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iKjeld.com » News » » An Island of Ghosts

An Island of Ghosts

Off the coast of the Japanese city of Nagasaki lies a terrifying symbol of shortsighted development. Out of the dark blue East China Sea rises a dead island covered with dilapidated concrete buildings. Forms of life are absent. No people, no animals. However, in the not so distant past more than five thousand inhabitants lived here. The voices of children echoed from the houses, laughter sounded in the streets. Now only dead concrete is left. This is the island Hashima, once the most densely populated place in the world.

Tuesday August 24, 2004

Hashima is a dark spot on an endless sea. It is tiny. On a surface of 6.3 hectare with a circumference of just 1.2 kilometers. It is crowded with tall concrete buildings. Closely placed next to each other as enormous match boxes. Some are nine stories high. The wind whistles straight through the windows of the deserted apartments. A four meter tall wall concrete wall surrounds the island. Nothing moves, there is no sign of life.

The tiny grey-brown island gives a gloomy impression. it is hard to imagine that anyone would want to live here. Still often more than 5,000 people lived here through the seventies. The island didn’t only offer shelter, but had all the pleasures, and some of the vices, of a modern city. There were schools, a movie theater and even a place for gambling. There were dozens of shops, restaurants, bars, public baths and even a whore house. All connected to each other through a maze of stairs, hallways and small court-yards.

This rock in the South China Sea was so crowded that in the urbanized area there were 1,391 people per hectare. That is 139,000 people per square kilometer, almost six times the population density of overcrowded Manhattan in New York. It is the highest population density that has ever been measured anywhere in the world’s history.

The first concrete building was raised in 1916. By the end of WWII no less than 30 concrete buildings had been erected, many of them nine stories high. Virtually nothing remained vacant.

The reason for this wild growth was coal. Below Hashima thousands of mine workers swarmed in all directions. A century long they risked their lives to hack out coal of enormously high quality. This was not only exported all over the world, but also drove the mighty Japanese war machine of the Second World War.

The story of Hashima is in many ways the story of modern Japan. A Japan that since the nineteenth century has only thought about development and “modernization”.

The story starts in 1887 when the Fukahori family drills a mine shaft on the island. Three years later they sold Hashima to Mitsubishi Corporation. Using imported technology Mitsubishi succeeded in mining the coal from under the bottom of the sea.

Japan was modernizing like haywire in these days to prevent it becoming a colony of Western powers. The West would soon be shocked. Japan won the war in China (1894-1895), beat Russia (1904-1905) and began the invasion of a large part of Asia that only ended with the end of WWII in 1945.

Hashima and about 800 other mines played a main role in these developments. they provided Japan with a source of energy. Additionally, coal had been one of the most important reasons that the US forced Japan to open its doors in 1853. The States were looking for harbors where the new steam ships could take in coal and water for the long journey between China and the United States.

Ironically, within a century this coal would be used against the US. In 1941 Hashima mine workers brought up a record production of 410,000 tons of coal. In December of that year Japan attacked the United States in Pearl Harbor.

Eventually many prisoners from Asia wound up as forced labor in Hashima. The Korean Suh Jung-woo was one of them. In an interview in 1983 he recalled his shock when he arrived on the island. “At the moment that I arrived at Hashima I lost all hope.” Nobody could escape from this island, realized the 14-year old Suh. “The island was surrounded by a high concrete wall, and there was only sea, wherever you looked.” Together with seven to eight other Koreans Suh was jammed into a tiny dirty room and his nightmare began.

“We received a kind of rice bags as clothing. There were guards all the time. Some of them wore swords. The work was hard and tiring. Gas assembled in the tunnels and there was always a threat of a collapse. Each month about four or five mine workers lost their lives. I was convinced I would not survive.”

Suh was driven to despair. “I don’t know how often I thought about jumping into the sea and drown myself.” He was not the only one. “Forty or fifty of my compatriots committed suicide or drowned in an attempt to swim to Takahama (on the coast).”

But not everybody has bad memories of Hashima. “There was this enormous feeling of community,” remembers Takio Nomo (75). The former mine worker lived on the island for 41 years. “Everybody always wanted to do his best. When I first got a job outside the island it was a huge shock. People arrived late for work, or didn’t show up at all. I had never experienced that on Hashima.”

“Hashima stands for communication,” says Dotoku Sakamoto (5). He was raised on Hashima. “On Hashima you could always depend on your neighbors if you needed something. People came to help before you even had a chance to ask.” Sakamoto once broke his leg during soccer. “I lived on the ninth floor and it was extremely difficult to walk the stairs. The next morning all my friends waited in front of the door to help me. I hadn’t even told them anything.”

Life was good. Water was free, electricity could be used unlimited for virtually nothing. Mine workers after the war also earned high incomes. “My salary was twice as high as what I later earned after the closing,” says Nomo. “The pension was also real good.”

Unfortunately for Nomo and Sakamoto Hashima was not to live eternally. It couldn’t compete against coal from China and oil from the Middle East. On April 24 1974 the last inhabitants stepped off the island. They left behind a completely exhausted and depleted place.

Hashima now doesn’t only show the goodness of people like the islanders experienced it, but also the terrible consequences of unbridled development : broken lives and a dead island.

The buildings should not go, says Sakamoto. He now leads an organization to put Hashima on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites. “This place can teach us much.”


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