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The first time I saw it, I knew I had to find a way to get on it. I was cramped in the back of a typically small Japanese car with two unsavory travel companions, who spent the duration of the trip talking in sickening detail about all the ailments and illnesses they had suffered during their stay in Japan. I tried to ignore them, and resigned myself to staring out the window, taking in the unusually nice December weather. We turned a sharp corner on the windy road and then suddenly it loomed before us from the distance, demanding attention. At first look, I had no idea what it was that I was seeing. It seemed to float above the water but was too large to be a ship. The shape however, with lines and angels that were sharp and defined, made it impossible to be an island. I was stumped, but in end, after some questioning of the driver, I found out that it was a little bit of both.

Hashima Island, better known as Battleship Island (gunkanjima in Japanese), lies off the shores of southern Nagasaki Prefecture. Before its turbulent 87 year history as a major source of coal began in 1887, the island was uninhabited and mostly ignored. Thanks to the modern mining techniques imported to Japan by Scottish merchant Thomas B. Glover, Hashima Island flourished in the early 20th century and provided a major economic boost for the region.

In 1887, a shaft mine was established on the island and the first inhabitants took residence there in order to work at the mine. In 1890, the island was purchased by Mitsubishi Company for ¥100,000, and a new 199 meter shaft, sinking deep into the ocean floor, was established. Another, equally long shaft was built soon after. Slag from the mine was used to develop flat areas on which to build living quarters and industrial facilities as well as a high sea wall to surround the island. It is this sea wall that creates the illusion of a large ship.

Production soared and in 1916, Mitsubishi built the first concrete reinforced apartment building in Japan to house the 3000 residents living on the island at the time. It was followed two years later by a 9 storey apartment building that, at the time, was the tallest in Japan. Construction continued until there were more than 30 buildings on the tiny island that is only 480 meters long and 160 meters wide.

The history of Battleship Island during the years preceding and during the Second World War are dark ones. With most of the Japanese youth overseas fighting various wars, the government had no way to keep up coal production other than forced labor. Many young Koreans and Chinese were brought to the island and forced to work under horrible conditions. An estimated 1300 men lost their lives on the island because of malnutrition and unsafe working conditions. A handful died when they jumped off the high walls in an attempt to swim to shore.

In 1959, the population of the island peaked at 5 259.

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.
The island had many facilities including an elementary and junior high school, retail shops, a movie theater, a hospital and even a brothel. Cars were obviously unnecessary and most buildings were linked by underground tunnels. The island experienced a period of prosperity in the late 1950's and early 1960's. Soon every apartment had a refrigerator, a rice cooker and a TV and in 1963, with soil from the mainland, residents began to cultivate gardens on the rooftops of some of the buildings.

The late 1960's saw the decline of the demand of coal and Mitsubishi began to slow production on Hashima Island. By the early 1970's less than half the residents remained and on January 15, 1974, Mitsubishi announced the closure of the mine. The last resident boarded a ferry for the mainland on April 20, 1974, leaving behind only a few stray cats.

Battleship Island is not open to the public and entrance is, in theory, prohibited. It is, however, a popular activity to visit the island regardless of this restriction. In recent years, photographers have visited the ghost island and several galleries worth of excellent photography are available for viewing in the Nomozaki Town Hall. Nomozaki is the closest mainland town to Hashima. Two books of photographs and a brief history have been published and there have been rumours about a tour. I highly recommend having a look at some of the photos available online, both pre-1974 and more recent ones.

To see some incredible photographs of the island check these out:
Before the abandonment:
And after:

Sources:Hashima: The Ghost Island by Brian Burke-Gaffney
Nagasaki Beat, March 2004

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