In the early hours of the morning and ensconced in darkness, a tiny boat ploughs through the waters off the coast of Nagasaki, Japan. Ahead of it, a great hulking mass rises up against the horizon; the dark and ominous island of Gunkanjima.
Inside the boat, photographer and urban explorer Jordy Meow is poised and ready to go. He doesn’t have official permission to land on the island, though. Instead, he must leap from the prow of the boat and disappear quickly among the ruins of the once-magnificent buildings. Then as the sun rises over the apocalyptic landscape, the Frenchman begins to snap away.
Gunkanjima, it’s fair to say, is a ghost island. And looking at it now, it’s hard to believe that this was once a bustling home to nearly 5,300 inhabitants. In fact, Meow claims that the island previously had the highest population density on the planet, which makes it arguably all the sadder that today only a few brave souls venture to walk its streets.
But the island’s overgrown courtyards and crumbling charm have seemingly cast a spell on some adventurers, and Meow is definitely among them. And after that first clandestine mission, he has returned to the island several times.
On one memorable occasion to Gunkanjima, Meow drank sake and danced under the stars among the rubble of the abandoned structures. However, exploring the island by night evidently gave the photographer pause for thought.
“Imagine on a full moon’s night [like this],” he mused on his website Offbeat Japan, “are the miners singing this song? Were the Hashima Ginza [lit] up, filled with young boys enjoying their hot sake after a whole day’s heavy labor?”
But how did Gunkanjima become such a haunting and desolate place? Well, to discover that, we need to look at the circumstances surrounding the construction of one of the world’s most unlikely metropolises.
Back in 1810 when Gunkanjima was still known as Hashima, coal was discovered beneath the surface of the island. Over 70 years later, the first mining operation began, and in 1890 the Mitsubishi corporation bought up the land. Afterwards, they set about constructing the infrastructure needed to house the workers brought in to excavate the sedimentary rock.
However, the island is small – just 16 acres, in fact – and space was at a premium. So, developers built vertically in order to accommodate the burgeoning population. And as a result, Hashima found itself home to some of the first ever high-rises made from concrete.
As the island developed, Japan’s appetite for coal increased, spurring further growth on Hashima. And by 1959 the place was thriving; an unlikely community had sprung up, complete with apartment complexes, schools, shops, a temple, bars and a hospital.
What’s more, from a distance the eerie appearance of this floating city marooned at sea bore an uncanny resemblance to a military vessel. This led to the island acquiring its nickname of Gunkanjima, or “Battleship Island.”
But while the workers and their families seemingly had everything they needed on the island, life there was far from idyllic. Many became sick and died from malnutrition and overwork, while others fell prey to accidents in the dangerous mines.
Moreover, Gunkanjima was a grey, bleak place, with little in the way of vegetation. Ex-resident Hideo Kaji told CNN in 2013, “There were no bushes, no flowers, we didn’t even know what the cherry blossom was. We told the seasons from one another by listening to the wind or looking at the color of the ocean and the sky.”
Despite its remote location more than ten miles off the coast of western Japan, the island did not escape the turmoil that plagued the rest of the world. And when the United States dropped a nuclear bomb on Nagasaki in August 1945, the fallout stretched all the way to Gunkanjima, where it damaged some of the buildings.
However, that was far from the darkest chapter in the island’s history. Back in 1910 Japan had taken control of the Korean Empire and begun an attempt to eradicate all trace of the country’s native culture. Afterwards, the Korean language was outlawed, and many natives were forced to undertake manual labor jobs.
Across much of Japan, this force of Korean laborers was utilized to help fuel the nation’s industrial progress. And on Gunkanjima, hundreds arrived to work in the island’s mines. However, it was not a pleasant environment for the new arrivals, who had left behind everything they knew to travel to this strange land.
Then, World War II arrived, and prisoners of war from China swelled the ranks of forced workers on Gunkanjima. According to Yasunori Takazane, director of the Oka Masaharu Memorial Nagasaki Peace Museum, conditions were grim. He told CNN, “The common stories I heard from Korean and Chinese laborers was that they were enormously hungry. The meals were miserable and when they could not go to work they were tortured, punched and kicked.”
Former resident Hideo Kaji recalled that even his own parents seemed to accept the beating of a Korean worker. He explained, “My mother and father were saying how sorry they were but my dad said it was inevitable because it is wartime.” And as a young boy himself, he remembered feeling frustrated that the forced laborers were incarcerated in a part of the island once used for play.
Despite its dark history, however, the island prospered until oil began to replace coal as the fuel of choice in Japan. It wasn’t until April 20, 1974, that the last resident left; and Gunkanjima then slowly became what it is today – a warren of decaying buildings that inspires intrepid explorers from all around the world.
It has now been over 40 years since the mines closed their doors and the workers left Gunkanjima. And as the decades have passed, the buildings have continued to crumble, torn apart by typhoons and the steady pull of erosion. Meanwhile, foundations that were once buried deep within concrete are now exposed to the sea air.
For Meow, it is a fascinating but unsettling place. He commented on his website Offbeat Japan, “In silence only can we imagine… the crying ghosts haunting each room. [Only] by constant walking can you escape the deadly feeling.”
