In recent days I have been putting out some rather disturbing and dark material here at Mysterious Universe. It seems to have become rather my forte. In quick succession I have written of disturbing photographs and video footage, delved into modern day witch hunts, explored the recesses of the cold, black minds of serial killers, and most recently released a piece on some decidedly morbid audio recordings. Although I truly believe that we must not flinch away from these horrors and that they must be confronted, looked in the face, and exposed for how hideous they are if we are ever to understand them and get a real sense of the horrors that lie out there in the world, it can certainly take its toll to research and write about, and it has been suggested to me on more than one occasion that I lighten things up from time to time. So here I bring you a lighthearted (mostly) tale of an odd little Japanese island ruled by none other than cute, fluffy bunnies.
Lying just off the coast of Hiroshima, Japan, in the Inland Sea is a tiny island that at first glance may seem rather nondescript and not much different from many of the other small islands scattered about Japan, mundane even. You can take a short ferry ride there from the mainland and enjoy the various hiking trails, stunning beaches and camp sites that the island has to offer, but while hiking about you may notice something rather odd. Out of the brush may crawl a rabbit, which while not unusual sight in and of itself might take you off guard with how readily it approaches you in an almost curious and friendly manner. Then another appears, and another, and more still, until there are rabbits everywhere, dozens of them all about you, nuzzling you, sniffing you, lazily lounging about and not afraid of your presence in the slightest. Welcome to Ōkunoshima, also called Usagi Jima, literally “Rabbit Island,” and here rabbits are king, with around a thousand of the creatures inhabiting an island with no natural predators and cavorting about with not a care in the world. The thing is, rabbits are not an indigenous species on the island and no one is really sure exactly how they all got here.
One of the original theories to the origins of the rabbits is linked to Ōkunoshima’s rather sinister past. The island was not always a haven for rabbits, and indeed has a rather dark history that stands in stark contrast to the sheer cuteness of all of those bunnies. In 1925, the Japanese government began a secret program to develop chemical weapons for use against its enemies, and in 1929 Ōkunoshima became the home of a major manufacturing plant for poison gas. The location was perfect for creating chemical weapons because it was remote enough to be out of the way, easy to protect and not be a threat to more populated areas, yet not so remote as to be difficult to reach with supplies.
Considering that the use of chemical weapons had been banned in 1925 by the Geneva Protocol, which Japan had signed, the government went to great lengths to maintain the shady secrecy of the facility. Island residents and even most of the employees were not told what the covert plant was really producing, and the island was even removed from maps. Under this shadow of secrecy, the Ōkunoshima chemical weapon plant produced thousands of tons of mustard gas, phosgene, and tear gas, among others, and in the 1930s and 40s poison gas produced here was used to horrific effect against the Chinese during the Second Sino-Japanese War, being responsible for tens of thousands of deaths.
The chemical weapon facility was still a major producer of poison gas during World War II, still churning out these toxins to be used against Allied forces, and it was not until the end of the war that the plant finally closed its doors. In defeat, the Japanese made sure to destroy all records pertaining to the secret plant even as the Allies descended upon the island to dispose of all of the stockpiled chemical weapons. The crumbling ruins of the chemical weapons manufacturing plant remain even today as a grim reminder of this ominous past, and in 1988 the Ōkunoshima Poison Gas Museum opened its doors to the public for the purpose on educating about the horrors of such weapons, with former employees suffering negative health impacts from working there right up into modern times.
Wow, that got rather dark real fast. I said this was going to be a lighthearted piece. Sorry. Where were we? Ah yes, bunnies! One of the ideas for the origins of all of the island’s amiable frolicking rabbits is that they escaped from that poison gas plant. In order to test the effects of the various toxic gases rabbits were brought in in great numbers for this purpose, and it is thought that some of them may have escaped or been released by generous employees after World War II. Although this seems like a reasonable theory, some experts have disagreed, saying that the the 200 rabbits estimated to have been kept at the facility were all subsequently euthanized by American forces when they came in. However, there are still many who believe that at least a few of these rabbits may have escaped this fate into the wild, so there’s hope that some made it.
