Waters: Amakusa Sea / Pacific Ocean
Geographic coordinates: 32° 37′ 40″ N, 129° 44′ 18″ E
Area: 6 hectares
Open to visit
In the turbulent waters of the East China Sea, which are often swept by typhoons, the island of Ha-shima looms in the distance, menacingly. The Japanese call it “Gunkan-jima”, the “battleship island”, because of its gray and angular silhouette, resembling a battleship. And it’s true that at first glance, this almost entirely concrete rock, full of blocks of buildings that seem to be stacked on top of each other, does not look like an island.
If we approach it, it is a shipwreck that we see before our eyes: bad buildings with torn windows, pale facades, consumed by the wind and salt of the sea. Ha-shima is more like a ghost town than a desert island. Its remains of reinforced concrete collapsed under lush vegetation. Since the island was abandoned in 1974, nature has reclaimed its rights to what was once the world’s most populated land.
Concentration camp architecture
In the 1960s, the island’s population exceeded 5,000, making it the most densely populated area in the world. From this past period, there remain, in addition to the strange architecture of the concentration camp on the island – each inhabitant usually has only a few square meters to himself -, some moving witnesses of the deserted apartments : about 60 who designed dust-covered televisions, refrigerators. rusty, tables still covered with their oilcloth tablecloths…
Located about twenty kilometers from Nagasaki, this small island remained deserted for centuries, until large coal deposits were discovered in its belly in the 19th century.e century. Japan at the time was in the midst of the industrial revolution. The country’s first modern coal mine was dug in Ha-shima, in the heart of the island. Commissioned in 1869, this underwater mine was bought twenty years later by Mitsubishi. The famous Japanese group was once only a company specializing in marine transport and mining.
Symbol of modernity
Ha-shima soon became a center of Japan’s mining industry, its production increasing every year. Submarine exploitation became twenty-four hours a day, miners worked long hours in trying conditions, taking turns to keep up the pace. Deep in the mine, hundreds of meters below sea level, they risk their lives every day to destroy the coal in the scorching heat and humidity.
To increase the mine’s production, Mitsubishi hired more people and converted almost every square meter of the island into housing. Far from the vision of horror that Ha-shima now evokes, it was once a symbol of modernity in the eyes of the Japanese, a laboratory for the architecture of the future. In 1916, for example, it had the tallest reinforced concrete building in Japan: nine stories erected on the sea.
Ha-shima is a small town, with all the infrastructure that allows its population to live there alone: school, hospital, police office, shops, but also cinema, swimming pool and Buddhist temple . He even has his own house at home. All the buildings on the island are connected by stairs, walkways and tunnels.
This is the architectural prowess that Japan wanted to be recognized by Unesco a few years ago, in the same way as about twenty other places of the industrial revolution during the Meiji period. Ha-shima joined the World Heritage List in 2015, much to the chagrin of South Korea. Seoul criticized Japan for hiding the true history of this island, which was the forced labor of hundreds of Korean prisoners. Japan, which occupied Korea from 1910 to 1945 and China from 1932 to 1945, made extensive use of forced labor during World War II.
For Korean prisoners, Ha-shima was “hell island”, a prison surrounded by water from which it is impossible to escape, as reported by the German weekly Der Spiegel in an article about the controversy. As one of the witnesses at the time, a forced laborer in Takashima, another Japanese mining island, said: “The behavior of the Japanese in Takashima was appalling. When we missed our daily target, we were hit immediately. There was no stopping. We were treated like slaves.”
According to an article in The Korea Times, the Korean and Chinese forced laborers sent to Ha-shima Island were “Usually sent to the parts of the mine where the most toxic gases are found”and those who tried to escape from the island were subjected to “extreme torture”.
Quoted by the British daily The Guardian, William Underwood, an expert on forced labor in Japan during World War II, pointed out that “Rapid racism and discrimination meant that Koreans were treated like second-class subjects, and assigned the hardest and most dangerous jobs”. To date, Japan has never issued an official apology or compensation to the victims.
The history of the island was not killed much. Guides that take tourists who love history and “destroy pornography” around the island – it can be reached in half an hour by boat from Nagasaki – mention the presence of forced laborers on the island in the past. But they also recount the pride of the island’s golden age residents, who in the early 1960s were among the first Japanese to own televisions, refrigerators and washing machines.
In 1974, the Ha-shima mine closed its doors when the coal industry began to decline, replaced by oil. Mitsubishi gave its employees and their families three months to quit everything. Forever and ever.