Japan: Hashima, an island with a dark past and “home” to a James Bond villain


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It’s also called Gunkanjima, Battleship Island, so named because from a distance it looks just like a deserted battleship. Imagine an island which is classed as the most densely populated place on the planet in 1959 plummeting to zero inhabitants only 15 years later. It’s now a spooky crumbling island with a dark past: the inspiration for the lair of the latest James Bond villain in Skyfall. Here’s the story.

Hashima, off Nagasaki.

Hashima, off Nagasaki.

Hashima is tiny 16-acre outcrop of land, 18 kilometres out to sea from Nagasaki. A single mine shaft was dug in 1887 after the discovery of coal. Mitsubishi bought it three years later and built another 2 shafts. By 1916, the island was home to 3000 people who lived in newly-built concrete multi-storey housing blocks. This population continued to rise until its peak in 1959, recorded at 5259 inhabitants. Much of the space was given over to coal extraction and there was also a school, a hospital, a barber, communal baths and shops: not really much room left to live.

The dark part of the island’s history relates to the working conditions of the miners, up to 800 of whom where Korean slave labourers (Chinese prisoners joined them during the Second World War). The mine shafts were hundreds of metres deep, low (you couldn’t stand), hot (45+ degrees centigrade) and often filled with noxious gas from the rock face. Not a nice place to work, and for some, the last place they worked.  Minimal rice and sardine soup food rations.  “Hungry” was how one surviving labourer described his time on the island.

There are still ongoing court actions against Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and other Japanese companies who had Korean men and women (and children) work for them. The companies have appealed South Korean court rulings ordering compensation, claiming all sums due were satisfied by the 1965 treaty which normalised diplomatic relations after the war.

When coal became less financially attractive, overtaken by petroleum, the decision was taken in 1974 to shut down the mine. Within a very short space of time, there was no one left on the island. The weather, sea and time have  decayed the buildings which now look like an eerie villian’s lair.  So much so that that’s what it became in the recent James Bond film, Skyfall.  The baddie Raoul Silva lived there and Severine the Bond girl met a sticky end in building 65. Shots of the island appear in the film, but actual on-land filming took place in the relative safety of a reconstructed movie set at Pinewood Studios in the UK.

After many years of quietly ignoring its history and collapsing buildings,  the island has been given a new lease of life as a tourist attraction.  After a 40 minute boat ride out to it, you can set foot ashore where there’s a restricted walkway round a small section.

Our trip was a bit surreal. We were the only non-Japanese speakers aboard. The boat was weighed down with cameras.  I am thinking it’s more to do with James Bond than the island’s commercial history.

Hashima battleship island

Photographing the ruins.

Hashima

A crumbling settlement.

From the boat, you get a clear view back towards Nagasaki, and can see how perfect a natural harbour it is. The big industrial shipyards, set up under the guidance of Thomas Glover aka the Scottish Samurai, have several ships in dock at various stages of construction or repair.

Nagasaki shipbuilding

Shipbuilding in Nagasaki

Nagasaki from the water

Looking back at Nagasaki

Unfortunately, we couldn’t understand the Japanese tour, which seemed like it might have been quite interesting.  Our guide pointed to googliefied translations on his tablet in an effort to keep us in the loop. There are several companies offering similar trips out to the island, some more geared up to non-Japanese speakers than others in what is a fairly new tourist offering. It’s worth reading up a bit before you go.

The island is supposed to be a photographic paradise for those interested in shooting urban decay. I took a picture with my elephant.

www.elephanthaven.org visits Battleship Island

www.elephanthaven.org visits Battleship Island

Back aboard the boat we were given a hot cloth to wipe the dust from our hands, a certificate, a lolly and a lump of coal. The whole trip really was a bit surreal. It took 3 hours, and cost around £15 (including coal).

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