A tiny rocky outcrop miles off the coast of Japan may not seem like the most obvious site for a city to grow, but when coal was found under the sea, it led to a flourishing community, ultra-modern buildings and huge profits for the Mitsubishi company. Now, it lies empty and abandoned, the decaying structures all that’s left of the once thriving city. So what happened? And is there a darker layer under the story of industrial boom and bust? Welcome to Hashima Island.
In the early 19th century, coal was discovered under the East China Sea and this led to a boom in mining operations for an increasingly industrial Japan. In 1890, Japanese company Mitsubishi bought what was formerly one of hundreds of uninhabited islands off the coast of the Nagasaki peninsula and the history of Hashima island began.
“Shima” is a Japanese suffix meaning “island” so to avoid people pointing this out in the comments, I’ll try and avoid calling it “Ha-island Island” from now on.
Mitsubishi got to work and by using land reclamation and setting up seawalls, almost tripled the size of the small island. When buildings for the workers started going up, it gave Hashima a distinctive shape and silhouette on the ocean, leading to its new nickname of Gunkanjima or Battleship Island. Hashima became a microcosm of burgeoning industrial Japan with Japan’s first large reinforced concrete structure going up in 1916. This was a 7-storey housing block for the workers and their families as it was much more economical to house them on the island then having to travel to and from the mainland every day. Life was hard on Hashima with residents having to rely on daily shipments of everything including fresh water until a pipeline was eventually built. Despite this, Japanese workers were well paid and the standard of living was comparatively high, even though the living quarters were what you might call “extremely cosy”. A family of four might have one main room to live and sleep in measuring about 2.7meters by 3.6 meters, or 6 tatami mats. Some may have had an additional small room and unmarried men would have had even smaller spaces in their own housing block. Toilets were shared and there were 4 communal baths on the island, including one exclusively reserved for the miners.
Over the years, more and more buildings went up until there were over 30 in total. To support the ever-growing community, as well as housing there were schools, the public baths, shops, a Buddhist temple, a Shinto shrine, a hospital, mahjong parlour and a community centre. These were all concrete buildings, the tallest being a 9-storey apartment block, and in the decade covering 1935-1945, they were the only concrete structures going up anywhere in Japan. This goes to show how important coal mining still was in supporting the Japanese war effort. The buildings on Hashima were all linked by walkways and staircases, protecting people from the elements and creating a singular sense of community.
Concrete was used as it gave good protection against typhoons but it also meant the island was a pretty drab place. This was confirmed by former inhabitants who said that as it was a man-made rocky island, there was no greenery or plant life anywhere. They had to rely on the colour of the ocean and sky to work out what season it was. Eventually, buildings covered almost all of the island and in 1959 the population on Hashima peaked at 5,259 people. This was on a tiny island measuring just 480 metres long and 150 metres wide and made it the most densely populated place on the planet. At the time it was 9 times more densely populated per hectare than Tokyo.
With the coal being beneath the sea floor, four mine shafts were eventually created, all of them at least one kilometre deep. Miners took about 20 minutes to descend beneath the waves in a small elevator and then transfer to a cable car which was on such a steep downward slope that they had to sit backwards to avoid falling forwards. Once down in the mine, because it was located near a volcanically active area, working temperatures were easily around 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees fahrenheit) and humidity was on average 95% every day. During the mine’s heyday, it was operating 24 hours a day with about 800 men split over three 8 hours shifts. Over the course of the mine’s operation between 1891 and 1974, over 15 millions tons of coal were excavated from the sea bed.
You may remember that I said the standard of living was pretty good for the Japanese workers and that was true…for the Japanese workers. Unfortunately there is a stain on the history of Hashima that takes place around the Second World War. With Japanese men of fighting age being called up by the military, there was a shortage of workers for the mines. This problem was solved with bringing Korean workers and Chinese prisoners of war onto the island as forced unpaid labour, also known as slaves. This is an issue that Japan and Mitsubishi dance around to this day but the people who made it off the island reported that hundreds of Korean workers were crammed into one small building and given very poor quality food and clothing. Some chose suicide over the working conditions with others trying to swim to freedom but this always ended in death as it was over nine miles of rough sea to the mainland. With no way to escape the daily exhausting work, Hashima became known as Prison Island to its conscripted inhabitants. A conservative estimate is that over 1000 of these forced labourers died over the span of about 15 years working on Hashima due to sickness, overwork and lack of food.
Unsurprisingly, there is no mention of these forced labourers on the Hashima page of Mitsubishi’s website. While they may have been keen to gloss over this part of the island’s history, Korea and China have not forgotten so quickly. When Japan put forward Hashima as a potential UNESCO world heritage site, focusing on its importance in the history of Japan’s industrial revolution, both South and North Korea criticized this with South Korea directly opposing the nomination. China also commented that the site would not be in the “spirit of promoting peace as upheld by UNESCO”. Eventually a compromise was reached with Japan promising to approve South Korea’s future nominations and also promising to acknowledge the forced labourers with relevant information at the site. Hashima was given UNESCO world heritage status in 2015 but so far Japan has not fully come through on its promise to add the Korean and Chinese workers back into the island’s history.
The coal boom could not last forever. In the 1960s, Japan started to favour petroleum over coal which spelled the end for coal mines across the country. As well as not being as profitable anymore, the coal under Hashima did what any natural resource mined around the clock by a large corporation does – it started running out. By the 1970s, the mine on Hashima was getting dangerously deep with gas seeping into the mine becoming an increasing issue. Finally, the writing was on the wall and it closed for good on the 15th of January, 1974. With no reason to stay on an overcrowded rock 9 miles from the mainland, the workers and inhabitants of Hashima said goodbye to the island they’d called home, with the last boat leaving on the 20th of April, 1974. And that was it. An entire island city was abandoned in a matter of months and left to the elements, almost totally forgotten about for 35 years. Thanks to erosion from sea water, typhoons and the passage of time, the concrete began to crumble, windows were broken and finally nature began to make itself known. While there hadn’t even been a single tree or flower on Hashima at the start of the mining operation, residents started requesting soil and seeds in the 1960s for small rooftop gardens to grow vegetables and flowers. Now with the humans gone, grasses and thin trees started competing for the sunlight among the walls and rubble.
Understandably, people became interested in revisiting the now decaying and slightly creepy island and boat tours out to and around the island started in 2009. While it is possible to disembark onto a walkway on the island itself, visitors cannot get anywhere near the actual buildings due to concerns about their structural integrity. The sea is also pretty rough in that part of the world so tours generally only take place around 100 times a year. There have been a few visiting exceptions, however, with building safety inspectors and photographers allowed on to Battleship Island to document what has been left behind. Mitsubishi actually kept hold of the island until 2002 when it was transferred to Takashima Town which merged with Nagasaki city in 2005.
If you aren’t making a trip out to Japan anytime soon, don’t worry. Google mapped the island for Street View in 2013 so it’s possible to pick your way through the crumbling buildings and peek at the objects left behind from the comfort of your own home. You can see the remains of the barbershop, for example, and things like calendars and posters on the walls. There are abandoned televisions, telephones and broken childrens’ toys.
If you’re thinking, hmmmmm, this all looks vaguely familiar…if you’ve seen the James Bond film Skyfall, you’re right. While no filming was allowed on the island itself, it was used for establishing shots and the scenes featuring Bond meeting Raoul Silva were based on the look of the abandoned industrial city.