Hearing the name Nagasaki tends to invoke images of atomic annihilation. However, the local islands of Hashima, Takashima, and Ioujima — located just beyond the blast radius — tell their own tales of tragedy.
In my quest to explore the scenic coast of Nagasaki, I boarded a tour-boat named “Bay Cruising”. I hadn’t known the purpose was to gawk at Hashima, a secluded island steeped in a dark history of human suffering. After circling not once, but three times around the island, the boat drew closer to the shore and the remains became visible. For a brief moment the camera-clicking stopped and gasps of astonishment filled the silence.
The buildings were crumbling, the windows smashed, and chunks of the retaining wall gone. Vandals have ransacked the island, and typhoons have taken their turn ravaging Hashima. As loudspeakers relayed the gloomy history, seemingly apathetic passengers flooded the upper deck to take group photos in front of the wreckage. The surreal experience ended when the boat began its journey back to shore and the crowd made its way to the snack bar, the novelty having worn off.
The story begins with a prominent Scottish merchant, Thomas Glover, who endeavored to turn the primitive coal pits of Takashima into profitable, modern mines. Since ownership of land by foreigners was prohibited in the late nineteenth century, Glover proposed a partnership with the penniless district landlord of the island. Construction of Japan’s first operational coalmine, financed by Glover’s British partners, got underway in 1869.
Initial production was sluggish and Glover’s impatient overseas investors pulled out. The mine remained closed until 1881 — the year that entrepreneurial samurai, Iwasaki Yataro, refurbished the mine, hired Glover to oversee operations, and named the company Mitsubishi. Four years later, excavation teams uncovered huge mine deposits beneath the seabed under Hashima.
Shortly after the Hashima mine opened in 1885, an area of 480m by 160m was carved into the surface of the craggy island, to accommodate the growing population of Hashima coal miners and their families. The first apartment complex was erected in 1916, followed by a shrine and temple, shops, schools, restaurants, a gymnasium, a pachinko hall, and even a brothel.
Coal production peaked in 1941, leading to an annual production rate of 411 100 tons. With Japanese men leaving for war, many mines were filled with Chinese and Korean captives. By 1941, Mitsubishi had a workforce of 34% foreign slaves in their shipyards, arms factories, and mines, according to Hashima’s Data Research Collection . With a high concentration of slave labor and elimination of safety regulations in 1943, workers suffered immense hardships.
One victim, Li Hongkui, witnessed his starving friend get beaten to death for stealing two steamed buns, and cannot remember seeing sunlight as they entered the mines before dawn, and toiled until evening. Some workers were even blocked escape during gas explosions or fires in the mineshaft. (China Daily, February 16, 2004).
Fatalities were not reported, and names were erased from the register. Inaccurately, official Japanese sources state that close to 40,000 Chinese slaves were brought to Japan between 1943 and 1945. However, many survivors can’t find their names in these records. (China Daily, January 14th, 2002)
By 1959, Hashima had become a bustling community of 5259 people — the most densely populated place in the world. Residents repeatedly died of starvation or suffocation, and suicide was a common occurrence. In a final blow to the misfortunate island, petroleum emerged as the main energy source in the 1970s and Hashima mine was shut down and evacuated in 1974.
After my harrowing experience on “Bay Cruising,” I found myself back at Nagasaki ferry terminal. A brochure for Takashima Island boasted various attractions: a therapeutic health spa, sport fishing, and an alluring beach, in addition to a number of historical remnants including Mitsubishi’s first coal mine and a former residence of Thomas Glover. I discovered that these artifacts of Takashima’s past were virtually inaccessible, and instead, buses only shuttled visitors to an unexceptional fishing pier.
The strong afternoon sun was blazing down on Takashima Island, so I walked to the beach. Perfect white sand and a brilliant view of the ocean greeted me at the gates of a deserted cove. Delighted, I flung off my sandals and bolted for the change rooms. Locked. The bathrooms were also boarded up, the showers dry, the long row of vending machines out of order. My hopes of a cool dip were crushed when I saw a beach full of garbage, seaweed, and poisonous jellyfish. The gates had been opened to optimize the fishing next door at the public wharf – the liveliest place on the island.
I did find solace in the peace and quiet of Takashima. The foliage was wild and unattended, the roads bumpy and neglected, the houses dated relics. Drastic depopulation began 30 years ago when the coalmines closed. According to the National Population Census of Japan, there were 20,938 people on Takashima Island in 1960, 6,000 in 1986, and less than one thousand today. Kenji Tsutsumi, in his case study of the island, Tanko heizan ni tomonau Takashima-cho kara no jinko ido explains that the hospital, elementary school and junior high school have shrunk, and the high school is derelict. The failed attempts at reviving the ruined economy: an empty tomato farm and remains of a flatfish-breeding farm destroyed by a typhoon, enhanced the feeling of complete desolation.
A blurb from the Fukuoka Now on-line magazine read “The low, green isle lies in sparkling seas outside the city’s craggy coastline. Rent a bicycle to explore the island. We can’t skip mention of the sun-drenched, Spanish-inspired Renaissance Ioujima Nagasaki resort with its leisurely sprawl of bungalows, tennis courts, and a swimming pool.”
The view seemed promising as we approached Ioujima port, but I grew weary when I found myself alone on the disembarkation plank in front of a decrepit bicycle rental shop. The red tops of a Spanish resort were visible from the port, but up close the buildings were dilapidated and deserted.
In the 1980s, Ioujima had profited from the hoards of summer tourists flocking to the European style resort. However, by 2001, debts had risen to 10 billion yen and the owner was forced to claim bankruptcy. (Nagasaki Shimbun January 12, 2002) The mayor, denied assistance by the government, is still trying to lure investors in hopes of restoring the island’s ruined economy.