The Symbol of Rapid Industrialization – Gunkanjima Island in Nagasaki

Last week I joined an interesting tour in Nagasaki. My purpose was to see and land on the abandoned island, "Gunkanjima". Thanks to the registration of UNESCO World Heritage sites along with other historic sites in Kyushu, the uninhabited island is drawing more attention and becoming one of the most popular destinations for tourists. Let me share the amazing experience with you.

The island officially called Hashima is dubbed Gunkanjima, or Battleship Island, after the silhouette-like Japanese battleship “Tosa”. It is located 15 kilometers (9 miles) away from Nagasaki port. In the early 19th century, The Saga Clan founded the island as an undersea coal mine, and Mitsubishi Corporation purchased and developed it to accommodate people to work. It operated for 80 years and had been producing 400,000 tons of coal for fuel per year. At the peak time in the 1940’s, a total of 5000 people lived on the island less than one square kilometer in area and known for the highest population density in the world. When the coal was nearly depleted and the government changed the energy policy to replace coal with petroleum, Mitsubishi closed the mine, the minors left the island. Hashima has been totally abandoned over 40 years since then.

Now, the island is owned by Nagasaki City to preserve it because of its historic value. To land on the island, you have to join the tour offered by four operators. This time I joined the tour operated by Gunkanjima Concierge.

Now welcome aboard! It’s time to start the tour!

On the way to Gunkanjima, you can see several other industrial sites on the list of World Cultural Sites. First, you will see Giant Cantilever Crane which was the first and newest electric crane installed in Japan. It was imported from Scotland and reassembled in Nagasaki in 1909. After more than 100 years of installation, the crane is still in use in the shipyard.

Light blue crane shaped like a "T". The Giant Cantilever Crane.

Followed by the ship-building yard, a long bridge called Megami Ohashi Bridge comes into view. The newly constructed bridge with 170 meters high and 480 meters long connects the west and south side of the city. Then Kaminoshima lies along the coast. The island is known for the safe haven of hidden Christians who suffered from severe persecution in the wide Christianity ban during the 16th Century. A beautiful church and Maria statue in pure white protects the island looking over the ocean.

Megami Ohashi Bridge

On the way to Gunkanjima Island, we stop at Iojima Island and some passengers join us and head to the final destination. Upon approaching the island, the silhouette becomes clearer. Wow, it does look like a battleship!!!  A weird sense of nostalgia and curiosity came to me, while seeing the several concrete buildings crammed on a tiny island floating in the ocean. I’ve never seen anything like this. The ferry takes a detour around the island so the passengers can take photos in the perfect location.

Now it’s time to land on the abandoned island. There are three spots where the guide explains about the island with some pictures of the inside of the buildings taken in the past. He also tells some stories and anecdotes about what the islanders’ life was like.

The concrete building stands at the top of the fortress-like wall was the residence for the higher-class employees. The staff shows us some photos taken when people used to live here. Most of the buildings are decaying mainly because of typhoons. The scenery on the island reminds me of the Japanese animation film " Laputa: The Castle in The Sky" produced by Hayao Miyazaki. The two photos below are taken at the first viewing spot.

The first view point

On the second view spot, you can see the ruins of the head office built with red bricks which was the most modern building at the time. Next to it, a public bath for younger ones lies. A concrete building standing at the top next to a white light house used to be a water reservoir for residents. Water had been carried from the mainland by ferry and stored in it until water pipes were installed on the seabed in 1957.

The second view point

The last view spot is at the front end of the battleship. The buildings at front were the first apartment with reinforced concrete built in Japan. Inside the buildings, some home appliances were left behind by the residents.

The third view point

I was overwhelmed by the view of lots of debris covered on the ground and half collapsing buildings. But I can also imagine a lively and flourishing town where thousands people lived together and developed their own community. The remnants are really the symbol of Japan’s industrialization.

One thing we should keep in mind is that, in the past, a few of the younger residents died from hard labor and accidents under harsh working conditions. Gunkanjima is not an abandoned island, it is a reminder of the enormous efforts driving Japan’s rapid modernization and industrialization.

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