in the 1890’s Mitsubishi mined coal from the sea floor below, and at it’s peak in 1959, the 15.6 acre island housed to more than 5,000 workers and their families resulting in the highest population density in history — in ’74 everyone was relocated to the mainland and the island was left to ruin… in ’09 travel to Hashima re-opened after more than 20 years…
by BRIAN BURKE-GAFFNEY
Seen from a distance, Hashima Island might be mistaken for the Japanese counterpart of Alcatraz rising from the ocean like a ragged slab of concrete. Few casual observers would ever guess that, only 40 years ago, this tiny island was the site of a thriving community with the highest population density on earth. One among 505 uninhabited islands in Nagasaki Prefecture, Hashima lies in the East China Sea some 15 kilometers from Nagasaki, its naked crags striking a stark contrast with the verdant peaks of nearby islands. A closer look reveals clusters of unpopulated high-rise buildings pressing up against a man-made sea wall, a battered shrine at the top of a steep rock cliff, and not a single tree in sight. The clue to the island’s mystery lies in coal mining. Reached by long descending tunnels, coal beds below the bottom of the ocean near Hashima disgorged huge quantities of high-grade coal for almost a century. But in 1974 the inhabitants abandoned the island to the wind and salt spray, leaving behind only unneeded belongings and a few stray cats.
After several failed attempts, the Fukahori Family installed a shaft mine on Hashima in 1887, inhabiting it for the first time. Three years later, it sold the island to Mitsubishi Corporation for 100,000 yen. The now world-famous company had expanded rapidly after its inception as a shipping enterprise in 1873. The years that followed witnessed a remarkable surge in Japan’s industrial capacity and military might, encouraged by victory in both the Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895) and Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905). At Hashima, Mitsubishi launched a project to tap the coal resources under the sea bottom, successfully sinking a 199-meter-long vertical shaft in 1895 and still another shaft in 1898. The company also utilized the slag from the mine to carry out a series of land reclamations, thereby creating flat space for industrial facilities and dormitories. Completed around 1907, the high sea-walls gave the island the appearance of a battleship riding the waves. The resemblance was so uncanny that a local newspaper reporter dubbed it Gunkanjima (Battleship Island), a nickname that soon replaced the official name in common parlance.
Hashima was producing about 150,000 tons of coal annually and its population had soared to over 3,000 when, in 1916, Mitsubishi built a reinforced concrete apartment block on the island to alleviate the lack of housing space and to prevent typhoon damage. This was Japan’s first concrete building of any significant size. America’s first large-scale concrete structure—the Ingalls Office Building, in Cincinnati—had been built only 14 years earlier. A square, six-story structure built around a dingy inner courtyard at the southern edge of the island, the building provided cramped but private lodgings for the miners and their families. Each apartment consisted simply of a single, six-tatami-mat room (9.9 square meters) with a window, door, and small vestibule—more like a monk’s cell than an apartment, but still a major improvement over previous living quarters. Bathing, cooking, and toilet facilities were communal.
This building was followed two years later by an even larger apartment complex on the sloping rock at the center of the island. Then the tallest building in Japan, the E-shaped apartment block had nine stories on the ocean side and three on the rock side. One multi-story apartment block followed another until the tiny island bristled with more than 30 concrete buildings. Even during the 11-year period before and during World War II, when not a single concrete building went up anywhere else in Japan, the construction of apartment blocks continued on Hashima as part of national efforts to meet the tremendous wartime demand for coal. As a result of these efforts, Hashima’s annual coal production reached a peak of 410,000 tons in 1941. But it was an achievement that exacted a heavy toll in human suffering. While Japanese youth disappeared onto the battlefields of China, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific, the Japanese government forcibly recruited large numbers of Koreans and Chinese to fill the empty places in its factories and mines, and many of these men perished as a result of the harsh conditions and a starvation diet.
Hashima was no exception. By the time the atomic bomb rattled the windows on Hashima apartment blocks and Japan surrendered to the Allied forces in August 1945, about 1,300 laborers had died on the island, some in underground accidents, others of illnesses related to exhaustion and malnutrition. Still others had chosen a quicker, less gruesome death by jumping over the sea-wall and trying in vain to swim to the mainland. The end of World War II brought radical changes to Hashima Island and an important new purpose for its product. Instead of fuel for warships and steel for cannon shells, the coal from Hashima forged the tools for Japan’s recovery from the pit of humiliation and defeat. Ironically, however, it was another conflict—the Korean War (1950-1953)—that catapulted the coal mines, and virtually every other Japanese industry, into a golden period of prosperity and growth.
The population of Hashima reached a peak of 5,259 in 1959. People were literally jammed into every nook and corner of the apartment blocks. The rocky slopes holding most of these buildings comprised about 60 percent of the total island area of 6.3 hectares (15.6 acres), while the flat property reclaimed from the sea was used mostly for industrial facilities and made up the remaining 40 percent. At 835 people per hectare for the whole island, or an incredible 1,391 per hectare for the residential district, it is said to be the highest population density ever recorded in the world. Even Warabi, a Tokyo bedtown and the most densely populated city in modern Japan, notches up only 141 people per hectare. Hashima contained all the facilities and services necessary for the subsistence of this bulging community. Elbowing for space in the shadows of the apartment blocks were a primary school, junior high school, playground, gymnasium, pinball parlor, movie theater, bars, restaurants, 25 different retail shops, hospital, hairdresser, Buddhist temple, Shinto shrine, and even a brothel. Motor vehicles were nonexistent. As one former miner put it, one could walk between any two points on the island in less time than it took to finish a cigarette. Umbrellas were also unnecessary: a labyrinth of corridors and staircases connected all the apartment blocks and served as the island’s highway system.
Equality may have reigned in the corridors, but the allocation of apartments reflected a rigid hierarchy of social classes. Unmarried miners and employees of subcontracting companies were interned in the old one-room apartments; married Mitsubishi workers and their families had apartments with two, six-mat rooms but shared toilets, kitchens and baths; high-ranking office personnel and teachers enjoyed the luxury of two-bedroom apartments with kitchens and flush toilets. The manager of Mitsubishi Hashima Coal Mine, meanwhile, lived in the only private, wood-constructed residence on the island—a house located symbolically at the summit of Hashima’s original rock. Mitsubishi owned the island and everything on it, running a kind of benevolent dictatorship that guaranteed job security and doled out free housing, electricity and water but demanded that residents take turns in the cleaning and maintenance of public facilities. Thus the people of Hashima huddled together, all under the wing of “The Company” and all bent on a common purpose. The community depended completely on the outside world for food, clothing and other staples. Even fresh water had to be carried to the island until pipes along the sea floor connected it to mainland reservoirs in 1957. Any storm that prevented the passage of ships for more than a day spelled fear and austerity for Hashima.
The most notable feature of the island was the complete absence of soil and indigenous vegetation. Hashima, after all, was nothing more than a rim of coal slag packed around the circumference of a bare rock. A movie shot there by Shochiku Co. Ltd. in 1949 was aptly entitled Midori Naki Shima (The Greenless Island). The initiation of a planting campaign in 1963 was a sign of the residents’ first hard-won taste of leisure. Using soil from the mainland they made gardens on the rooftops and enjoyed the unprecedented pleasure of home-grown vegetables and flowers. It was around this same time that electric rice cookers, refrigerators and television sets became standard appliances in the island’s apartments.
Hashima’s fortunes started on a downhill slide in the late 1960s when Japan’s economy soared and petroleum replaced coal as the pillar of national energy policies. Coal mines across the country began to close. Mitsubishi slashed the work force at Hashima step by step, retraining workers and sending them off to other branches of its sprawling and booming industrial network. The coup de grâce came on 15 January 1974, when the company held a ceremony in the island gymnasium and officially announced the closing of the mine. The subsequent exodus proceeded with amazing speed. The last resident stepped onto the ship for Nagasaki on 20 April 1974, holding an umbrella up to a light rain and glancing back woefully toward the empty apartment blocks.
Now desolate and forgotten, Hashima guards the entrance to Nagasaki Harbor like a strange, dead lighthouse, attracting little more attention than the visits of tired seagulls and the curious stares of people on passing ships. But the symbolism is hard to ignore. The tight-knit Hashima community was a miniature version of Japanese society and it straddled a landmass that, except for the lack of water and greenery, mimicked the entire archipelago. The island’s present forlorn state is a lesson to contemporary Japan about what happens to a country that exhausts its own resources and depends solely on foreign trade. Taking note, the Japanese government has used photographs of Hashima in full-page national newspaper advertisements calling for conservation of energy.
(CABINET MAGAZINE, issue 7)
read the complete article here…
and check out this short documentary “HASHIMA“ (2002) by Thomas Nordanstad…