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Gunkanjima: A Sacred Site of Relics (360° Panorama)

Somese Naoto (Photographer)[Profile]

In its heyday, the coal mining island of Gunkanjima was the most densely populated place in the world. Today, nearly 40 years after the mine was closed, it is uninhabited but is attracting new attention for its relics, which exude the sadness of the past. It was also catapulted to fame in 2012 as the model for an island in the James Bond movie Skyfall. See places not open to the general public in these stunning, high-definition immersive photographs.

“Everything that man creates eventually crumbles. The island of Gunkanjima is testament to this truth. Today, it harbors both the beauty and pathos of an object in decay. Perhaps this is why people are drawn to it.” Ōhashi Hiroshi, a professional photographer who spent six months on Gunkanjima in 1972 just before the coal mine shut down, speculates on the recent rise in the island’s popularity.

A Supporter in Japan’s Drive to Modernize

Gunkanjima is the nickname given to the island of Hashima, which is under the jurisdiction of Nagasaki City, located 18.5 kilometers southwest of the city’s port. Hashima was dubbed “Gunkanjima,” literally “battleship island,” early in the twentieth century due to its resemblance to the Japanese battleship Tosa.

Coal was first discovered on Hashima in 1810. At the time, it was a small rocky island devoid of vegetation and a third its current size. Gunkanjima was built up over the following years through six reclamation projects; ultimately it grew to cover 6.3 hectares, spreading 480 meters from north to south, 160 meters east to west, with a circumference of 1,200 meters.

The television antennas that crowded the tops of the buildings no longer mar the skyline.

Full-scale mining operations started in 1890 after the Mitsubishi Group acquired the rights to all of the island’s coal extracts. The coal from Hashima was high in quality and primarily used at the state-owned Yawata Steel Works in Kitakyūshū, Fukuoka Prefecture. The nearby island of Takashima had another coal mine, and together the two islands produced a significant share of the coal that supported the country’s industrialization.

In 1916, a high-rise reinforced concrete apartment building (“Number 30”) was built in Hashima. This was Japan’s first multistorey concrete building. Other new concrete structures went up in quick succession and came to symbolize the island itself. The population grew rapidly, reflecting the increase in the output of coal, and by the 1960s about 5,300 people lived there, giving it a population density nine times that of Tokyo’s. The island had its own elementary and junior high schools, its own hospital and clinics, a movie house, pachinko parlors, and bars and restaurants.

“There were more than 2,000 people on the island when I lived there. Because of the coal, the island had a thermal power station, and electricity was provided free of charge to the residents. Everybody had a TV, electric heaters, and other appliances—they lived well. When they wanted to do something special or had to buy something not available on the island, they took a boat to Nagasaki. They wanted for nothing and were happy,” says Ōhashi. 

Men at work on Gunkanjima. The large crane in the background was removed after the mine closed.


The Beginning of the End

In December 1965 the monthly coal output for Hashima hit a high of 35,000 tons. Following this, production declined as oil replaced coal as the main source of energy. On January 10, 1974, the coal mine on Hashima closed for good. Boat services between Takashima and Hashima were suspended in April the same year. Gunkanjima was now an uninhabited island.

Ōhashi notes his strong attachment to the island, though he was only there six months. “The stars at night in the sky over Gunkanjima were stunning. Looking at them brought comfort after a hard day’s labor. Today it’s a place for history buffs and ruins enthusiasts, but for me it was home. I spent half a year there doing construction work for a subcontractor. It’s sad to think that a part of my youth is now a relic of the past. Some families were there for three generations. Their attachment to the island must run much, much deeper.”

The people Ōhashi worked with in 1972. The island was home to men and women, young and old.


The Lessons of Gunkanjima

In August 2005, media personnel were given permission to enter the island, and the haunting photographs they took gained widespread attention.

On January 5, 2009, Hashima was included in a tentative list of modern industrial heritage sites. Nagasaki City decided to open part of the island to the general public in April 2009. During the four years it was open to the public, over 360,000 people came, contributing an estimated ¥6.5 billion to the local economy.

Gunkanjima recently gained international fame as the inspiration for a set in the 2012 James Bond film Skyfall. The island served as the lair of the villain, played by Javier Bardem. Bird’s-eye views of the island, including areas that cannot be entered, also appeared in a commercial for the Sony Action Cam HDR-AS15. The island is also now available for viewing on Google’s Street View.

Ōhashi believes Gunkanjima has a role to play in the future. “It’s still hard to believe the place I once lived has become a tourist spot, but I hope the visit stirs something in the people who come, and they take something back with them. Gunkanjima was populated and then abandoned based on energy issues. As we tackle new issues today, it is worth remembering Gunkanjima as an example of what can happen. Everything man creates eventually crumbles.”

(Black and white photographs by Ōhashi Hiroshi appeared in 1972 Seishun Gunkanjima [Gunkanjima of My Youth], published by Shinjuku Shobo. Cooperation provided by Sony. Panorama photographs taken with a SONY NEX-6.)

  • [2013.08.19]

Photographer. Born in Yokohama, Kanagawa Prefecture in 1964. Graduated from the Department of Photography in the College of Art, Nihon University. Specializes in portrait photography. His portfolio includes work for numerous magazines as well as several photograph collections. Currently an enthusiast of 360° panorama photography.


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