Gunkanshima and ruined lives

Ms. Fin has posted to the collaborative “visual representation” blog Spitting Image an interesting collection of sites about a Japanese island near Nagasaki named Hashima, but known by more people as “Gunkanshima” because it resembles a warship.

For over 80 years, Mitsubishi Mining Company used the island, having bought it in 1890 for 100,000 yen, to mine coal lying deep under the bottom of the sea within the vicinity of the island. In effect, until 1974 when mining operations abruptly stopped and residents of the island packed up and left, Hashima was a Mitsubishi company town, and within its 160 meters x 480 meters land area, as many as 5,000 people lived within its walls at the same time. According to Brian Burke-Gaffney’s well-researched article “Hashima: The Ghost Island,” published in the Summer 1996 issue of Crossroads: A Journal of Nagasaki History and Culture, in 1959 the population of the island reached 5,259, or 1,391 people per hectare (1 hectare = 2.47 acres) for the residential portion of the island. Writes Burke-Gaffney, “[…] this is said to be the highest population density ever recorded in the world.”

Ms. Fin links to the dare I say “requisite” Japanese photography sites documenting the extensive ruins that apparently still litter the island (Mitsubishi Mining, now called Mitsubishi Materials Corp., still owns the island and prohibits unauthorized access to it). As a whole, they form a nice, and beautiful at times, collection of photos. But as Ms. Fin writes, what these sites really are trafficking in is nostalgia, or “beautified nostalgia” as she puts it. With the exception of one site duly noted and praised by Ms. Fin (granted there may be others), there is precious little commentary or narrative about what life must have been like on this barren and isolated island, or the surely mixed emotions of those residents who had to leave the island in 1974 when Mitsubishi pulled the plug. Can any of the present-day photos of hollowed out buildings even begin to tell those stories? Are the approxmiately 1,200 laborers who died on the island due to mining accidents, having worked and starved to death, or by committing suicide, being remembered in these photos, or are these photos simply unwitting paeans to the former industrial might of Japan?

A might, it’s important to add, that was built in part on the forced labor of Chinese and Koreans and American POW’s during World War II (do a Google search for Mitsubishi Mining forced labor and be astonished at the myriad of accusations against not only Mitsubishi, but other Japan heavyweight corporations like Mitsui, Nippon Steel, and Sumitomo). With respect to Hashima’s mining operations, numbers are not conclusive, but it’s estimated that at the end of the war in 1945, there were 500 Koreans and 200 Chinese forced laborers on the island (these are numbers for those still living; perhaps as many as 150 forced laborers died during 1942-45 on Hashima).

According to this October 17, 2000 article [perhaps from the Japan Times?] linked here (scroll down to the bottom), some former island residents would rather not dwell on Hashima’s part in Japan’s forced labor history:

People who lived on the island after the war cannot stand the idea of their hometown being disgraced by the murky side of its history, said a midle-aged woman living near Takashima.

The woman, who spoke on condition of anonymity, added that people don`t feel free to be outspoken about forced laborers because most local residents are more or less still tied to the Mitsubishi group, which is sensitive about the issue.

Nevertheless, through lawsuits and other means, there are those who do want to revisit and seek redress. Just last weekend, according to this Japan Times article, two former Chinese forced laborers came to Japan at the invitation of Nagasaki University researchers, and were able to sail around Hashima island and even identify the site where they used to live. They were due to meet with Mitsubishi officials as well during their Japan visit, though it isn’t known whether they did or how they were welcomed.