Photo Essay

Ghosts of Gunkanjima

Gunkanjima Television

It wasn't until my first real sighting of the island that I came to fully understand why it was called Gunkanjima or "Battleship Island". Originally named Hashima, this tiny island roughly the size of four football fields was built on a reef off the Nagasaki coast for coal mining purposes in the early 20th century. Because of its mostly man-made structure and concrete architecture, along with a 40-foot break wall surrounding it, the island indeed took on the silhouette of a battleship: stout and stern on the horizon.

There it was, only a few miles from the shore and yet, it might have been as far as the moon. The island has been abandoned since Japan switched to cleaner burning petroleum and natural gas in the 1960's and early 1970's and had consequently closed the mines. It is illegal to cross the break wall onto Gunkanjima, and I had no private means of reaching the island. I took a few pictures from shore and made my way back home.

As the months passed, I became increasingly obsessed. At the island's busiest time, it was one of the most densely populated areas in the world. Since half the island was occupied by coal mining, dwellings were erected almost on top of each other; maximizing the free space they had. Plus, the architects managed to squeeze in everything one could want on the island: a hospital, a school, public bath, movie theater, and even a pachinko parlor.

During my time teaching English in Japan, I had begun to experiment with urban exploration or "UE" photography. Despite most people's assumption that Japan is a thriving metropolis jam-packed with people, I found southern Japan quite rural and spread out. Buildings could go for decades without use: decaying, crumbling, and often widely accessible for the occasional explorer. I visited overgrown shipyards, burnt out hotels, unused elementary schools, and even an abandoned ninja theme park! Yet, I slowly realized that to explore Gunkanjima would be what many would consider the pinnacle of UE, the "holy grail" as it were. I dreamt of getting to the island and exploring every inch.

I needed to get ready. I bought a better camera, and researched as much as I could. People had been there recently, but how did they get there? I began talking with two friends and we finally decided to take a chance one weekend and explore the surrounding area until we found someone who would be willing to take us out to Gunkanjima.

We headed down along the Nagasaki peninsula and, ironically, the second person we talked with agreed to take us there. He was a captain that took fisherman out to Gunkanjima and the surrounding islands for sea fishing. He said he could sneak us onto Gunkanjima but it would be dangerous for him if we got caught. Fishermen can obtain a license to fish off of the massive break wall surrounding the island but are not allowed past the perimeter. The Japanese Coast Guard patrols the waters often and if we were caught trespassing the captain would be the one who got into trouble, not us. The captain agreed that he would drop us off, but only for two hours and at an inconspicuous time.

So, the next morning at 5:00 am, we found ourselves skimming across the choppy morning water and watching the sunrise with a small group of some of the most hard-core fishermen I had ever seen. The boat acted as a sort of ram. Since there were no docks anywhere, the captain would cruise the boat straight towards a wall or cliff. On the bow of the boat was a gangplank with tires on the end for cushioning. As soon as the boat got within 5 feet, the captain would throw the boat in reverse, slowing it down to kiss the side of the cliff. That's when the fishermen started getting off. One would run down the gangplank, jump off, clutch to the side of the wall and then pull themselves up. The next fisherman would throw over the gear and then make the same impressive leap at the next pass. I began to worry that we would have to do the same, but once all the fishermen were off the captain brought us around to a staircase leading out of the water. We hopped onto the stairs, climbed the ladder over the break wall, and we were on Gunkanjma!

I think the first thing I remember was feeling star struck. I had seen so many pictures online but now I was experiencing it myself. It really felt like meeting a celebrity. I slowly began to put the pictures together to form a larger puzzle that was the entire island. Here was the school; here was apartment row, here lay the remains of the bathhouse. It was then that I began to realize that two hours was not going to be nearly enough time. I could have spent weeks camping out on this place! So much begged to be explored, but I had to keep moving, otherwise I would never make it around the entire island.

As I moved about, I noticed how quiet and calm it felt. Some of the pictures of the island from the 1980's show quite a bit more structure than what I was seeing. Smaller stuff, for the most part had crumbled or been blown away. Anything wooden lay in the narrow streets in wavy patterns whipped by the wind. All that stood as it once did in the 1970's were the concrete buildings, of which there were many, standing tall and proud despite their disrepair. In the 30 years since the inhabitant's departure, trees had begun to take root and grow wherever they could catch sunlight. Without the persistent upkeep of man, the island was making its way back to its natural state.

Perhaps some of the most interesting parts of Gunkanjima were the apartment rooms. Some were completely obliterated. Others that were more sheltered held tiny treasures, artifacts of the past. I found phones, comics, a piano, televisions, and more mundane things like pots and pans. One of my friends who split from the main group even found a jawbone (for study) in an old dentists office. All these things were fascinating in their own right, but how they all related together like objects from a giant time capsule was even more intriguing.

There has been talk of making Hashima/Gunkanjima a national heritage site. Yet, I seriously wonder how that could physically be possible. To be able to repair the island to a point where the causal visitor could tour the island in safety seems unfathomable. As we circled the island our group would come upon giant chunks of the buildings lying in our path. Staircases would spiral down and then abruptly end in precarious drop- offs. On the coal mining side of the island, treacherous pits abound and act as a maze of dead-ends, giving you little choice but to turn around at times.

As I approached the rendezvous point and began climbing the wall, I took one last look at the skyline of this forbidden city. It certainly must have been even more overwhelming to visit in its days of operation than it was for me in those past two hours. To consider the island populated by around 6,000 people and to now see it completely deserted struck something in me that is hard to describe. It wasn't sadness, or loneliness. It was a feeling that the island was finally resting. Perhaps it was healing its deep wounds from the mines running far beneath the ocean, or sloughing off the scaly skin of buildings that adorned its crown. At any rate it felt as thought the island was at peace.

As I sat on the boat watching the island fade back into the horizon, I decided that I was satisfied with my two hours. I will always remember my time there as one remembers an unusually surreal dream. Perhaps years from now I will make another journey there, but for now I think it is better to let sleeping ghosts lie.

3 responses

  • Vincent Ollive

    Vincent Ollive said (2 Nov 2008):

    Great Journay. I've also been on this island, this is a incredible place.

  • visithra manikam

    visithra manikam said (5 Mar 2009):

    wow amazing place

  • Jim Crotty

    Jim Crotty gave props (23 Feb 2010):

    Fascinating. Very well described and photographed.

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