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The Mysterious Ghost Island of Japan

There are places in this world that seem to have been forgotten by mankind and even time itself. These strange, abandoned locations often once thrummed with activity and may have even been vital at one time, yet for one reason or another their legacy has become a faded memory, buried under the inevitable passage of the years. These are the forgotten relics of humankind, mere shells of what they once were, imbued with the echoes of lost memories and inhabited by the ghosts of the past. One such place can be found on a bleak speck of rock in the Pacific, off the coast of Japan less than an hour boat ride offshore from the port of Nagasaki. Once the most densely populated place in the world, the tiny island of Hashima is now a surreal ghost island, with its abandoned structures left as is and a population comprised of only rats, feral cats, and perhaps ghosts. If there was anywhere on earth where one can get a feeling for what it would be like if humankind were to suddenly vanish, the mesmerizing ghost island of Hashima is certainly it.

Hashima Island

Hashima Island

To understand how such a prosperous island positively bristling with industry transformed into the dead place it is today, one must delve back into its strange and mostly forgotten history. Hashima is often referred to as Gunkanjima, or literally “Battleship Island” due to its unique shape reminiscent of a ship of war.  Hashima was long just another of Japan’s many small, nondescript uninhabited rocky islands, practically just a slab of rock jutting from the roiling, rough grey sea around it. The island was stark and barren, one could even say ugly, completely devoid of any trees or vegetation. It wasn’t until coal was discovered here and the Mitsubishi Corporation bought the island in 1890 with the intent to begin seabed mining that anyone really noticed Hashima was even there at all. The company managed to drill a 199-meter-long vertical mining shaft in 1895 and another one in 1898. With Mitsubishi taking control of Hashima and beginning mining operations, coal miners and their families began to pour in, living wherever they could find space. By 1916 over 3,000 people called the island home and Hashima had produced around 150,000 tons of coal.

Inhabitants of Hashima

Inhabitants of Hashima

To accommodate even more workers in light of this success, Mitsubishi stepped up development of the island considerably. Slag from the mines was used to launch land reclamation projects to create more space for industrial facilities and a huge sea wall was constructed around the island to protect it from the savage sea during typhoons, giving Hashima its unique battleship-like appearance. Concrete apartment complexes and other buildings began to spring up everywhere on the island, including Japan’s largest concrete building at the time at 9 stories tall. Not even the period leading up to and immediately following World War II, when cutbacks meant that no concrete buildings were being erected anywhere else in Japan, they were still being built on Hashima due to the country’s hunger for coal to fuel its war effort and then rebuilding projects after its defeat.

Aerial view of Hashima

Aerial view of Hashima

This development continued unabated for years and the population surged. During the height of Hashima’s prosperity in the 1950s, the island sported a small city complete with over 30 large concrete buildings, various retail stores, a supermarket, hospital, schools, library, gymnasium, hairdresser, movie theater, bars, restaurants, an outdoor swimming pool, temple, shrine, and even a pinball parlor, brothel, and dance hall, all crammed onto a tiny island barely the length of 12 football fields. The island was so small that one could walk from one side to the other in mere minutes, making roads and motor vehicles unnecessary. The population reached its peak of 5,259 in 1959, all stuffed onto a mere 6.3 hectares (15.6 acres), giving the island a population density of 83,500 people per square kilometer or 1,391 people per hectare, the highest population density ever recorded. To it put into perspective, the population density of Hashima in its heyday was nine times that of Tokyo during the same period. People were shoved into every available open space, and every nook and cranny of available land was built up with housing complexes, resulting in a claustrophobic warren of concrete buildings, stairways, and walkways. Rimming the island was reclaimed land built up from slag from the mines that held all of the industrial facilities and under the island and seabed were vast spider web networks of mining shafts. All of these things resulted in a bustling, prosperous island that by 1941 was producing an annual coal output of around 410,000 tons.

However, there was a dark underbelly to all of this prosperity. Apartments on the island were extremely cramped affairs, often consisting of only a single small tatami room for a whole family to squeeze into. The complete reliance on the outside world for shipments of food and water also meant hardship and hunger whenever the typhoon lashed seas surrounding the island prevented supply ships from approaching. In addition, working the mines was harrowing, dangerous work. Miners were often required to toil away in hellishly hot and humid conditions up to 1,000 meters down in the earth beneath the ocean in ever lengthening, rickety shafts, where they were subject to perils such as collapsing mineshafts, toxic fumes, and gas explosions, all with little to no safety precautions put in place. Around 200 people had officially perished in the gloom of the mines up until the war, but this number would later go up considerably.

Hashima miners on their way to work

Hashima miners on their way to work

When the dark specter of World War II reared its head, many young, able bodied men, including many of the inhabitants of Hashima, were sent off to far away battlefields to fight for their country, leaving a void in the island’s workforce. To compensate, Japan put large numbers of Korean and Chinese war prisoners to work in the mines as forced laborers. These slave laborers were forced to do the most dangerous work in the mines, and were subjected to even worse living conditions than their Japanese counterparts, subsisting on a starvation diet, packed into filthy lodgings, and being worked in the cramped mines doing hard labor down in the murk until they collapsed from exhaustion.

It is said that up to five of these laborers died each month, and the nearby Nakanoshima Island was made into a crematorium for the dead, the thin tendrils of smoke from the burning bodies rising over the bleak, grey sea a constant reminder of the death and hopelessness the mines represented. The churning sea and intimidating concrete walls encircling the island deterred all but the bravest from trying to escape, and those that did were swallowed by the waves. In the end, it is estimated that thousands died on Hashima, many of these deaths unreported or undocumented; simply a forgotten footnote to the island’s dark history. It wasn’t until 1945 when the atomic bombs dropped on Nagasaki, a mere 15km from Hashima and actually shaking and rattling buildings here, and the subsequent end of the war that these slave laborers were finally granted their freedom.

The years after World War II saw renewed prosperity for Hashima. The coal produced by the island was key to rebuilding and recovery efforts in the wake of Japan’s humiliating defeat. The Korean War (1950-1953) also saw the Japanese economy rapidly grow, and the Hashima coal mines went through a golden period of its history. Living conditions on the island improved and citizens were bringing in electronic appliances, such as TVs and refrigerators, that had up until then been seen as solely luxury items that none of Hashima’s humble citizens had ever imagined owning before. The island also saw it first steady supply of fresh water in 1957 when it was connected via undersea pipes to reservoirs on the mainland. The people of the island also took to making rooftop gardens and growing their own fruit and vegetables. All things told, most people were enjoying luxuries that they had never had before and the quality of life on the island was better than it had ever been.

Hashima residents enjoying a festival at an elementary school

Hashima residents enjoying a festival at an elementary school

Things were not meant to last, though. By the 1960s, Japan was already making the gradual move from coal power to oil power as its economy continued its meteoric rise. Coal mines across the country began to close down one by one as they started to become obsolete. Hashima held out as long as it could, but the decline in demand for coal conspired with the fact that as the island’s mines were depleted, the shafts became longer and longer, driving up expenses to add to the already falling coal prices. The Mitsubishi Corporation started relocating workers to other branches of its vast industrial empire until finally in 1974 the Hashima mines were officially closed. It had been a good run, however, and during the island’s entire 84 years of operation it produced around 16.5 million tons of coal.

The closing of the Hashima mines led to a rapid, mass exodus from the once bustling island as people went to find work elsewhere. The abandonment of the island was swift, and practically overnight Hashima went from the most densely populated place on the planet to an empty shell. People fled so fast that many of them simply left behind all of their belongings, and most of the coal mining equipment was simply left to the elements. Since no efforts were made to clean or clear out the island due to the enormous financial burden of doing so, the apartments and other buildings were simply left as they were to the whims of the sea and time.

Abandoned apartment buildings on Hashima

Abandoned apartment buildings on Hashima

Approaching the island now, it seems from a distance to be just as it always was. One can see the many concrete buildings the island bristles with and some of the industrial facilities looming up over the water. It isn’t until one draws closer that one can see that the once mighty concrete sea wall has slowly deteriorated under the merciless pounding of waves and the battering of countless typhoons. It also becomes noticeable that the buildings have a somewhat washed out look, and that many of them appear decrepit and decayed. As you draw even closer you can see that no one comes to greet you and that indeed the island seems devoid of any life at all. Yet it is after you go onshore that the eeriness of Hashima truly sets in. This is a place that was left precisely as it was, and is in a way a sort of ghostly snapshot of life back in the heyday of the mines, a forgotten place that somehow remains trapped in time like the fossil of some ancient prehistoric beast.

