A pile of junk or a global treasure?

We had booked our flights to Japan almost nine months in advance.

It was only thanks to our alert travel agent, Daisuke Mizukoshi, of Pitt Travel in Sydney, that we discovered that our original itinerary would have meant travelling during one of the busiest times of the year: Golden Week.

Dai advised us to reconsider our travel plans to avoid the two weekends of Golden Week.  That was unless we were happy to stand for hours on trains.  We were not.

As we watched Kyoto fill up with visitors two days before the start of the first weekend, we were relieved to know that we would soon be in Nagasaki.  Even if it meant spending the day getting there, using two shinkansens and a local train for the last leg to Nagasaki.

For most visitors, Nagasaki is synonymous with the dropping of the second – and much larger – atomic bomb on a Japanese city on 9 August 1945.  And while one cannot visit Nagasaki without looking in on the affected sites and memorials to the devastation wreaked by the dropping of Fat Man, there is much more to this city and its environs than reminders of World War Two.

For much of its history, Nagasaki was Japan’s only link to the outside world, playing a significant role in Japan’s development as a modern nation.  Europeans began settling in the area from the mid sixteenth century and by 1570, Nagasaki was an active trading port with first Portuguese, then Dutch traders and finally British entrepreneurs making their mark.  Luckily, much of this European influence survived the atomic blast and evidence of its presence can be seen in the reclaimed island of Dejima and the restored buildings of the Dutch Slope.

But fine as these European accented treasures of the past are, it is on a rather more unusual piece of potential heritage that I wish to focus.  And you can find it on an island in the East China Sea about 40 minutes by boat from Nagasaki.

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Gunkanjima, or Battleship Island, is thus named for its outline when viewed from a distance.

The island’s real name is Hashima and its primary purpose was to harvest coal from underground mines.

The Hashima mine commenced operations in 1887 and closed in 1974. By 1916, the island’s population had reached 3,000 and the first of many reinforced concrete apartment blocks was built to address the shortage of housing space as well as to withstand cyclone damage.

Larger concrete apartment buildings followed suit, resulting in 30 such structures being crammed on the island.

Wartime demand for coal saw production peak at 410,000 tons in 1941.  The war effort was assisted by the forced participation of Korean and Chinese labourers, many of whom died as a result of harsh conditions and insufficient rations.  By the close of World War Two, 1,300 labourers had died on the island, some in mining related accidents and others from illnesses related to exhaustion and malnutrition.

After the war, production continued apace forging the tools for Japan’s recovery and later on the munitions required for the Korean War.

At its peak in 1959, the island was home to a community of over 5,000 people, living at densities of 835 people per hectare.  To put this in some context, Australia’s most densely populated suburb, Pyrmont, contained 139 persons per hectare in June 2012.

Jostling for space among Hashima’s high-rise apartments were all the activities associated with urban living: schools, kindergarten, gym, movie theatre, pinball parlour, restaurants and bars, supermarkets and other retail shops, hospital, sports grounds, Buddhist and Shinto temples.  Even a brothel.

The quality and size of living quarters – provided free of charge, along with electricity and water – mirrored the status of occupants.

Single miners and employees of sub-contracting companies lived in older, one-roomed apartments of less than 10 square metres, with a window, door and entrance foyer.  Occupants shared communal kitchen and bathroom facilities.  Married workers fared slightly better; they were allocated two rooms, but still with shared amenities.  High ranking office personnel and teachers could enjoy two bedroom apartments with kitchens and flush toilets.  The mine manager had the pick of the crop: a wood constructed residence with wide open views.

Some things weren’t available on Hashima.  Motor cars were non-existent, nor were they missed.  However, the absence of soil worked against the development of a sustainable food supply, with the resident community having to depend heavily on the outside world for food and other staples.

A hard-fought campaign to grow fresh produce on the island resulted in the importing of soil from the mainland in 1963 for rooftop gardens.  These not only gave residents fresh vegetables and flowers, but a semblance of “green space”.

The pleasure of being able to source locally grown produce, however, was short-lived.

As petrol replaced coal as an energy source in Japan in the 1960’s, coal mines began closing down throughout the country.  Hashima’s mine closed in January 1974 and the last resident left in April of that year.

This is what the island looks like today.  If you’ve seen the movie, Skyfall, these images will be familiar to you.

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A steady trickle of journalists started arriving in 2005 and the ensuing media exposure culminated in the opening up of Hashima – or Gunkanjima, as it is billed in the tourist material – to visitation in 2009.  Due to the dangerous condition of the island’s buildings – several of which have collapsed – visitors are restricted to a specially constructed walkway and viewing area where oen corner of the island can be inspected.

Apart from its Skyfall credentials, Hashima has featured in various documentaries such as the History Channel’s Life After People and the 3D production, Forgotten Planet, which discussed the island’s current state, history and unauthorized photo shoots by urban explorers.  It has been a magnet for photographers and a unique setting for commercials.

In 2013, Google sent an employee to the island with a Street View backpack to capture its condition in panoramic 360-degree views and allow users to take a virtual walk across the island from the safety of their desktop.

It was with some curiosity that I learned of a proposal to designate Hashima as a UNESCO World Heritage site.  Yes, indeed.  A non-profit organisation, “The Way to World Heritage Gunkanjima” has nominated the island as one of the “Modern Industrial Heritage sites in Kyushi and Yamaguchi”.  The organisation is represented by a former island resident, Doutoko Sakamoto.

While the nomination is inching up the ladder of approvals and is currently on the Tentative List, Korea has objected on the grounds of ill-treatment of its citizens during World War Two.

But is Battleship Island really worthy of such high level order recognition?

The nomination for a World Heritage Listing was made under the following cultural criteria:

  • (ii) “exhibits an important interchange of human values, over a span of time, or within a cultural area of the world, on developments in architecture or technology, monumental arts, town-planning, or landscape design”
  • (iii) “bears a unique or exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or which has disappeared”
  • (iv) “is an outstanding example of a type of building, architectural, or technological ensemble or landscape which illustrates a significant stage in human history”

While the intent of these criteria is open to interpretation – could UNESCO not have chosen a simpler form of expression? – the general thrust of criteria (ii) and (iii) seems satisfied.

It is criterion (iv) that troubles me a little.

What constitutes “outstanding”?  Is it the appearance of the built form?  Its quality?  Functionality?  How it shaped its inhabitants’ way of life?  All of these things?

If this building is representative of apartment dwellings in their operational phase, then the test for architectural merit seems unlikely to be met.

50 years of abandonment and exposure to the elements have done little to retain whatever quality the buildings may once have had.

Designed well before the advent of energy efficiency ratings, the number of open windows and what appear to be retro-fitted air-conditioning units attest to uncomfortable living conditions in summer.  No doubt the reverse situation applied in winter, especially for those apartments which lacked direct sunlight access.

The highest living densities ever recorded in Japan must have tested neighbour relations to the limit, with up to five people sharing in a single room.

“Outstanding” it was not.

Yet despite its ruinous state, Hashima remains an endlessly and eerily fascinating place.  As I watched the tour guide rattle through the history of the island in the gentle breeze of an early summer, I wondered what it must have been like when the buildings were alive with people and the atmosphere buzzing with activity.

Several months on, I still carry memories of the desolate landscape and the scarred buildings.  Yes, Hashima certainly made an impression, even if not for all the reasons cited in the World Heritage bid.

It remains to be seen how the good adjudicators at UNESCO will handle this World Heritage nomination.

Watch this space.

 

© AJapaneseDiary, 2013 ongoing. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without the express and written permission of this blog’s author and owner is strictly forbidden. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given, and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


Much of the history of Hashima is drawn from “Hashima: the ghost island” by Brian Burke-Gaffney 2002 http://www.cabinetmagazine.org/issues/7/hashima.php

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