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.

Ruined Japan?

According to a survey of Japanese citizens conducted by the Asahi Shimbun for their Japan Almanac 2002, when asked to pick which of the two feelings, hope or misgivings, were more dominant when they thought about the future, 73% of those surveyed chose misgivings. And when asked to choose one word to describe their feelings about current times, 30% chose konmei, or confusion. (By contrast, stability and freedom came in at 6% and 5% respectively). Down on the list, but significant I think, 6% of respondents chose collapse to describe current times in Japan.

That 36% should see either confusion or collapse when they took a look at their current situation or that of their country should hardly be surprising given a country whose economy has yet to come to terms with the bubble that burst and is floundering in a decade long recession, or where revelations of a new goverment or corporate scandal are daily occurrences, to say nothing of the gradual aging of the population due to its declining birth rate. (According to the Japan Almanac 2002 referenced above, Japan’s birthrate as of 2000 was 1.35. To maintain its current population, the birthrate needs to be 2.1.)

I proffer this information in light of what I and others have noticed as a trend in the photography (or should I say “photo collecting”) among certain Japanese, that is the proliferation of sites documenting the abandoned ruins of hotels, factories, hospitals, etc. that dot the modern Japanese landscape. (To wit, gmtPlus9 linked to a few just the other day — see entries for July 16th. Further exploration can start at the links page of Ruin-Japan.). And it’s not just web sites either; photographer Shinichirou Kobayashi has practically built his oeuvre on the subject, with at least two books (Deathtopia and Ruins) and even a recently-issued DVD from Daiei.

It’d be convenient to say that all this dwelling in abandoned buildings (pardon the pun) has gotten me bitten by the same bug, but frankly I was bitten quite a while ago. I still remember the thrill of happening quite by accident upon the remnants of the turn-of-the-century utopian colony Llano in hinterland Los Angeles (and realizing I had been there before via the writings of Mike Davis), or discovering again seemingly by accident the recreational detritus of Salton Sea (and too recognizing it as being the previous photo stomping grounds of Richard Misrach).

There’s a telling pattern here, and one I’ve mentioned before: if you think you’re on to something new and unchartered, chances are it has not already been discovered, but documented ad nauseum. All of which brings me to my own “ruins” discovery this past weekend when Naoko and I ostensibly went on a little onsen (hot spring) getaway to Tochigi Prefecture a couple of hours north of Tokyo. I say “ostensibly” because I admit that while the thought of a relaxing in an onsen in a smallish mountain town was uppermost in my thoughts, I did have an ulterior motive for going, and that motive was the tantalizing possibility that I too might be able to catch the Japanese ruin-hopping bandwagon and see some of my very own ruins.

So imagine my glee (and my wife’s concomitant disappointment!) when not 5 minutes after leaving the Tohoku Expressway to head into the mountains we should come upon an abandoned pachinko parlor named “Parlor Pateo”. Huge unlit neon sign, an expansive parking lot with weeds starting to sprout up through the asphalt, holes in the glass wall big enough to allow entry — ah, this was the mother lode I’d been looking for to claim my spot amongst the “ruin” maniacs. So dutifully I made my way in and snapped as many photos as I felt comfortable doing (I was less hampered by the thought of tresspassing than I was by the need to preserve some space on my memory cards to document the rest of our onsen getaway). The next day I went back, this time with a tripod and video camera.

In the end I think I’d have to conclude that satisfying and fruitful as my discovery was, a pachinko parlor was frankly almost too good a discovery. If I had my choice, I would have picked something a little more downmarket in the postmodern cliche department. Given the choc-a-bloc saturation of bright, neon-lit, smoke-filled, cacophonous pachinko parlors within the Japanese landscape (first time visitors to this place can be forgiven if they think that Japan’s physical landscape — to say nothing of it’s emotional one — is defined by pachinko parlors, karaoke joints, and vending machines), it felt a little too pat to gingerly maneuver through silent and cracked open machines with tiny silver balls still lodged in their feeders or scattered all over the floor among the glass and adult manga (comic) books and cigarette butts, or the entrance door which had recently been on the receiving end of someone’s target shooting practice. Same thing with Love Hotels: as much as I’d love to stumble onto a ruined one, such as this one that gmtPlus9 linked to, after the orgasmic thrill of the find, I wonder if I’d respect myself in the morning. Is there anything one can say about a ruined Love Hotel (or the plentiful ones still standing and operating for that matter) that hasn’t already been said and re-said so many times before?

We did come upon other more prosaic ruins during the trip (an abandoned supermarket, several old buses left to rot, an abandoned karaoke pub), though none proved as accessible as the pachinko parlor (and frankly, with each new discovery Naoko’s patience with my little “side-project” kept diminishing). Still, within a 50-square kilometer area, only on main roads, we came across this much abandonment. No wonder this niche area of ruin photography is seemingly endless.

One wonders as well how many people have been before me to the abandoned Parlor Pateo in Tochigi-ken. Normally you’d suspect some kids out for a little smashing fun would have been the first to smash open the glass, but I think it’s an equally safe bet to imagine that some intrepid photographer who probably does nothing on his weekends but drive around looking for these things was the first to break through the glass, thereby allowing himself and countless other followers like myself entry. And I’m sure that there are galleries already uploaded of this ruined pachinko parlor. I’ve done a cursory search, but given the extent of these sites it would require a significant amount of net time to look through all of them for, ahem, my pachinko parlor in Tochigi.

I’m working on making a film out of the video footage I shot at the abandoned pachinko parlor. In the meantime, if you’d like to see my inaugural entry into Japanese ruin photography, I have uploaded a small gallery here.

Looking for manholes

I recently had the idea that I would start to collect manholes, you know those usually round slabs of metal that cover drainage holes and what not in the street. Mind you, not collecting the actual things, but rather photographs of them (what else in a post-meta world?). You see I’ve started to notice that Japan has many variations on the theme and that each town or Tokyo district seems to have its own design for them.

I whip up these little photo collecting projects in part to keep myself motivated when taking pictures for my Japan photo diary. Now I’m on a manhole “kick.” Previously, I’ve been on a construction sign kick, a subway commuter kick. You get the idea, little diaries within the diary. I think it may in part be the otaku spirit of collecting rubbing off on me, spurred on it part by coming across web sites like this one (via Spitting Image).

At any rate, given the propensity I’ve come to find on the part of some Japanese to maniacally document (or collect) something to the nth degree, I figured there was surely someone out there who has already “collected” manholes and created a loving web site devoted to them. I asked a favor of my wife to do some Google Japan searches (in the end, it turns out I could’ve done this myself, as manholes are simply called “manhooru” in Japanese). Here, in no particular order, is what she found:

This is just from the first couple of Google pages. Who knows how many of these sites lurk out there, nor what else they might contain? To wit, if you go to the homepage of the last URL listed above, you will also find his (it’s gotta be a he, no?) pages (all complete with photographs) on telegraph poles, public buses, fire hydrants, signboards, traffic signals, and mailboxes.

In the face of all this detritus washing up on the shores of the web, what’s a poor little newbie collector like me to do?

P.S. Lest one think that this manhole mania is exclusive to Japanese, herewith are some select non-Japanese sites: