SAIGA Yuji 雑賀雄二 (1951- ) Hyogo.

Got interested in Gunkanjima after reading about it in an encylopedia his father gave him at age 12. Teaches at Tokyo Photographic College.

Gunkanjima: Awakening of a Dead Island 軍艦島 - 眠りのなかの覚醒

Reviewed on: 2003-08-29 Last modified: 2009-04-23 Fine-art photos of an abandoned island nicknamed "Battleship Island" off the coast of Nagasaki.


Published: 2003-03-30 Publisher: Tankosha ISBN: 447301987X Price in Japan: ¥3,150 Qualities: Soft cover, 91 B/W photos Size: B5, 144 pp. Language: Japanese and some English Essay: KASAHARA Michiko

Gunkanjima is a small island less than 5 km off the western coast of Nagasaki Prefecture. Although the island's real name is Hashima (端島), its popular name is "Gunkanjima," meaning "Battleship Island." It refers to the island's profile or silhouette that really resembles a battleship. This nickname alone gives the island a certain mystique, and this photo book certainly adds to this mystique.

The island served as a coal-mining station from 1890 to 1974 when the island was abandoned upon the closure of the mine. Over 5,000 people once lived on the island whose perimeter measures only 1 km (or about 480 meters across and 160 meters wide). It was the most densely populated place in the world. The huge apartment buildings, movie theater, elementary school, and other facilities still lay in ruins today. The island is officially off-limits, but it now has a cult following judging from the many Web pages showing photos of people's unauthorized visits. (There's also a fad now in Japan for people exploring abandoned buildings.)

  • Update: The island has been opened to tourists from April 22, 2009.

Coal was first discovered on the islet in 1810, and Mitsubishi bought the islet in 1890 for 100,000 yen after a mine was dug years earlier. The company subsequently built the island's infrastructure, living quarters, and additional coal mines. In 1893, an elementary school was built. In 1897, the first of several land reclamation projects started to make the island bigger. The original island was the hilly terrain in the middle, while the flat land around it was reclaimed. It was material for a great nickname.

In 1916, Japan's oldest ferroconcrete apartment building (still standing) was built on the island. It was the first of many large apartment buildings to be built.

In 1921, a Nagasaki newspaper ran an article about the island mentioning that it looked like the Japanese battleship "Tosa." So it nicknamed it "Gunkanjima" which has stuck till this day.

In 1939, Korean forced laborers were begun to be stationed on the island. In 1945, the island's power generators were bombed by US forces and a coal-carrying ship sailing from the island was sunk by a torpedo from a US submarine. At the end of World War II in 1945, the Korean and Chinese forced laborers were allowed to leave the island.

During the postwar period, the island's population swelled. By 1948, there were over 4,500 residents. This would peak in 1959 at 5,259. In 1964, the number of coal miners was drastically cut, and the population fell to 3,391.

The tiny island had everything to support human life. Underwater water pipes from the mainland pumped fresh water while underwater power cables provided electricity. There were kindergartens, an elementary/intermediate school, post office, public bath, Shinto shrine, Buddhist temple, ryokan inn (for Mitsubishi employees only), movie theater, pachinko parlor, mahjong hall, outdoor pool (using sea water), etc. Everything except a cemetary, according to the photographer. But ironically, "it became a cemetary after it was abandoned."

In Jan. 1974, the coal mine was shut down, and by April 20, 1974 the entire human population moved out of the island. A total of about 15,700,000 tons of coal were excavated from deep beneath the sea through the island during 1890-1973. It was a world-class coal mine.

As a 12-year-old, the photographer became fascinated by Gunkanjima when he read about it in an encyclopedia given to him by his father. It wasn't until he was in college when he finally visited the island for the first time in Jan. 1974 upon hearing the news that the coal mine would be shut down.

He photographed the people during the final months and wrote a diary about his stay, also reproduced in the book. On his first day on the island, he met some friendly children who were happy to pose for his camera and also showed him around the place. He later witnessed the mine's official closing ceremony. Since there was no public lodging on the island, he stayed at a youth hostel on the mainland and commuted to the island on the regular ferry.

On the island's last day of human habitation (April 20, 1974), he was on the last ferry carrying the last people to leave the island. Upon departing, they hurled paper streamers between the boat and island. Then the boat circled around the island so that everyone could have a last look. About ten cats were scrambling for food at the island's garbage dump. Cats are not known to live on weeds, so I guess they eventually became extinct.

Ten years later in 1984, he visited the island again and has continued to visit and photograph the island ever since. The book shows photos taken from 1984 onward.

As the first photo in the book shows, the island really looks like a battleship when viewed from a boat at a short distance (see the photographer's Web page). One end clearly looks like the bow, and the other end looks like the stern. In the middle are multi-story buildings. The only thing missing is a smokestack.

Then you see photos that look like they were taken from the "bridge" of the ship. There's one view showing the "bow," and another showing the "stern." There are also shots of rough waves lashing against the side of the ship, making it look like a real ship cutting through the waves. Very nice visual illusion.

Besides outdoor shots of huge, dilapidated apartment buildings, staircases overgrown with weeds, and smashed-in roofs, there are many still-life photos of various objects left behind by the former residents long gone. They are the most impressive images of silt-covered bottles, bowls, and kitchenware. And besides silt and dust, there's rust. A rusted bird cage, rusted electric fan, corroded wrenches, rusted steel door to an apartment, and rust-covered alarm clock. The salt air knows no mercy. You also see a lot of things peeling. The paint peeling off the celiing, the paper peeling off the sliding door, the wooden skins of theater chairs coming off, and tatami mats wrinkled and unraveling.

The images are very graphic and well composed. These are not snapshots. Out of the many Gunkanjima photos on the Web taken by unauthorized visitors, Saiga's photos rank at the top by far. Fortunately, he has a Web site to show for it. (Also see how the island looked in 1974 .)

He actually previously published his photos of Gunkanjima in 1986 with publisher Shinchosha. That original book has been rehashed for this new edition with different photos and additional reference information such as a good chronology of the island's history, a map of the island showing all the buildings and facilties, and an essay by KASAHARA Michiko (also translated into English) who is a curator at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography.

This book will compel you to visit this island too. But it's not allowed, even though it's not impossible. When in Nagasaki, try and meet a friendly fisherman with a boat. Then you might make it over there. I for one would really like to visit the island.

What they should do is make it a tourist attraction (like Alcatraz in San Francisco). They should clean up a few places here and there to make it safe for tourists to walk around. I bet it would be a major breadwinner for Nagasaki (or Mitsubishi). (Reviewed by Philbert Ono)

  • Update: Gunkanjima is now open to tourists. The city of Nagasaki spent about 100 million yen to build a port and tourist facilities on the island. The guided tour is an hour long, costing 4300 yen for the boat ride and tour. Reservations required. Call Yamasa Kaiun at 095-822-5002 (やまさ海運).