Hashima is a ghost-city surrounded by a seawall on an island that is a mere 437 x 153 yards in size (400 x 140 meters). It is part of the Nagasaki Prefecture, and is located a little under 10 miles away from the city of Nagasaki, in the East China Sea. The island is nic-named “Gunkanjima” which means “Battleship Island” because it looks so much like a battleship as seen from the ocean.
At one time Hashima island had a population of over 5,200 people, all of who were there to work in or support the huge undersea coal mine.
Population densities are calculated based on the number of people per square kilometer. Given that Hashima is 0.059 square kilometers in size, the resulting calculation of population density would equal 93,911 people per square kilometer. In 1959 it was the largest population density in the world, now surpassed by places like the Kotwali precinct of the Dhaka District of Dhaka, Bangladesh – which has a population density of 101,693 people per square kilometer.
Hashima was first inhabited in 1887, when the first mine shaft was dug in order to mine the coal that was initually used to heat saltwater to extract salt. The island was soon purchased by Mitsubishi, who owned it until 1974, and as far as I can tell still owns it.
Near the turn of the century Japan enjoyed its own industrial revolution together with an increase in Japanese military power which both required more coal. This required more workers on the island, and better housing.
The first reinforced concrete building constructed in Japan was built on Hashima in 1916 to provide housing and protect against typhoon damage. Cabinet Magazine has a great article on the island. From Cabinet:
This was Japan’s first concrete building of any significant size. America’s first large-scale concrete structure—the Ingalls Office Building, in Cincinnati—had been built only 14 years earlier.
A square, six-story structure built around a dingy inner courtyard at the southern edge of the island, the building provided cramped but private lodgings for the miners and their families. Each apartment consisted simply of a single, six-tatami-mat room (9.9 square meters) with a window, door, and small vestibule—more like a monk’s cell than an apartment, but still a major improvement over previous living quarters. Bathing, cooking, and toilet facilities were communal.
This building was followed two years later by an even larger apartment complex on the sloping rock at the center of the island. Then the tallest building in Japan, the E-shaped apartment block had nine stories on the ocean side and three on the rock side.
One multi-story apartment block followed another until the tiny island bristled with more than 30 concrete buildings. Even during the 11-year period before and during World War II, when not a single concrete building went up anywhere else in Japan, the construction of apartment blocks continued on Hashima as part of national efforts to meet the tremendous wartime demand for coal.
There is a definite dark side to this island. Before the defeat of the Japanese Empire, Japan regularly forced slaves to work the coal mine on Hashima, under very dangerous conditions while forced to subsist on a starvation diet. About 1,300 died in the mine or by attempting to flee by swimming back to the mainland. After the war the island inhabitants followed strict class rules:
… the allocation of apartments reflected a rigid hierarchy of social classes. Unmarried miners and employees of subcontracting companies were interned in the old one-room apartments; married Mitsubishi workers and their families had apartments with two, six-mat rooms but shared toilets, kitchens and baths; high-ranking office personnel and teachers enjoyed the luxury of two-bedroom apartments with kitchens and flush toilets. The manager of Mitsubishi Hashima Coal Mine, meanwhile, lived in the only private, wood-constructed residence on the island—a house located symbolically at the summit of Hashima’s original rock.
Indeed, Mitsubishi owned the island and everything on it, running a kind of benevolent dictatorship that guaranteed job security and doled out free housing, electricity and water but demanded that residents take turns in the cleaning and maintenance of public facilities.
I understand that there is some bad history to this island, that it is a dark place for many who lived and died there. But as you can see from the embedded movie below, it was also a home to many people who do miss it.
What attracts me to this island is the closeness, the way that the architecture could pass for Japanese Steampunk, for the feeling of a “bomb shelter at the end of the world” existence. There is a false feeling of being disconnected from the world that I find fascinating.
And the loneliness of the ghost island is also very attractive to me. I spent a lot of years in the badlands of Texas and New Mexico, so the lonly spaces and forelorne wind attract me.
There are a lot of photos of Hashima online. Saiga Yuji has some beautiful photos of the architecture. I also found a public gallery on Picasa for Hashima. You can also see the island from Google sightseeing