Waters: Amakusa Sea / Pacific Ocean
Geographical coordinates: 32° 37′ 40″ N, 129° 44′ 18″ E
Area: 6 hectares
Open to visit
On the turbulent waters of the East China Sea, frequently swept by typhoons, the island of Ha-shima emerges in the distance, threatening. The Japanese call it “Gunkan-jima”, the “battleship island”, because of its gray and angular silhouette, similar to that of a ship of war. And it is true that at first sight, this almost entirely concrete pebble, bristling with blocks of buildings which seem to be stacked on top of each other, does not look like an island.
When we approach it, it is rather a shipwreck that presents itself to our eyes: sinister buildings with torn windows, faded facades, eaten away by the wind and the sea salt. Ha-shima is more like a ghost town than a desert island. Its remains of reinforced concrete awash in lush vegetation. Since the island was abandoned in 1974, nature has reclaimed its rights in what was once the most densely populated piece of land in the world.
Concentration camp architecture
In the 1960s, the population of the island exceeded 5,000 inhabitants, making it the most densely populated place in the world. From this bygone era, there remains, in addition to the surprising concentration camp architecture of the island – each inhabitant very often only had a few square meters to himself –, some moving witnesses in the deserted apartments: sixties design televisions covered with dust, refrigerators rusty, tables still covered with their oilcloth tablecloth…
Located about twenty kilometers from Nagasakithis tiny island remained deserted for centuries, until a considerable coal deposit was discovered in its bowels in the 19th century.e century. Japan was at that time in the midst of the industrial revolution. The country’s first modern coal mine was dug at Ha-shima, in the heart of the island. Commissioned in 1869, this underwater mine was bought twenty years later by Mitsubishi. The famous Japanese group was then only a company specializing in maritime transport and mining.
Symbol of modernity
Ha-shima soon became a flagship of the mining industry japanese, its production increasing year by year. The submarine exploitation turned twenty-four hours a day, the miners worked long hours in trying conditions, taking turns to keep up the pace. Deep in the mine, hundreds of meters below sea level, they risked their lives every day breaking coal in sweltering heat and humidity.
In order to increase the output of the mine, Mitsubishi hired more and more people and transformed almost every square meter of the island into living space. Far from the vision of horror that Ha-shima provokes today, it was once a symbol of modernity in the eyes of the Japanese, a laboratory for the architecture of the future. In 1916, for example, it owned the building in concrete the tallest building in Japan: nine floors erected on the sea.
Ha-shima was a miniature city, having all the infrastructures allowing its population to live there isolated: school, hospital, police office, shops, but also cinema, swimming pool and Buddhist temple. She even had her own brothel. All the buildings on the island were interconnected by stairs, passageways and tunnels.
It is this architectural prowess that Japan wanted to have recognized by Unesco a few years ago, in the same way as around twenty other sites of the industrial revolution of the Meiji era. Ha-shima joined the World Heritage List in 2015, much to the chagrin of South Korea. Seoul criticizes Japan for concealing the true history of this island, that of the forced labor of hundreds of Korean prisoners. Japan, which occupied Korea from 1910 to 1945 and China from 1932 to 1945, made extensive use of forced labor during World War II.
For Korean prisoners, Ha-shima was “island of hell”, a prison surrounded by water from which it was impossible to escape, as reported by the German weekly Der Spiegel in an article on the controversy. As one of the witnesses at the time, a forced laborer on Takashima, another mining island in Japan, said: “The behavior of the Japanese on Takashima was incredibly awful. When we didn’t reach our daily target, we were immediately hit. There was no pause. We were treated like slaves.”
According to an article in The Korea Times, the Korean and Chinese forced laborers sent to Ha-shima Island were often sent in the parts of the mine where there was the most toxic gas»and those who tried to escape from the island were subjected to “extreme torture”.
Quoted by the British daily The Guardian, William Underwood, an expert on forced labor in Japan during the Second World War, points out that “rampant racism and discrimination caused Koreans to be treated as second-class subjects, and assigned to the hardest and most dangerous tasks». To date, Japan has never issued an official apology or compensated the victims.
The history of the island is not killed for as much. The guides who make visit tourist island history buffs and “ruin porn” –it can be reached in half an hour by boat from Nagasaki– do mention the presence of forced laborers on the island in the past. But they also tell of the pride of the inhabitants of the island’s golden age, who in the early 1960s were among the very first Japanese to own a television, a fridge and a washing machine.
In 1974, the Ha-shima mine closed its doors when the mining industry coal began to decline, replaced by oil. Mitsubishi gave its employees and their families three months to quit everything. For ever.