- During Japan’s industrial revolution in the mid 19th and early 20th centuries, The Mitsubishi Group bought coal mines to provide fuel for the country’s growing shipbuilding industry.
- One of these coal mines was underneath Hashima Island, a small island off the coast of Nagasaki.
- Between its opening in 1890 and its abandonment in 1974, Mitsubishi developed a bustling community on Hashima Island, turning it into a coal producing powerhouse.
- Thousands of laborers from South Korea and China were forced to work on Hashima Island in the early 20th century. This later became a point of contention that threatened its recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
- At its peak, the island was the most densely populated place on Earth with over 5,000 people living on 16-acres.
- The island was abandoned in 1974 when the coal reserves were depleted and it became a barren, concrete wasteland. Take a look at what life was like on the island and how it looks now.
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From the mid 19th to the early 20th centuries, Japan underwent a major period of industrialisation, partly in order to strengthen their defences.
The Mitsubishi Group, an assembly of companies servicing various industries but commonly known today for their automotives, began buying coal mines in the late 19th century to supply fuel for the country’s growing fleet of ships.
One of these mines was located underneath Hashima Island, which is located just over 10 miles off the coast of Nagasaki.
The Mitsubishi Group bought Hashima Island, also known as Gunkanjima or “Battleship Island” due to its distinct outline on the water, in 1890 and began underwater mining operations shortly after.
By 1950, the mine was producing 14,000 tons of coal a month, making it a highly valued asset for the country.
Source: The Gazette and Daily
Until it was closed in 1974, Mitsubishi constructed concrete apartments, a school, a hospital, a theatre, a bathhouse, and other communal facilities for the miners and their families.
Source: The Guardian
At its peak in 1959, the 16-acre island was home to over 5,000 people, making it the most densely populated area on Earth at the time.
Source: National Geographic
Although bustling with life, the coal island was known for its lack of vegetation, which later earned itself another nickname: “Midori nashi Shima,” translated to “the island without green.”
Source: Atlas Obscura
Hideo Kaji, a resident of Hashima Island, remembers there being “no bushes, no flowers.” The only way for him to differentiate the seasons was by “listening to the wind or looking at the colour of the ocean and the sky.”
While Hashima’s surface was crowded, conditions were harsher for the miners who spent 20 minutes travelling 3,000 feet below sea level in over 100°F temperatures each day.
Tomoji Kobata, who was a former miner on the island, recalls the “backbreaking work” of laboring in the tunnels and how he’d collapse from exhaustion at the end of each day.
Source: The Guardian
As he walked through the island years later, he remembered the functions these derelict spaces served, like the bathhouse where the water would turn black after the miners cleaned themselves after their shifts.
Although work was demanding for the Japanese employees, it was tougher for the hundreds of Korean and Chinese unpaid laborers who were forced to work in the coal mines on Hashima Island in the early 20th century.
Choi Jang-seop, a Korean laborer forced to work on the island at the age of 15, said he “virtually lived a prison life on Hashima” and has awful memories of the times he “worked at the bottom of coal mines while only wearing [his] underwear.”
Source: Yonhap News Agency
But, over time, the coal reserves below the island were eventually depleted, making life on the island obsolete. By 1975 the island was completely deserted.
In 2009, Japan proposed that certain historical locations, including Hashima Island, be recognised as UNESCO World Heritage sites for their role in the country’s industrial revolution.
South Korea opposed the recognition because they said that Japan had failed to acknowledge the 57,900 Korean laborers who were forced to work at the sites in question.
Source: The Asahi Shimbun
Yasunori Takazane, the director of the Oka Masaharu Memorial Nagasaki Peace Museum, believes that solely discussing its role in Japan’s industrialisation is a “betrayal of history.”
In 2015, Japan and South Korea reached a compromise where Japan would acknowledge the conditions under which Koreans were made to work at these sites, as well as, provide support for 8 historical locations that Korea was proposing for UNESCO status.
Following the compromise in 2015, Japan’s proposed industrial locations, including Hashima Island, were recognised as UNESCO World Heritage sites.
As of 2009, visitors are permitted to visit the island but are required to remain on a protected walkway due to the dangers posed by the disintegrating buildings.
Waves have battered and eroded Hashima’s coast, and vegetation has reclaimed space among the crumbling buildings in the 40 years since its final residents left.
As of 2014, The Yomiuri Shimbun reported that over 500,000 people have visited the island.
Hashima’s derelict ruins and eerie atmosphere have become the setting for documentaries, TV features, and movies, further contributing to its popularity among visitors.
The iconic lair of James Bond’s nemesis in the movie “Skyfall” was modelled after Hashima Island.
Source: Business Insider
However, producers deemed the dilapidated buildings to be too dangerous for a movie set, so they took aerial establishing shots and then filmed the remaining scenes in a studio.
Some former residents give tours of Hashima Island, sharing stories of a long-lost time when these concrete houses hosted a hardworking and bustling community.
Source: The Guardian
Tomoji Kobata, one of these guides, remembers life on the island as “incredibly tough,” but that it gave him “an inner strength that [he] was able to use later on in life.”
Source: The Guardian
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