decades and most are now dangerously instable – not least because the sea crashes against the buildings during every storm. Visitors on a visit to Gunkanjima are not allowed to walk freely on the island, but have to stick to a fixed route. A walkway leads around one quarter of Gunkanjima.
We see the tower blocks huddling together, no large windows to the sea as we might have expected. “They had only corridors on that side, because the windows would often break due to the weather conditions” the guide explains. Also, there was a conveyor belt right between the housing blocks transporting colliery wastes to a dump on the other side of the island (because near the pit it would have blocked the harbour). The Conveyor belt was running 24 hours a day, but presumably the inhabitants would have gotten used to the noise.
Work, and life, on Hashima was probably not exactly pleasant, and not everyone was there voluntarily in the first place. During the war, workers (especially Koreans) were conscripted to work in the mines. This rather inglorious history also challenged Hashima’s inclusion in the UNESCO list. Even after the war, Hashima was clearly a place to earn some money and get out as soon as possible. But while most inhabitants must have been glad to leave the cramped housing estates, we learn that some of today’s visitors come with fond memories: Those who were children at the time of the evacuation knew this industrial rock in the sea as home. And of course they are shocked at the crumbling concrete, says our guide. “One visitor just resigned: He was born on Hashima, but this is now Gunkanjima, the battleship, a different place from his hometown”.
James Bond was here…
The stark setting of shattered concrete buildings and disintegrating industrial facilities on a windswept island has made Gunkanjima a perfect location for film shootings. In the James Bond film Skyfall, the grim island was recreated in the studio.
Gunkanjima has been listed together with nearly 30 other “Sites of Japan’s Meiji Industrial Revolution” in Southern Japan. Most of them of little interest to regular travellers, but only to history buffs and some engineers. Those, however, can delve into the staggering technological developments in Japan at the end of the 19th century, when the country suddenly opened up to the world.
Should you visit Gunkanjima?
Yes, definitely it is worth travelling to Nagasaki and to visit Gunkanjima, and we appreciated the opportunity to land on the island. You have to bear in mind, though, that it is not possible to explore the ruined buildings: you have to stay on the newly-built visitor walkway. Nevertheless, there are quite photogenic views, and imagining the lives of the workers there is quite intriguing.
How to get to Gunkanjima from Nagasaki
Several tour operators offer boat trips from Nagasaki harbour, in or near the passenger terminal. All tours are guided in Japanese. We went with Gunkanjima Cruise (www.gunkanjima-cruise.jp), situated behind the passenger terminal and somewhat cheaper than those in the terminal. In the main tourist season you have to make reservations in advance, but when we went in July, there were still seats available – so you can and should plan the trip depending on weather conditions. With high waves you might not only get seasick but there is also the possibility that the ship cannot land on Gunkanjima.