The place at the top of Gunkanjima Island is one of the least visited: it is the home of the masters, the masters who control the island, especially its mine. From up there, they had their hands on the fate of all the miners and their families; a population counted up to 5259 by 1959. So what was Gunkanjima really like back hen? Was it a heavenly island build of concrete, or was it a hell like all the dead ghosts are telling?
If you do not know what Gunkanjima is, go take a look on my summary page for this abandoned island: Gunkanjima: 10 Stories, 200 Photos.
A Japanese Auschwitz?
Most reports about the life on Gunkanjima come from the Korean workers. Koreans, being the direct victims of the Second World War, were brought to the island by force together with other Chinese war prisoners to work in the mine. And they were working with the bare minimum protection, and were malnourished (with the boiled brown rice mixed with leftover beans and sardines) and overworked with the impossible to finish heavy labour.
They were sent to 1 kilometer underground in the temperature over 45 degrees, pressed against each other in dangerous tunnels and crouching most of the times. You can easily count up to 4 to 5 deaths per month. The dead bodies were then shipped and burried in the neighbouring island, Nakanoshima.
After work, they all live in the buildings lined up along the southern wall of Gunkanjima island. 7 or 8 of then were confined in 1 small room, where nothing can be seen besides the sea.
Separated from their families and wives (most of whom were taken to become sex slaves for the Japanese army), they mutilated themselves in order to be expelled from the island; some swam to the nearest island (with the risk of getting caught and beaten), others simply committed suicide by jumping out the window. Gunkanjima was an Alcatraz-like prison island for them, but morally speaking, Auschwitz would be a closer resemblance.
120 out of the 500 Koreans working on the island between 1939 and 1945 died there. During the same period, in 1941, the Hashima mine produced its greatest amount of coal, as a result of the heavy demand from the war.
And those who somehow survived the difficult years were then sent to Nagasaki to clean up the mess caused by the atomic bomb. Lucky for those who successfully escaped the island, because even till now, Mitsubishi still refuse to apologize or compensate to the victims.
Up here lived those torturers of Gunkanjima Island, placed by Mitsubishi, eagerly awaits the next batch of war prisoners piled up on Jigokusen – a Hell Ship proudly made by Mitsubishi – to arrive. Life on the island was not as nice and romantic as one would have imagined facing the sad testimonials of Korean workers.
An Eden for the Residents
We do not find many overwhelming stories about Gunkanjima from the Japanese side. It seems that most older people do not want to go back and talk about its history. Apart from very prominent Doutoku Sakamoto, who was born on the island in 1954) and now a guide of Gunkanjima, also the head of his association (with the purpose of getting Gunkanjima listed as a World Heritage).
Nevertheless, a very good travel magazine ‘Geo’ (the French ‘National Geographic’) has recently published an article about Gunkanjima. Its first line reads: ‘It was a mine, a city, an eden for its inhabitants.’ A barbarian as I am, I told myself that I have to check the definition of the word ‘eden’, because it does not seem right here. The dictionary says: ‘earthly paradise portrayed in the Bible as the home of the first human couple’ or ‘place of delights, especially adorned by nature, when you live in innocence and simplicity primitive state of perfect happiness ‘. That seems to be a rather good definition for North Korea (isn’t it? Surely Kim would have agreed). But as for Gunkanjima there was not an inch of green. Its other name, Nashi Midori Shima(meaning the island with no green), seems more justified.
But let us not be severe and see what the old residents of the island and the magazine has to say.
Besides Doutoku Sakamoto, there were 4 Japanese: Hideki Mono (miner’s wife), Hideo Kaji and Taichi Kimoto, both born and lived on the island, as well as Fukudome-san who started working on the island in 1939 at the age of 18, and continued working there till the closure of the island.
Fukudome-san came to Gunkanjima attracted by the good salary and almost free rent with utilities included. Given the fact that he lived on the island for 33 years in a roll, and finally got to come back 30 years after his departure, we can understand his melancholy tone when he speaks . He remembers that his life was dangerous but at that time danger was a rather ordinary thing. Shoganai! He went on to recall his bath time on the island: ‘We go into the first bath all dressed, with our helmets and boots, before entering the second bath.’ and the evening was finished in the district of Ginza-Hashima (where most buildings stand, the other article ‘Gunkanjima: A Maze of Streets & Hellish Staircases‘ is mainly about this part).
Hideki Nomo, housewife, she tells everyone that she owned a television, a fridge and a washing machine (which surely explains well why they had to go to the first bath all dressed as mentioned above). She says the life was good and she spent her time running errands, cook, drinking coffee and chatting with her neighbours. During storms, they all go to the wall of the island to observe the sea. It sounds rather idyllic, although it is no difference than any other plain and pre-designed life of a normal housewife.
The magazine adds that the day the mine workers heard about the closure of the mine, they lowered their head in sadness and was quite in shock. They then gathered only a few belongings and left all the rest behind, in the hope that one day the mine re-opens. It seems that the great men living at the top of the island did not have the same reaction and left nothing behind them, their apartments are completely empty. Their testimonials, however, are no where to be found even till today.
The old Japanese residents of Hashima considered it their ‘Furusato’(hometown). And on top of the most beautiful complements from Hideki Nomo above, you cannot miss the drawings of another Gunkanjima resident: ‘Little Snow‘.
Gunkanjima was therefore a hell island for war prisoners, while at the same time a real paradise for some people, especially the Japanese and their wives.
THE WAY TO WORLD HERITAGE GUNKANJIMA
The association ‘The Way to World Heritage – Gunkanjima‘, represented by Doutoku Sakamoto proposes that island to be listed as World Heritage by UNESCO. Magazine Geo explained his goal to be: ‘Hashima recognized by UNESCO is the only way to convey its history and assert its status as Furusato’. Not surprisingly, Korea recently opposed this, stating especially the fact that Japan refused to apologize (as usual). On the contrary, Germany, who excused themselves, had Auschitwz concentration camp listed as world heritage of UNESCO with no problem!
Gunkanjima is well known and recognized, its history taught, there are protections were made so that normal visitors can set foot on the edge of it, urban explorers have visited and revisited it (without any damage and with great respect), now even James Bond has gone there with his hi-tech weapons, so now you may ask: what is a UNESCO recognition going to change, apart from a bit of national pride and a lot of contempt and hatred from Japan’s Asian neighbours?
Unfortunately Doutoku-san’s website is only in Japanese thus it is difficult for us to understand the real beneficial ideas for him. But start with a compromise to create some peace with all the neighbouring countries would be a good way to start the process of registering Gunkanjima as World Heritage? What do you think?