On one of Meow’s first visits to the island, he sought the company of Doutoku Sakamoto, a former inhabitant of Gunkanjima. Sakamoto is now a sanctioned guide to the island and told the travel enthusiast stories of life there as they explored its ruins together.
The island that Sakamoto recalled was a largely happy one, with a strong sense of community as people worked together to make the most out of their limited space. He remembered rooftop gatherings in the summer, boat trips to the mainland to buy provisions, and being frightened as he dashed to a communal bathroom late at night.
Sakamoto was also responsible for a controversial campaign to get Gunkanjima recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But while the Japanese wanted the island acknowledged for its role in the country’s industrialization, the South Korean government objected. And, according to museum director Yasunori Takazane, the campaign was rooted in dishonesty.
“Auschwitz is registered as [a] world heritage site so people can remember the historical crime,” Takazane told CNN. “As for Hashima, some seem not to want to remember that dark side and focus instead on its contribution as a locomotive of Japan’s industrialization. That’s a betrayal of history.”
Despite these concerns, however, Gunkanjima was granted UNESCO World Heritage Site status in July 2015. But while he achieved what he campaigned for, Sakamoto dislikes the island’s association with the Japanese practice of haikyo. Instead, he urges visitors to look into the history of the place before going there.
“Those ruins are the collateral damage of the ego of men,” Sakamoto explained to Meow. “They aren’t beautiful. It’s important to think about the lives of those who lived and worked there. One shouldn’t visit the island only to quench his own curiosity.”
Despite Sakamoto’s warnings, though, it’s precisely the island’s strange and desolate appearance that has been drawing a steadily increasing number of visitors to it over the years. And in 2009, a dock and walking surfaces were constructed to cater to tourists keen to explore the eerie ghost town of Gunkanjima.
Few visitors to Gunkanjima are able to secure the access that Meow enjoyed, however. Most tourists must stick to a particular path that confines them to one section of the island. Apparently, the buildings elsewhere are too dilapidated to explore safely, and special permission must be sought by those who wish to stray off the trail.
Moreover, some have pointed out that the island’s popularity as a tourist destination glosses over its troubled past. Tour guides try to avoid mentioning the Korean and Chinese citizens who were forced to work in the mines. And by eliminating these stories from the history of Gunkanjima, some believe that the authorities are attempting to rewrite history.
Some sources claim that as many as 1,000 forced laborers lost their lives thanks to the difficult conditions on the island; though there is currently no memorial to commemorate this tragedy. In fact, some historians believe that the promotion of Gunkanjima as an urban ruin-type destination – rather than a UNESCO World Heritage Site – is an attempt to suppress the past.
“Hashima has become a major tourist draw, but lacks any meaningful historical information at or near the site, while excluding any mention of Korean and Chinese forced laborers,” David Palmer from the University of Melbourne wrote in a 2018 article for The Asia-Pacific Journal. “The site is also in decay and appears to lack any conservation plan in line with World Heritage ‘Operational Guidelines.’”
But as the debate about Gunkanjima rages on, tourists still flock to explore the dramatic landscape of the abandoned island. Amazingly, Forbes claimed that 235,000 visitors traveled to the island in 2011, each paying the equivalent of nearly $40 each for a three-hour guided tour.
And getting to Gunkanjima isn’t easy; visitors must brave a hair-raising boat journey through choppy waters. In fact, conditions are often so bad that the tours are cancelled before they can begin. But for those who manage to make it to the island, a startling landscape awaits.
While visiting Gunkanjima, tourists are sometimes lucky enough to be shown around by someone who used to live and work on the island. And through them, they can learn what life on this strange outpost was really like. Now an old man, Tomoji Kobata was a resident for a year back in 1961, and today he leads guided tours.
“It reminded me of Hong Kong,” Kobata told CNN. “Cooking hours were quite noisy. Wives would borrow seasoning and exchange food they couldn’t finish. No one needed to lock the door.” But although the former resident touches upon the issue of forced labor during his tours, he too refused to give it much attention. He claimed, “There were so many other sides to life on the island beyond that.”
Over the years, many intrepid adventurers have made their way to Gunkanjima – and their stunning photos have won countless likes across social media. But in 2012 the island took its fame to a whole new level, when the James Bond movie Skyfall was released.
Apparently, the producers of Skyfall were inspired by the unique aesthetic and dramatic location of Gunkanjima. But although they initially hoped to film on the island itself, location scouts soon concluded that the dilapidated buildings were too dangerous to use as a functioning movie set.
Instead, workers at Pinewood Studios painstakingly recreated a slice of Gunkanjima inside the London lot where the movie was eventually shot. And even though the island itself was not used as a filming location, it will forever be remembered as the inspiration behind Skyfall’s villain’s lair.
In 2019 tourism on Gunkanjima was dealt a blow when inspectors discovered a dangerous level of asbestos on the island, which led to a suspension of visits to the island in July that year. And though the future of this strange place remains uncertain, it will – for now at least – be remembered, Meow said, as somewhere “between hell and paradise.”