Hashima from the water

Hashima from the water

The effect is that of a place where all human life seems to have just vanished off the face of the earth. The former miniature city of Hashima is now a desolate, silent, feral place. Although the empty, forlorn buildings of Hashima have slowly crumbled and disintegrated in some places due to the relentless attack of the sea and elements, there is still the unsettling feeling that someone could step out of their apartment at anytime yet the only life one is likely to see is rats or perhaps a stray cat descended from people’s abandoned pets skulking through the rubble.

Upon entering apartments here, one can find lived in rooms that remain as they were when people were here, with TV sets, furniture, and sometimes even plates, food and sake bottles set out on tables waiting to serve dinner to someone who will never come. Dead telephones remain in the rooms and one gets the creepy feeling that one might just suddenly start ringing at a moment’s notice. The abandoned school still has dust covered desks lined up complete with textbooks dutifully laid out for class. The island’s hospital is still stocked with dusty bottles and vials of medicine as well as abandoned medical equipment, some of it in remarkably pristine condition. Restaurants still have broken down refrigerators filled with long rotted food that was left behind, yet the tables are curiously set up as if to receive customers at any time. Occasional graffiti from thrill seekers illegally coming to the island can be seen interspersed with the old fashioned furnishings and crumbling concrete walls, adding to the surreal effect the island has. On one wall is an ominous message scrawled by unknown hands that says “Hashima Island has gone. This place is dead.”

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Looking at the bizarre sight of this seemingly post apocalyptic wasteland and remembering its deadly, dark past it is perhaps not surprising that Hashima is said to be intensely haunted. Apparitions have been seen on shore, peeking from darkened windows, or wandering the streets here. Boats passing the island have at times reported strange lights flickering out among the ruins or inexplicable noises emanating from the deserted town. Perhaps the most haunted areas seem to be in or around the long abandoned mine shafts which swallowed so many souls all of those years ago, with moans, howls, and screams sometimes reportedly wafting up from the stygian darkness of the underground passages. Visitors to the island have also reported sudden, inexplicable cold gusts of air or the sensation of being touched or patted by unseen hands. This is certainly not an island you want to be stuck on at night.

Although long closed to the public with exception to granting special permission to go there, Hashima has experienced a resurgence of interest in recent years. Dues to its unique appearance and powerful effect it has on people, the island has become the inspiration for the landscapes of films like Christoher Nolan’s Inception, as well as the model for the villain, Raoul Silva’s, lair in the James Bond movie Skyfall. People had been secretly coming to Hashima for years to camp out or sate their morbid curiosity, however, in 2009 the Japanese government partially opened the island to tourists, and it has gone on to become one of the most popular tourist attractions in Japan. The government has even begun efforts to have the island designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Even so, it is a difficult place to go to as rough seas often keep the tour boats from docking. Once on the island, the areas open for public viewing are very limited, as much of the island poses various dangers such as crumbling buildings, sagging flooring, and perilous mineshaft openings. Nevertheless, the trip is worth it for anyone with an interest in abandoned places or a macabre curiosity to see what a world without mankind might look like.

Hashima buildings facing the sea

Hashima buildings facing the sea

Hashima is truly a unique and enigmatic place, haunted with the past and perhaps ghosts, that sits still in time as the waves, civilization, and the years flow by around it. It is also a place that could be seen as perhaps showing us the perils of development, relentless industry, and the exploitation of resources; a warning of what could potentially happen someday on a much larger and more frightening scale. One wonders if there will ever come a time when humankind has hungrily sucked our planet dry of its resources as was done on this tiny island, and whether we will one day move on to colonize other planets to leave this one as an abandoned husk much like as was done on Hashima. Maybe one day far in the future, much like those tourists disembarking today at Hashima, some astronaut or perhaps even something not human at all will set foot on our abandoned Earth, walk through the eerily intact and ghostly ruins of our lost civilization, and wonder at what happened here.

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Brent Swancer is an author and crypto expert living in Japan. Biology, nature, and cryptozoology still remain Brent Swancer’s first intellectual loves. He's written articles for MU and Daily Grail and has been a guest on Coast to Coast AM and Binnal of America.
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