A TINY island in the Japan Sea was for a while one of the most densely populated places in the world. In 1974, the 7000 residents of this once-bustling island were required to leave after the coal that was being mined there stopped being profitable. And so, for the past 36 years this island and its buildings that once housed thousands of people have stood unoccupied and abandoned. Left to the elements, it is slowly being broken as storm after storm breaks against its concrete exterior.
Gunkanjima, meaning Battleship Island, is a nickname given to Hashima due its striking resemblance of a battleship’s silhouette. This island was once a very small rock of an island, but over time, the use of concrete has helped it to expand to its moderate 480m length.
Abandoned buildings have always held a fascination to me, though I can’t say why, and it’s not just me, there is a popular (underground) movement in Japan called Haikyo. When I saw a few photos of an entire island, covered in abandoned and decaying concrete buildings it got me as excited as a child seeing photos of Disneyland for the first time. These photos showed entire apartments that had been left in stasis for decades. There were towering skeletons of apartment complexes mixed with rubble and decay. It was amazing and I had to know more about it. I had to go and see it for myself. I had become somewhat fanatical about Battleship Island.
The island is a few kilometres off the coast of Nagasaki in south-west Japan and has now recently semi-reopened to the public and is gaining lots of interest from people who want to see what is left of a city when people disappear. Previously the only way onto the island was to charter the use of a fisherman and his boat and sneak over under the cover of fog and darkness, and hope that the ocean was calm enough to allow you to go ashore.
We joined an organised tour and boarded the catamaran. En-route, the captain warned us over the P.A. system that there was a chance that we were not going to be able to land due to unfavourable weather conditions. We hoped that this was his attempt at humour. Slowly, a speck of an island appeared on the horizon. We got closer and closer, and we could start to make out the silhouette of a battleship. The stillness of the island was eerie; it looked like the scene of an apocalyptic catastrophe.
The boat docked at a newly built jetty and we rushed ashore. Once on the island we were confined to a short, fenced concrete pathway and were herded by eagle-eyed tour operators. Their concern for safety isn’t unfounded, as several of the buildings have collapsed, and while I’m no civil engineer, the lean on some of the buildings still standing look ominous.
People who previously lived on Gunkanjima ran the tour, and they told an amazing tale (all in Japanese) of what life was like on this remote and crowded concrete island. Work was tough and fraught with danger, there was very little personal space and the island was devoid of vegetation, yet they were happy and relatively wealthy. There was an incredible bond and sense of community between residents, something that is sometimes missing in modern society, and something that they missed after they were forced to leave.
The tour was over, and we too had to leave and watch Gunkanjima fade away into the horizon. It’s hard not to be impressed and the eerie feeling is not something I will easily forget.
Where: Hashima, Nagasaki Prefecture.
Getting there: Ferries leave from Nagasaki Port via Ioshima.
Words and photography by Ross Cole-Hunter