VICE Is Ten: 2002 - 2012

Battleship Island - Japan's Rotting Metropolis

By Alex Hoban

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These days the only things that land on Hashima Island are the shits of passing seagulls. An hour or so’s sail from the port of Nagasaki, the abandoned island silently crumbles. A former coal mining facility owned by Mitsubishi Motors, it was once the most densely populated place on earth, packing over 13,000 people into each square kilometre of its residential high-risers. It operated from 1887 until 1974, after which the coal industry fell into decline and the mines were shut for good. With their jobs gone and no other reason to stay in this mini urban nightmare, almost overnight the entire population fled back to the mainland, leaving most of their stuff behind to rot.

Today it is illegal to go anywhere near the place as it's beyond restoration and totally unsafe. The Japanese Government aren’t keen to draw unwanted attention to this testament to the hardship of the country’s post-war industrial revolution either.

The punishment for being caught visiting Hashima Island is 30 days in prison followed by immediate deportation. But the other week, after getting up before sunrise and cutting a secret deal with a local fisherman, some friends and I landed on Hashima Island.

The port of Nagasaki is an international fare where you’re more likely to find granny-laden cruise ships and large oil tankers filling the docks than buck-toothed fisherman willing to break the law for a few extra bob, so we took the early morning ferry to the still-inhabited Takashima, the closest island to Hashima. After asking around – and being politely turned away by every Japanese we mentioned it to – finally we found our man. The rules of Japanese politeness dictate you never say what you want directly, so even once we were aboard the boat we weren’t sure we were actually going to set foot on Hashima – we’d only agreed for our fisherman to take us close enough to see it.

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Bobbing into view, the grey seawall’s artificial angling of the island gives it the shape of a battleship – hence its Japanese name in popular mythology, "Gunkanjima" - Battleship Island.

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Getting closer, talks with the fisherman continued slowly – it was only as we were actually setting foot on the landing jetty that he finally agreed to give us a couple of hours to explore before returning to pick us up.

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In some areas the entire façades of buildings had fallen to the ground, revealing grids of homes, each exposed with their 70s television sets smashed after the TV stands had eroded away. It was difficult to gauge exactly what it might have been like to live here, although with the complete lack of outdoors space and the prison-like seawall keeping you in, I can’t imagine it to have been anything other than claustrophobic, uncomfortable, and a bit like living in an ant farm.

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Personal artefacts lay littered everywhere – old shoes, bottles of shampoo, newspapers and even posters left on teenagers’ walls – these were the most vivid clues that people had once been here.

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We explored the empty classrooms of the island’s huge school. The rusted carcasses of desks and chairs lay in front of blackboards displaying the withered dusty marks of the last class to have taken place there 30 years before.

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From the top floor gymnasium we looked down into the main auditorium, whose roof had caved in long before. It was clearly structurally unsafe, we were walking over large slabs which had fallen previously from the ceilings above us.

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On roughly the ninth floor of an apartment block, I stepped into one of the rooms to admire the sea view from the window. The traditional woven tatami floor beneath my feet, unused to human contact, gave way, sending a tremendous ripping sound through the building's shell. I fell…

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…about one meter, but it was enough to freak us out and from here on we took more care where we trod.

At only 1.2km squared, the island is tiny, but you never can quite grasp this when you’re winding through its perspective warping high-risers. To get a better overall look we scaled the central watchtower - precarious as its old access paths was now overgrown beyond usability.
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It never crossed our minds that the fisherman wouldn't come back. We were more worried that we only had those two hours on the island, an arbitrary frame of time my friend picked in the moment of excitement when we got the green light for transport. There was enough stuff there to keep us busy there for an entire day.

And then, two days after this was written, the government re-opened it.

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Follow Alex on Twitter: @alex_hoban

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