Nagasaki’s World Heritage haikyo “ruin porn”
From the crowded second-story deck of a tour boat, the distinctive profile of Gunkanjima, so-called “Battleship Island,” hoves into view in the crisp blue Sea of Japan off Nagasaki. The long, streamlined seawall and tiered superstructure so closely resemble the Japanese battleship Tosa that a story went around during World War Two that the Americans tried to torpedo the island. The Yanks actually sank a coal barge, but the story has taken on a life of its own. Gunkanjima looks THAT ship-like.
Stories cling to the island like seaweed to a coral reef. The coal that came out of the undersea mines fuelled the engine of Meiji-era Japan’s industrial revolution and imperial expansion. Hundreds of Chinese and Korean forced labourers worked the mines from the 1930s to the end of World War Two. By 1959 the reinforced concrete apartment buildings clustered on the north and west sides of the island housed 5,259 miners and family members, the highest population density on Earth at the time. Yet within a few months of the mine closing in 1974 the island was completely abandoned until rediscovered by urbex adventurers drawn to explore the half-preserved ruins.
What it must have been like to live on such an exposed and crowded place just boggles the imagination. A treeless island of coal slag built around bare rock, enclosed within in a seawall and concrete buildings. One-room apartments for the miners and their families, with communal bathing, cooking, and toilets. The community had bars, shops, schools, a hospital, restaurants, even a brothel – everything needed for sustenance except for food and water which was still brought from the mainland. A labyrinth of underground corridors connected everything. Still, when winter storms and typhoons blew in from the Sea of Japan it must have been an wind-lashed, salt-rimed nightmare.
Recently, Gunkanjima has gone prime time. After years appearing as the photogenic subject of photo books, and TV and YouTube documentaries, the island made its Hollywood debut as the evil lair of Raoul Silva, James Bond’s nemesis in 2012’s Skyfall. Then, In 2013, Google sent their Street View camera rig to the island. Most recently, in 2015 Gunkanjima was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. The media spotlight has not arrived without some controversy, however, as opponents of the UNESCO bid insisted that Japan must recognize the tens of thousands of Korean and Chinese labourers conscripted to work here and in other difficult and dangerous locations during Japan’s imperial years leading to its defeat in World War Two.
Today tour boats make the half-hour trip from Nagasaki and deposit tourists in a designated safe zone at the stern-end of the island. A short tunnel and concrete path workshops and a factory once stood, for a panoramic view of apartment buildings and a school: all the services and facilities to sustain a population of 5,259 miners and their families.
Even now, however, Gunkanjima remains a ways off the beaten path for most tourists. First, you have to visit with a tour group, and stick to the designated safe area: those luscious photos of weeds in empty courtyards, of so-called “stairways to hell,” and abandoned 70s-era TV sets are only available to photographers who receive special permission from the Nagasaki prefectural government. Even so, you must still sign a waiver releasing the tour company from liability from injury or death. And signing on with an approved group is no guarantee: boats turn away from the dock if the wind and waves are too rough for a landing.
Fortunately, on the day I visited the sea and wind stayed calm, and our ferry – full of mostly Japanese visitors – successfully unloaded at the pier. Despite having browsed picture books and Google Images, and watched videos on YouTube, the complex of ruins made an immediate impression. From the moment you step onto the pier and see the tumbledown ruin of the mine entrance and the glassless windows of the managers’ quarters perched sentinel-like at the the island’s high point, tombi black-eared kites wheeling and shrieking overhead, it’s clear that this is no Disneyland. Immediately in front of you lie the tumbledown ruin of the mine complex. To the left, following the newly laid concrete walking path into the tourist zone, the rubble remains of the island’s industrial zone, the mine’s offices, workshops, and the shell of one former residential outpost, the notorious Building 30, a 9-storey residential structure erected in 1916 which started the whole development of the island which led directly to the island reaching the highest population density of anywhere in the world at the time.
Tourists are limited to the concrete path that cuts through the rubble of the industrial zone. The tour only lasts about an hour — just enough time to take in the rubble foreground, and let your imagination stretch its sea legs down the narrow roads between the vacant concrete buildings. Still, it’s enough for Gunkanjima to work a little haikyo magic. We visitors from the post-industrial present travel back forty years, seventy years, a hundred, to an earlier time when generations sacrificed themselves daily in the dangerous, claustrophobic mines which tunnel under the sea and the concrete apartments which rise like a coral reef above the high tide line in order to build the world we live in today: the wealthiest period in human history.
Or, see the pictures in full-resolution glory on my Gunkanjima gallery at 500px.