Another idea is that a few rabbits were released onto the island by schoolchildren in 1971, after which they did what rabbits do and multiplied unchecked and unhindered by any natural predators. Regardless of how the rabbits got to Ōkunoshima, they have managed to reach numbers over a thousand on this tiny speck of land measuring just 2 miles long. With no predators, and laws in place to protect them, making it illegal to kill or harm them in any way, as well as a complete ban on cats and dogs, the feral rabbits of Ōkunoshima are numerous, and their rather tame, inquisitive nature has made the island a very popular place to go to for curiosity seekers. Here visitors flock to see, play with, and feed the many, many rabbits frolicking about, and videos of tourists interacting with the island’s fluffy denizens swarming around them are quite the sensation in a nation that reveres all things cute. Indeed, the island is far more well-known for its rabbits than it is for its dark history or poison gas museum.
However, the popularity of the island and the viral photos and videos it has spawned have caused some rather unfortunate repercussions. Visitor numbers have surged dramatically, and with them come the massive amounts of food they bring with them to feed the rabbits, which has had a variety of negative effects. One is that the steady supply of food has caused the rabbit population to skyrocket, and they have totally overrun their habitat, which has in turn had detrimental effects on the island’s natural ecosystem. Indeed, much of the native vegetation on the island has been practically stripped clean by the ravenous bunnies, making them even more dependent on the food that tourists bring them. It is an unsustainable cycle and population boom that can only spell doom for the very cuddly creatures these people come here to see if it is not curbed somehow.
There is also the fact that many of the foods that the well-meaning visitors bring with them are not particularly healthy for rabbits. Many visitors bring cabbage with them, which in Japan is cheap and seems like a good fit for rabbits, yet it actually can cause numerous digestive problems in large amounts. The inquisitive, wily animals will also often get their paws on food that wasn’t even meant for them in the first place, such as stealing sandwiches, potato chips, or other snacks. The inconsistent flow of visitors also creates issues, as the rabbits eat huge amounts on sunny days, but are left with nothing during bad weather when no one comes. This is problematic and unhealthy for these creatures because they require a constant food source, with program director for the Animals and Society Institute, an Ann Arbor, Michigan, Margo DeMello saying:
Rabbits need to eat all the time and consistently. Now they get huge amounts of food on some days and no food on other days. They’re not like other animals that can adapt to that.
Unfortunately, even official signs warning people not to feed the rabbits rarely work, as these tourists see these pleading, adorable wild rabbits and think they are actually helping them. Adding to all of this is that although they may seem cute and cuddly, these are still more or less wild animals that need to be given some space. Some over-eager visitors often handle the docile animals quite roughly in their efforts to get a good selfie, often without realizing it, and all of this manhandling can also take its toll on the island’s resident rabbits, as well as presenting opportunities for being bitten or contracting diseases.
All of these factors have combined to not only practically destroy Ōkunoshima’s original ecosystem, but also deteriorate the health of these rabbits to the point that their life expectancy is currently estimated at just 2 years, with a survey carried out showing that 28 to 50 percent of the animals had visible injuries or illnesses. All hope is not lost, and these are still opportunities to help the rabbits through new laws, measures, or restrictions, but if the present situation is allowed to continue as it is unfettered the future of Rabbit Island could be in danger.
For now the rabbits continue to go about their mostly privileged lives of luxury in this bunny paradise and the visitors still flock here to feed, pamper, and marvel at them. On Ōkunoshima rabbits are the king of the jungle, and they have elevated this one small island to a sanctuary of all that is cute. Hopefully a way will be found for both the rabbits and the people who adore them to have a mutually enjoyable and pleasant experience, and that they can all be balanced with the ecosystem of the island. In the meantime, Rabbit Island flourishes, and while we may never know for sure why they are there, what better way is there to take the edge off of the horrors of the world and its never-ending stream of bad news.