By Reuben Adams

5 November, 2015

Abandoned by its coal-mining residents in the 1970s to be reclaimed by nature, the eerie ghost island of Hashima serves as a significant reminder of early Japanese industrialisation.

On 31 March, 1854, the Convention of Kanagawa was signed by American and Japanese government representatives; a significant treaty which made possible the first official trade between the nations.

Within five years Japan – which had remained insulated from much of the western world to that point – had officially opened its doors by signing similar treaties with other countries. The coastal capital of Nagasaki subsequently became important as a stopover for commercial ships and naval vessels. Trade in the region flourished further in the late 1850’s, as western nations began replacing sail rigged ships with steam-powered vessels, resulting in a spike in demand for Japanese coal. This sparked a rush to develop mines on some of the 505 mostly uninhabited islands near Nagasaki, including a ‘useless’ heap of rock called Hashima.

Hashima was a small 61,000 square metre island devoid of any life, including vegetation,  about 15km from Nagasaki. Savvy entrepreneurs quickly realised it was an ideal portal through which to access the bountiful seabed coal reserves, and a shaft mine was established by small mining operators in 1887. The island was sold to business behemoth Mitsubishi Corporation for a pittance three years later. Mitsubishi, originally a shipping enterprise, had expanded bullishly into coal and had already acquired other mines in the region.

In the years that followed, Japan experienced a remarkable surge in its industrial and military strength.

At Hashima, Mitsubishi launched a project to more efficiently tap into the vast coal resources under the seabed, successfully sinking a 199m vertical shaft in 1895, and another in 1898. Slag from the mining process was used to increase the island’s size, with the reclaimed land set aside for industrial facilities and employee housing. When Hashima’s towering sea walls were built in 1907 – which made it resemble a battleship riding the waves – a local paper nicknamed the island Gunkanjima (Battleship Island).

Jam-packed: at its peak Hashima had an incredible 1391 people per hectare crammed into the residential district, making it the highest population density ever recorded.
Jam-packed: at its peak Hashima had an incredible 1391 people per hectare crammed into the residential district, making it the highest population density ever recorded.

By 1916, more than 3000 people had been crammed onto Hashima – both Mitsubishi employees and their families – and production was at an all time high of 150,000 tonnes each year. In response to this population explosion, Mitsubishi built a reinforced, typhoon-proof concrete apartment block; Japan’s first concrete building of any significant size. The plain six-storey structure gave the coal miners and their families cramped but private lodgings and was accompanied by an even larger apartment complex just two years later, as population pressures continued to intensify.

At the time this E-shaped building was the tallest in the entire country. Throughout the 11 years preceding and following the Second World War, not one concrete building went up anywhere else in Japan, but apartment block construction continued unabated on Hashima as massive demand for coal forced production ever higher. The tiny island soon bristled with concrete structures.

By 1941, Hashima’s coal production had peaked at an incredible 410,000tpa, achieved largely through Japan’s aggressive ‘recruitment’ of Korean and Chinese workers in the aftermath of its 1937 invasion of China. When conscription sent nearly all Japanese miners to the blood-soaked battlefields of the Second World War, these prisoners of war filled the mines and factories, with many perishing due to starvation and the harsh conditions. Hashima was no exception. By the time the war ended in 1945, it was estimated that more than 1300 labourers had died on the island, some in underground accidents, others of illness. Others reportedly jumped to their deaths over the sea wall in desperate attempts to swim to the mainland.

In a 1983 interview, Korean labourer Suh Jung Woo spoke of the appalling conditions during this time.

“The mine was deep under the sea; the workers reached it by elevator down a long narrow shaft. The coal was carried out from a spacious underground chamber, but the digging places were so small that we had to crouch down to work,” he said. “It was excruciating, exhausting labour. Gas collected in the tunnels, and the rock ceilings and walls threatened to collapse at any minute.”

Following the infamous bombing of Nagasaki and Japan’s subsequent surrender in 1945, Hashima’s coal became an essential part of the nation’s economic recovery.

In 1959 the island’s population peaked at 5259, with people wedged into every corner of the apartment blocks, which by then comprised about 60 per cent of the total island area. At 835 people per hectare for the whole island – or an incredible 1391 people per hectare for the residential district – this is said to be the highest population density ever recorded worldwide.

Alongside the apartment blocks sat a primary school, junior high school, playground, gymnasium, pinball parlour, movie theatre, bars, restaurants, 25 retail outlets, a hospital, hairdresser, Buddhist temple, Shinto shrine and even a brothel.

As petroleum replaced coal as the mainstay of Japan’s energy use in the late 1960s, Hashima’s fortunes quickly waned, despite the robust national economy.

Coal mines across Japan were mothballed, with Mitsubishi slashing Hashima’s workforce step by step. On 15 January, 1974, the company announced the closing of the mine, which had produced more than 16.5 million tonnes of coal during its 84 years under Mitsubishi control. The subsequent exodus happened at amazing speed – the last resident stepped off the island on 20 April that year – which meant that many of the building’s contents remained behind. The ghost island’s structures were left to crumble at the entrance to Nagasaki Harbour like a bizarre lighthouse for more than 35 years, before it was partially reopened for tourism in 2009.

Forgotten for so long, Hashima now enjoys world-wide attention with a recreation of the island featured in the latest James Bond film Skyfall. Recently, the island was added to a list of proposed UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites for its scenic value and architectural historic importance as a remnant of early Japanese industrialisation.